Photoshopping the American president with a Hitler mustache is getting pretty old. George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have all gotten the Hitler treatment by their opponents, and we’re so used to it by now that it’s lost its sting.
In the midst of a constitutional crisis, it helps to think in more than one category. So let’s try something else.
President Trump’s recent declaration of a national emergency reminds me of another jarring “emergency” that scuttled liberty: the executive orders of Lilburn Boggs.
Most Tribune readers will remember Boggs as the governor of Missouri in 1838, when anti-Mormon mobs in the west of the state were hounding and harassing Mormons. When some Mormons responded by beating back a Gentile militia, and then forcing a judge to sign an order defending their rights, Gov. Boggs fell back on the power of the executive.
He issued Executive Order 44, which ordered that Mormons “be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the State.” His reasoning? “Their outrages are beyond all description.”
Not long after that, a Gentile mob followed those instructions to the letter and killed more than a dozen Mormons at the Haun’s Mill Massacre.
Boggs didn’t try to find out what was happening. He wasn’t interested. He knew some Mormons were going around with guns, and he believed Mormons were bad people. He didn’t try to uncover injustice. He just used the power of executive authority to attack an entire
people at once. He didn’t even bother to give any facts to back it up. He just said “Their outrages are beyond all description.” That was all he needed to say. An “Executive Order” legalized the murder of Mormons.
Trump is trying the same thing now, on a massive scale. Using executive authority to declare a national emergency, he has removed all safeguards and constitutional checks to his power. His justification is eerily similar to Boggs’. When reporters pointed out that illegal border crossings are at historic lows, he dismissed them as fake news.
When informed that illegal aliens actually commit crimes at lower rates than Americans, he simply said, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” He instead told stories of violence, gangs, and drugs, none of which were backed up by evidence.
Trump doesn’t care what the story is. He’s not trying to find out what happened. He just thinks immigrants are bad, and if he has to shred the constitution to get at them, so be it.
Trump is using the same logic to attack immigrants that Boggs used to attack Mormons. Both men unleashed unlimited executive authority to do so.
There is a way to address illegal immigration. There is even a way to build a wall. But unlimited executive authority to stop rumors of “outrages” is a path Mormons have been forced to walk before. That path leads to Haun’s Mill. The good citizens of Utah — Mormon and Gentile alike — should make a concerted effort to ensure it does not happen again.
Adam Jortner is a historian of Mormonism and American religion and professor of history at Auburn University, Auburn, Ala. He is the author of “Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in Early America,” and a former member of the script team for “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?”