There was once a time when Republican and Democratic nominees for president put out detailed policy plans on what they intended to do for the country. There was typically a veneer of credibility to them: whether “Star Wars” was a credible deterrent to the Soviet Union, whether cutting the top marginal rates spurred economic growth, or how to reform immigration policy in a way that allowed migrant workers to contribute to the economy.
Those days are long gone, and they’re not coming back.
After four—actually, since the escalator descent, it’s now more like eight—years of Donald Trump, the GOP base is used to being fed dumb, vicious ideas that appeal to their worst instincts. Whether it was “build a wall,” banning Muslims from entering the country, or repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with something even less workable, there was no thought given to whether these ideas were a wise use of resources or might make things worse.
The Republican candidates for the party’s 2024 nomination have learned that no one wants to hear about boring stuff where there might be room for thought or compromise: They want to hear how the candidates will brutalize the enemies of the herrenvolk. Now they’re trying to outdo one another in a game of competitive outbidding, where each seeks a more extreme position to label the other as weak on drugs and border security.
After Trump left office, his former Defense Secretary Mark Esper claimed that Trump had wanted to use the Department of Defense to “quietly” send cruise missiles into Mexico to destroy drug labs and cartels. Afterward, House Republicans Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Mike Waltz of Florida supported the use of force on Mexico. Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arizona went so far as to suggest invading Mexico with U.S. ground troops. They’ve also considered declaring organizations in Mexico terrorist organizations, which would potentially allow the president to make unilateral decisions about the use of military force there.
Not to be outdone, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis agreed with deep strikes but upped the ante by proposing using armed drones to monitor the border and to authorize strikes with them inside Mexico. This is a continuation of his call in June to authorize lethal force against migrants who are suspected of trying to carry illegal drugs into the United States. He went even further in August, essentially promising summary executions of anyone caught smuggling drugs: “That’s the last thing they’re going to be able to do because we’re going to leave them stone cold dead at the border. We’re not putting up with it anymore,” he said at an event with former Fox host Erick Erickson.
Vivek Ramaswamy also supports the use of the military as law enforcement, in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. Just to add an extra bit of cruelty, he’d deport all the Dreamers and force them to reapply for citizenship. This appeals to his base precisely because these 700,000 deported individuals would likely suffer horribly and die in a land where they have no money, no job, no connections, and where most don’t even speak the local language.
The cruelty always was the point, and that’s why there isn’t a substantive difference between any of the GOP candidates on immigration policy. They are all promising to do these sorts of things, even though some of them (like Haley and DeSantis) have the intelligence and legal background to understand how catastrophically counterproductive these actions would be. However, they’re playing to their audience. They know that they cannot possibly gain the power they desire without telling the base what it wants to hear.
The astounding part is even a cursory examination of what is likely to happen if the U.S. attempts such policies quickly shows that the law of unintended consequences will catch up with us. For instance, all the candidates support the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which would have the Mexican government cooperate with the U.S. to detain people in Mexico while awaiting their immigration court date. Let me foot-stomp here and reiterate that this policy is entirely dependent on the Mexican government cooperating with us.
The Mexican government has been hesitant on this policy but has gone along with it in the past.
However, if the U.S. starts putting Tomahawk cruise missiles into buildings in Mexico, sending troops across the border, killing civilians, sniping migrant laborers, and disrupting local economies with high explosives, it will cause absolute havoc. On a foreign policy level, it would unite all of South and Central America against the U.S. while violating treaties with Mexico. Foreign adversaries would leap on it to denounce the U.S. as imperialist, and hypocritical for criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It would also render any future cooperation between the Mexican and U.S. governments a complete nonstarter. Proposals for future cooperation would be as toxic in Mexico as declaring a “National Nazi Appreciation Day.” Cartels might even get implicit approval from local authorities to start targeting U.S. assets in the country.
It’s not just “Remain in Mexico” that would die. Bilateral cooperation between law enforcement agencies would go the way of the dodo, making future operations almost impossible. Mexico is America’s largest trading partner. If either side were to shut down legal ports of entry to traffic (the way Texas Governor Greg Abbott did), it would have major economic impacts, and the other side would likely retaliate in kind. And the worst part is, experts who have looked at this don’t believe the strikes would significantly impact the flow of drugs.
This gets even worse if the U.S. starts to summarily execute people who are suspected (or found to be) smuggling drugs, in great part because almost none of what the GOP base believes about smuggling (or what their presidential candidates tell them) is true. Over 90 percent of fentanyl is seized at legal ports of entry and not between them. Almost all of it is found on people who have a legal right to enter (e.g., U.S. citizens), and almost none of it is found on migrants looking to find work or on asylum-seekers. Most of the fentanyl that penetrates our borders is carried by individuals or hidden in passenger vehicles, though some is concealed inside tractor-trailers carrying loads of legitimate cargo into the U.S.
If the U.S. government starts shooting people crossing between ports of entry or using drones and hellfire missiles on them, it is unlikely to actually hit anyone with drugs. We will, however, probably kill a foreign national committing a misdemeanor. Again, this is likely to unite most of Central and South America against the U.S., along with creating the rest of the problems described above.
Even worse, however, is the idea of summarily executing people found with drugs: because most of the time it would be U.S. citizens getting a bullet. Imagine a 50-year-old trucker from Texas who picks up his usual trailer and there’s something concealed inside the pallets stacked to the roof inside it. He has no knowledge he’s even carrying anything illicit. But DeSantis seems to be suggesting he should be shot on sight. Or what about the unemployed 30-year-old mother of two who was desperate enough to accept an offer for $500 to smuggle pills internally? Is the U.S. government going to summarily execute her as well?
No serious policy expert on the left or right thinks these are good ideas. Not one. But they are being pitched by some people who should know better, and some who lack the capacity to analyze the downstream effects. Regardless, all of them are pandering to their base, giving them the death, mutilation, and mayhem that they want. It’s much easier to do this than contemplate nuanced options or to contemplate the possibility that it is the demand for drugs in the U.S. that is driving the problem in the first place, and maybe we should be focusing our efforts on that instead of introducing more violence into the world.