Mere months ago, Governor Greg Abbott suffered one of the biggest face-plants of his long career. Even after commanding the Texas Legislature to meet in two special sessions, vetoing the bills of unyielding lawmakers, and threatening to campaign against any legislator who crossed him, Abbott failed to convince the Republican-controlled House to pass a voucher plan that would use taxpayer funds to subsidize private school tuition. Rarely, if ever, had the governor risked so much political capital for so little return. Then came the first major test of Abbott’s promised revenge tour. In a January special election, the Abbott-backed pro-voucher candidate, Brent Money, lost

Abbott should be reeling from a humiliating defeat on his biggest policy priority. Instead, he’s at the height of his power. That’s because he possesses a political cheat code: whenever he’s in trouble, Abbott whips up panic over  migrants arriving at the Texas-Mexico border. 

Joe Biden once quipped that Rudy Giuliani only needed three words to form a sentence: a noun, a verb, and “9/11.” Of Abbott, we might say he only needs three words to change the conversation: a noun, a verb, and “invasion.” Instead of fending off criticism after the Lege told him to pound sand on vouchers, Abbott is daily making himself one of Joe Biden’s chief antagonists. Abbott’s critics call his actions stunts—the state-financed busing of migrants to Democratic cities, the declaration that Texas is facing an “invasion”—but let’s be charitable and call them provocations. They tap into widespread public frustration with a broken immigration system and signal that only Abbott is doing something about it. His defiance of the Biden administration on immigration and border security has driven his overall approval rating just short of an all-time high, and to a record peak among Democrats. This week during a border visit, Donald Trump said Abbott had “done a great job” and that the governor was on his vice president short list.

Abbott has seized control of the news cycle. Legal scholars might fret that Texas is setting in motion a constitutional crisis at the border, maybe even some kind of civil war, but that’s a small price to pay for being a winner in the attention economy. If Texas loses one or all of the state’s major legal challenges—pending cases in federal courts over buoys separated by sawlike blades in the Rio Grande and over a new state law that empowers Texas cops to arrest and effectively deport undocumented immigrants—Abbott can claim he tried to do something to address the issue that American voters cite as their top concern. If Abbott wins, that’ll work too. 

You can tell how much of a political boon the border issue offers by the actions of other red-state governors. They are clamoring to be seen as Abbott allies, giving us the odd spectacle of South Dakota governor Kristi Noem announcing this month that she is sending her “soldiers” to the “warzone” of the Texas borderlands for a fifth time. Suddenly, the grim governor of Texas is the most popular Republican in the nation, the cool kid with the toy everyone wants to play with. 

Abbott learned from his predecessor, Rick Perry, about the talismanic power of the border. Immigration has ranked as the top concern of Texas voters—particularly Republican ones—for decades now. In his first bid for governor, in 2014, Abbott tapped into that public sentiment by pledging to double Perry’s spending on troopers at the border. In office, he launched an $800 million effort in which cops and troops mostly stood around in El Paso or Laredo or elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley without much of a mission—props in politicians’ photo ops. When he ran for reelection in 2018, in a down year for the state GOP, Abbott again announced a surge in troops at the border and cruised to victory. 

Then, in February 2021, the state electric grid failed, plunging millions of Texans into freezing darkness and leading to the deaths of at least 246. Over the next few months, amid rapidly sinking approval ratings, Abbott reached back into his bag of tricks. He declared that the border was a disaster—akin to a hurricane or a blackout. With the stroke of a pen, the governor granted himself emergency powers to increase penalties for some state trespassing charges and suspend various local regulations. He announced that he was launching yet another campaign in the borderlands, this one dubbed Operation Lone Star. 

What was unveiled as a modest effort to “integrate” Department of Public Safety troopers and the National Guard and to arrest migrants who trespass on private property has since ballooned into a behemoth whose scope keeps expanding and whose total price tag now stands at $10 billion. Operation Lone Star now includes plans to build a border wall (estimated total cost: $20 billion), the deployment of thousands of DPS troopers and guardsmen serving tours of duty in the restless provinces of Eagle Pass and Del Rio, the creation of courts and jails for migrants charged with criminal trespassing, and the construction of a just-announced eighty-acre military base on the banks of the Rio Grande. The apparatus will no doubt balloon again if a federal judge allows Texas’s new immigration law, Senate Bill 4, to go into effect in March. Passed last year by the Texas Legislature and signed by Abbott, the act would create a new state-level machine to arrest and effectively deport migrants—an unprecedented foray into what was heretofore the work of the federal government. 

If Operation Lone Star is the fajita meat of Abbott’s border policy, then his migrant-busing scheme is the sizzle. In April 2022, Abbott had just defeated two Republican primary opponents running to his right, including Don Huffines, a former state senator from Dallas who paid for billboards around the state that read, simply, “Deport Illegals.” Facing Beto O’Rourke in the fall, he launched a brilliant, cynical bit of stagecraft whereby the state of Texas would charter buses to haul recently arrived immigrants to Democratic cities such as Chicago and New York. For a cool $148 million (and rising), Abbott scores multiple wins. He relieves some stress from border communities struggling to handle the migrant influx. He shows his most loyal voters that he is a man of decisive action. And, most important, he pisses off all the right enemies. Every time New York City mayor Eric Adams or Illinois governor JB Pritzker holds a press conference saying his city can’t accommodate the migrant influx and begging Texas to stop, he plays right into Abbott’s hands. Criticism, meanwhile, is somewhat muted, because many migrants are grateful for the free transportation. 

