President Donald Trump addressed Americans Tuesday night from the Oval Office to talk about the “growing humanitarian and security crisis” along the southern border, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Trump of using the address to “manufacture a crisis.”
Both sides have specific purposes with these addresses, according to Dennis Plane, professor of politics at Juniata College.
“Trump is trying to own the debate over the government shutdown and/or the border wall,” Plane said. “Over Christmastime, he basically didn’t make any effort to control the way we talk about the issue ... Last night was an effort to take the bull by the horns and try to wrestle it in the direction that he wants it to go. He wants to build sympathy with the American people for building the wall, or some sort of defensive structure along the southern border, and also show the American people that it’s the Democrats that are causing the problem while he’s the one with the solution.”
Trump laid his case by describing those hurt by illegal immigration, claiming the southern border is a “pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs.” Heroin alone killed over 300 people a week in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stated that only a small percentage of heroin seized along the land border in 2018 took place between legal ports of entry. This means a border wall blocking those routes would not necessarily decrease the amount of drugs brought into the country.
Trump also cited the increase of migrant children brought illegally into the country as another reason for the “crisis.” However, while NBC News reports the number of unaccompanied minors may have increased, the overall number of apprehensions of people who have crossed illegally has decreased over the last two decades.
Plane explained Trump’s reliance on “dubious claims” has become a common theme in his presidency.
“In some sense, this is an exaggeration in order to win political points,” Plane said.
He added that Trump’s address was not seeking to convince those on the fence so much as reassure his audience.
“This is the largest arrow in the president’s quiver: the ability to command primetime television to address the American public,” Plane said. He added, “If he can gain ownership over the way we talk about this issue, no longer talking about it as a wall but as a border crisis, then that’s a big win for Trump.”
Pelosi and Schumer responded to Trump’s address, trying for their part to take control of the public dialogue.
Pelosi claimed Trump was using fear as an attempt to build the wall. She stated, “The women and children at the border are not a security threat, they are a humanitarian challenge.”
Pelosi and Schumer also stated Trump’s prolonging of the government shutdown is “hurting millions of Americans over a policy difference.” They called on Trump to re-open the government while talks continue about border protection.
Again, Plane pointed out they spoke with a specific, persuasive purpose.
“The Democrats are trying to show that they are actively trying to open the government and Trump is the one to block that,” Plane said. “In many ways, Trump is about the wall; the Democratic response is about the government shutdown. They are talking to two different audiences here.”
He stated the two addresses were, at base level, a public relations battle.
“This was a message for the people through the media,” Plane said. “Both sides are trying to change how the media talks about the issue so they can ultimately win the battle. The battles are for the media ... Will the media talk about the shutdown or more about the wall? These questions will determine which party won the public relations battle.”
Plane stated the awareness of the strategy behind the speeches should not cause people to withdraw from politics.
“I think it is important for the public to know what the politicians think,” Plane said, “but we also have to be aware that it is an effort to control the debate and the terms of the debate ... It is important to keep in mind that both sets of addresses are very political in nature and designed to persuade, designed to influence.”
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