When Trump Acts on Problems That Don’t Exist

Immigrants who rob, assault, murder, and abuse drugs at higher rates than the general U.S. population, refugees who systemically exploit vetting practices to carry out terrorism, transgender persons disproportionately scheming to molest little girls in bathrooms, grizzly bears hiding in the teacher’s lounge, bus loads of illegal voters, sworn to silence, conspiring to tip close elections.

Let’s be completely clear. Each of these are inventions.

We are watching non-existent problems turned into mortal threats before our eyes. This is a dangerous moment. Once we adopt any of Trump’s invented fears as our own, we immediately become dependent on a strongman who assured us, “I alone can fix it.”

After all, how can any opposition, which on appropriate rational and proportional grounds dismisses the very definition of these issues as significant threats, respond with adequate alarm or the symbolic actions that fearful people seem to want right now?

Remember WMDs in 2003? Several international intelligence agencies doubted Iraq’s aging stockpiles constituted a lethal threat our security and recommended sustained non-militaristic opposition to Saddam Hussein’s fragile oligarchy. Few US intelligence professionals considered the scope of this threat sufficient to warrant immediate military aggression. But the facts never mattered. A small handful of people in the White House had long ago plotted out the solution to a problem that did not exist. All they needed was the White House, a crisis, and a chance to invent a problem that matched their solution.

Through months of hype and hysteria, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld shrewdly tied together Saddam Hussein, the 9/11 attacks, and a frightened America. By the time the shock and awe campaign commenced nearly half of the country believed that Hussein “was personally behind” the World Trade Center attacks and 72% supported unilateral war.

Much like Trump and Steve Bannon today, the earlier administration long understood that “no good crisis should go to waste.” By the fall of 2003, we found ourselves in a protracted, decades-long, trillions-dollar war against a foe that, while deplorable, never merited this rush into battle. For fourteen years America turned its attention to this minor threat — a mess it alone could fix — while the real threats in other parts of the Middle East and domestic problems at home proliferated.

In 2017, we are about to do this all over again.

There are bad immigrants out there, for sure. Yes, some are gang members and thugs. A refugee could always grow up, radicalize, and do us genuine harm. Sexual abusers could exploit any identity or circumstance, including a public bathroom, to harm another. A minuscule percentage of non-conspiratorial actors will engage in voter fraud. And a grizzly bear somewhere in Montana could legitimately wander into a school yard.

But none of these are proportional threats. And the opportunity cost lost when we chase after these remote possibilities is tragic.

Most of the threats to our people and to the republic are much more mundane. They require nuance, compassion, and most of all a rational sense of proportionality. Any courageous politician knows that addressing the opioid epidemic, fixing health care, generating meaningful jobs, passing comprehensive immigration reform, improving schools, or protecting children from bullies requires sustained policy-driven solutions that don’t earn quick political points. These are the kinds of problems that, sadly, don’t need inventing and no one person is ever going to fix them.