Politics / January 30, 2024

GOP Border Theatrics Have Escalated to Threats of Civil War

Republican states have pledged to mobilize National Guard troops to defend the placement of razor wire at Texas’s southern border.

Chris Lehmann
Texas National Guards place razor wires at the Shelby Park area as the guards continue to patrol the Rio Grande River, even though the US Supreme Court abolished this decision, on January 29, 2024, in Texas.
Texas National Guards place razor wires at the Shelby Park area as the guards continue to patrol the Rio Grande, even though the US Supreme Court abolished this decision, on January 29, 2024, in Texas. (Lokman Vural Elibol / Anadolu via Getty Images)

It’s shaping up to be banner week in the theater of incoherent rage known as Republican border politics. To begin with, the bipartisan accord on border enforcement that GOP leaders loudly and repeatedly stressed was the baseline condition for backing the $100 billion–plus funding package for US military support of Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan looks increasingly to be a nonstarter. But the relevant political calculation here isn’t that the border agreement, which reportedly includes needless and counterproductive entry quotas along with crackdowns on political asylum and detention protocols, will fail to slake the nativist bloodlust of MAGA Nation. No, it’s that, in extending the ambit of the Biden administration’s already cruel array of border policies, it will represent a political win for the Biden White House in an election year. With the threat of inflation receding in a full-employment economy, and the culture-war fantasias of the right now consigned to the electoral ash heap along with the Ron DeSantis campaign, Donald Trump and his ghoulish enablers recognize that border demagogy is the last pillar of their pseudo-populist campaign theatrics left standing.

The GOP’s desperate backpedaling on a border deal that they initially hailed as a historic win for the forces of xenophobic reaction on the right is a stunning case study in failed product launches, harking back to the heydays of the Edsel and New Coke. Oklahoma GOP Senator James Lankford, a central negotiator of the deal, succumbed to a rare moment of right-wing candor as he marveled over the heavy-breathing opposition in his own party during a weekend Fox News Sunday appearance. “It is interesting Republicans four months ago would not give funding for Ukraine, for Israel, for our southern border, because we demanded changes in policy,” he said. “A few months later, when we’re finally getting to the end they’re like, ‘Oh, just kidding. I actually don’t want [a] change in law because of the presidential election year. We all have an oath to the Constitution.’”

Lankford’s quaint old-fashioned belief that lawmakers should still be engaged with the making of laws and the observance of constitutional directives has of course earned him wide opprobrium on the MAGA right. The Oklahoma state senate rushed to demonstrate its fealty to Trump-branded border demagogy with a resolution censuring him for “playing fast and loose with Democrats on our border policy,” a MAGA heresy that “not only disfranchises legal immigrants seeking citizenship but…also puts the safety and security of Americans in great danger.”

The intraparty rancor over the Senate accord has grown so bitter that even conflict-averse Democrats are stirring to life. President Biden took the dramatic (and dismaying) step of announcing that, once the measure came up for his approval, he’d act with all deliberate speed to close the border, further stoking the toddler-like furies of a MAGA electorate denied its wedge-issue fetish. And with Republican leaders from Trump on down proclaiming the cynical imperative of blocking their own border crackdowns so as to run an imaginary campaign playbook against Biden’s open-borders record, Democratic operatives are reportedly keen to start testing the message that, wonder of wonders, these grievance-addled nihilists haven’t been acting as serious legislators.

Meanwhile, border mania continues raging through the citadels of Republican power, unburdened by either factual grounding or a cumbersome legacy of legislative achievement. Oklahoma’s censure of Lankford was a mere procedural fillip; a contingent of 25 Republican-led states has pledged to mobilize National Guard troops to militarize Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s fight with the federal government over the placement of razor wire at the state’s southern border. That skirmish is part of a decades-long effort on Texas’s part to wrest authority for border enforcement away from the federal government, in plain defiance of the Constitution. Texas’s demented putsch has already claimed the lives of three immigrants who drowned in the Rio Grande when the Texas National Guard rebuffed Border Patrol agents seeking to intervene.

The US Supreme Court recently lifted an injunction from the equally demented US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit permitting the razor wire installations to go back up after border agents had cut through them.

This brewing confrontation has sparked a new round of speculation about a MAGA-triggered civil war, with Abbott declaring that the federal government has “broken the compact between the United States and the States,” and explaining that he’s acting within his executive rights to protect Texas citizens after unilaterally declaring “an invasion” of the state from the southern border. But the showdown qualifies as a legitimate constitutional crisis only if you believe that Texas elected Abbott to be a Lone Star Mussolini vested with war powers, military impunity, and other supra-constitutional authorities only sanctioned by his febrile imagination. Never has the old Marxist saw “first time tragedy, second time farce” so forcefully applied to the American scene than with the specter of a Greg Abbott–orchestrated civil war.

Which is not, of course, to say that the secessionist rhetoric now overtaking the border crusade shouldn’t be taken seriously. In addition to the threatened blockade of National Guard troops charged to defend Abbott’s border sadism, right-wing leaders are already dispatching militia-style convoys of armed citizens to Eagle Pass, the site of the Texas border standoff with the feds. The convoys have been organized at the behest of many of the same Christian nationalists who furnished ardent rank-and-file supporters of the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. And as during that infamous assault, the clear aim is to provoke a fatal confrontation with federal authorities to further stoke the twinned MAGA mandates of martyrdom and unappeasable spiritual cum cultural grievance. For all the talk of imperiled citizenship and the pillaging of Real America by non-white others, the invasion is coming from inside the house.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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