“What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” So asks the “unstoppable force paradox,” whose roots go back to the third century, B.C.
After listening to Tuesday night’s addresses by President Trump and Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, one might ask the same for American politics. The government shutdown appears no closer to resolution. The issue underlying it – funding for a border wall with Mexico – continues to be a microcosm of the broader impasse over immigration.
Few issues ignite a firestorm like the issue of immigration. Its power to motivate political argument makes sense, for behind it stand fundamental questions of law and order, national security, political identity, and human rights. It touches on some of our most fundamental principles and deepest self-understandings.
Tuesday night reaffirmed just how far apart our two political parties are on those principles. President Trump, as well as Senate Minority Leader Schumer and House Speaker Pelosi, presented subdued demeanors in their respective addresses. Yet while their tones lacked the passion that has attended this debate, their words stoked it anew.
This is not to say that both sides did not try to claim some common ground. President Trump affirmed legal immigration as a great benefit for American society. He further emphasized that the problem along the southern border is “a humanitarian crisis,” not just one of security. Speaker Pelosi declared, “We all agree that we need to secure our borders,” with Senator Schumer adding, “We sharply disagree with the president about the most effective way to do it.”
Taken at face value, these comments might give some hope for a compromise amenable to both sides. They might portend a bargain that enforces immigration law – possibly with a wall – while addressing the situation of those illegal immigrants who are already here.
But the reality of our politics is starkly different. Significant elements of the Democratic Party do intend to end illegal immigration. But, contrary to the statements made by Pelosi and Schumer, they seek to do so by eliminating all restrictions on it. And contrary to President Trump’s remarks, a growing portion of the Republican Party criticizes both illegal and legal immigration.
Regardless of who you think more correct, this gap stretches the two sides well outside the supposed common starting points articulated last night.
In the end, the “unstoppable force paradox” is inherently inconsistent. A truly unstoppable force categorically denies the possibility of an immovable object. You can’t have both – only one, if any.
So, between President Trump and congressional Democrats, who (if anyone) is really the unstoppable or immovable one? Time will tell.