In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab lusts for vengeance against the titular white whale for biting off his leg in an earlier voyage. His hatred overwhelms his senses so completely that he comes to regard the whale as the embodiment of humanity’s fears and anxieties. Ahab, wrote Melville, “cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.”
President Donald Trump is similarly and strangely haunted by the U.S. border with Mexico. In his public remarks and private complaints, he treats it as the source of nearly everything he finds wrong with modern American society: human trafficking, murder and rape, unemployment, the opioid crisis, Democratic electoral victories, and more. To him, almost all that ails the United States is caused by the supposed porousness of that thousand-mile strip of land.
So, last week, he proposed a drastic solution: closing the border entirely until the Mexican government takes more dramatic steps. “If Mexico doesn’t immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through [sic] our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week,” he wrote on Twitter.
This wouldn’t be as straightforward as he seems to think. The border is not an open door that can simply be shut. While there are legal border crossings that Trump can try to close, his legal authority to do so is dubious and untested. And whether the courts sign off on that or not, any attempt would carry a colossal economic and political toll.
Trump’s latest clash with reality demonstrates the president’s failed approach to governance. He makes grandiose promises to rile up his most fervent supporters, apparently without thinking through the implications. Most politicians would back down when those implications became clear, but Trump is undeterred. He grasps for ad hoc ways to fulfill those promises that often do more harm than the status quo. “Securing the border” is an ill-defined and ultimately unattainable goal. But the president is still determined to chase it around the Norway Maelstrom and perdition’s flames before he gives it up.
Trump has long wanted to close the border in the most literal sense: some kind of steel or concrete barrier stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the bill for which would be sent to Mexico. Trump sparked the longest government shutdown in U.S. history last December in a bid to pressure Congress into funding this wall, but backed down in response to the cascading political and economic damage. So it’s safe to say the border won’t be physically sealed off.
But Trump also doesn’t have much power when it comes to unauthorized border crossings, either. Placing more agents along the border in what Trump has called a “human wall” isn’t much of a deterrent since, as Lind explained, many of those who cross the border seek out Border Patrol agents in order to claim asylum. The system for processing these claims was established by Congress and can’t be readily changed by Trump. An executive order he issued last year that aims to do just that has been blocked by the courts.
Trump theoretically could close the ports of entry where people lawfully traverse the border. But like most of the president’s high-profile policymaking ventures, it would be legally questionable. Stephen Legomsky, a professor at Washington University at St. Louis who specializes in immigration law, hypothesized last December that Trump could theoretically close individual ports because those are established by regulations, not federal statutes. Rewriting those regulations under normal procedures takes time, Legomsky added, and it’s unclear whether the courts would approve if he tried to accelerate the process by invoking national security concerns. But what’s clear is that Trump can’t close ports entirely: U.S. citizens have the right to reenter the country at any time. (The Trump administration exempted green card holders from the Muslim ban in 2017 because it feared excluding them would be legally untenable.)
This legal murkiness is familiar territory for Trump: He’s currently slugging it out with a coalition of Democratic states in federal court over his emergency declaration in February to fund a border wall. But the president’s advisors aren’t doing him any favors in justifying the move. When reporters asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about his legal authority to do so on Tuesday, she simply replied that “Democrats are leaving us absolutely no choice at this point.” That may work as a talking point in cable news interviews and among Trump’s supporters. But most federal judges will expect something stronger from the Justice Department attorneys who would have to defend an executive order in court.
The economic ramifications may be even more perilous. Large segments of the U.S. economy, especially in agriculture and manufacturing, operate under the assumption that the border with Mexico will remain open. Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that $1.7 billion in goods flows between the two countries every day. Economists warned that a prolonged closure of the border between the two countries would likely plunge both of them into recessions. Given how low the president’s approval numbers already are despite the growing economy, a shrinking one would likely be fatal to his re-election prospects.
It’s possible that Trump’s threats to close the border are mostly meant to pressure the Mexican government and Democrats in Congress into bowing to his demands. Hostage-taking is one of his favorite negotiating tactics. But his decision to partially shut down the federal government this winter also shows that he’s more than willing to kill the hostages. “Sure it’s going to have a negative impact on the economy,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday when asked about closing the border. “But let me just give you a little secret: Security is more important to me than trade. So we’re going to have a strong border, or we’re going to have a closed border.” Captain Ahab, who lost his ship, his crew, and his life in his ill-fated quest for revenge, would likely see a kindred spirit.
Trump differs from Melville’s classic character in two key ways. Neither the border nor those who cross it have actually wronged Trump in any personal sense. His animus seems to be motivated largely by personal prejudice toward Hispanics and other immigrants. If anything, he has wronged his targets more than they have wronged him. His administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the border, for example, traumatized hundreds of children in a failed effort to deter unauthorized crossings. Once again, Trump backed down from the policy in the face of near-universal condemnation, including from Republican allies in Congress.
But the most important difference may be in capacity. Trump made history as the first president without government experience, legal training, or military service. He’s still trying to run the country as he ran the Trump Organization: by executive fiat, with few constraints and virtually no dissent. A common assumption is that Trump hasn’t learned anything from previous showdowns, but perhaps he’s just learned the wrong lesson from them. The president now knows that he can satiate his supporters with impossible promises and symbolic victories, that he can either brush aside the tangible harm as “fake news” or blame it on Democrats in Congress. In doing so, he has abandoned the idea of translating his goals into governance. Ahab had no shortage of flaws. But at least he understood whaling.