The busing scheme was a warm-up. Just in the last six months or so, Abbott has set in motion a dizzying number of new escalations. In July, contractors began installing giant orange buoys in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, which the state has said are “designed to save lives by directing aliens to appropriate ports of entry while deterring unlawful, dangerous crossings through the water.” Both humanitarian groups and Mexican smugglers have said the menacing, thousand-foot-long structure is a death trap. Indeed, the bodies of two drowned migrants were found on or near the buoys last summer. 

As with the wall, it’s hard to see how the buoys have much of an impact on border security. After having left home countries whose economies are chronically mismanaged, where they are menaced by corrupt police and violent gangs, and after having survived a dangerous journey across thousands of miles, how many asylum seekers opt to turn around because of a barrier in a small stretch of the Rio Grande? The buoys are more about symbolism for voters freaked out by the images of a record number of foreigners wading across the Rio Grande. They have an implicit message: Finally, someone is doing something! 

The buoys were the first “Come and Take It”–style standoff. Then came the Battle of Shelby Park, a skirmish threatening to turn into a full-blown war with the Biden administration. It started last year with Texas cops and troops laying down razor wire on a stretch of the Rio Grande centered on Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, impeding Border Patrol’s access to the river and putting migrants in peril. The conflict seemed designed to force a crisis, not least a constitutional one. 

Border Patrol agents cut the wire. Texas sued. Eventually the matter landed with the U.S. Supreme Court in January. But Abbott wasn’t content to just let the gears of justice grind away. While the high court was hearing the case, Texas seized Shelby Park and laid down new razor wire and a new fence, completely cutting off Border Patrol from that stretch of the river. After three migrants drowned, a Border Patrol official testified that Texas had made it “impossible” for the agents to monitor the Rio Grande and carry out emergency rescues. The implication was clear: migrant lives were at risk because Texas was playing games.

For now,  the Supreme Court has done little to resolve the underlying issues. In a narrow 5–4 ruling, the court tossed out a lower court’s decision that temporarily prohibited the Border Patrol from cutting or moving the razor wire. The Border Patrol is now free to remove the concertina barriers, and Texas is free to put up more—potentially teeing up the kind of ritual provocations one might expect in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. In response to the Supreme Court order, Abbott issued an angry statement charging that the “federal government has broken the compact” with the states and vowing that Texas would continue to defend itself, feds be damned. The fiery language caused some observers to think he was defying the high court. But in reality, Abbott had only tiptoed up to the edge of a constitutional crisis and made many think he’d already jumped. Whether he will or not remains to be seen.

How does Abbott justify his actions? In September, he bowed to pressure from his far right and declared an “invasion” at the border. Abbott served on the Texas Supreme Court and as attorney general. He must know that this is a dubious legal claim. Article 1, section 10, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution states that “No State shall . . . engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.” Is illegal immigration tantamount to a military incursion requiring Texas to wage war in the absence of action from the federal government sufficient to please Abbott? Very few migrants are armed. Many of them are women and children. Some have legitimate asylum claims and eagerly turn themselves in to authorities so they can pursue those claims. Not even the cartel members who sneak across the border are coming here to wage war. Only a hysterical political climate could make such claims remotely plausible.

Yet this is precisely the argument that the State of Texas is making in multiple federal lawsuits. “Texas is empowered to take all necessary steps to repel the cartel invasion at our southern border by ‘engag[ing] in War,’ ” Texas argued before a federal district judge in Austin in the SB 4 case. 

Not only that, but Texas has argued that Abbott’s judgment cannot be questioned by federal courts or administration officials. “The authority to determine whether Texas has been ‘actually invaded’ . . . is vested in the Governor of Texas,” the state argued in a filing. The question of whether this judgment is correct is “a nonjusticiable political question.” That’s legalese for “it’s an invasion because I say it is.” The legal and practical implications of this assertion of power, if allowed to stand, are not hard to figure out. The fifty governors can all have their own splendid little wars. Gavin Newsom of California can wage a battle against plastic bags and Ron DeSantis can finally send the tanks into Disneyland. 

The mounting aggression is no coincidence. Abbott’s media manipulations are potent because they sound so many themes in Texas and beyond: antifederal sentiment, fury at an unpopular Democratic president, and pride at Texas’s willingness to go it alone. More sinister, they echo the “great replacement” theory, the racist view that “real” Americans (read: non-Hispanic whites) are being replaced by brown immigrants as part of some globalist plot. 

Americans’ views on immigration have long oscillated between welcoming and hostile. During the Trump era, Americans by and large came to see immigration as good for the nation, with only around a fourth wanting the level to decrease. Now most polls show a stark reversal: we are increasingly hawkish on border security and skeptical of immigration. A recent poll found that 59 percent of registered Texas voters, including almost half of self-identified Democrats, want to make it harder for migrants fleeing violence to seek asylum in the U.S. 

Like any good politician, Abbott is keenly attuned to public opinion. And he and his team have few guardrails when there is power to accumulate. Once, Abbott’s chief adviser, a New Hampshire–based operative named Dave Carney, brushed off concerns about Abbott authorizing child abuse investigations of the parents of trans kids and bragged that doing so was “a seventy-five to eighty percent winner” in the upcoming election. There is hardly any stunt that Abbott considers out of bounds. In January, he told an interviewer, “The only thing that we’re not doing is we’re not shooting people who come across the border, because of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder.” 

Abbott is playing with fire. In a decade, he has gone from a nominal expansion of “boots on the ground” at the Texas-Mexico border to flirting with, if not outright embracing, radical and cruel policies that have little regard for human life or even the rule of law. He claims to be engaged in war. One of the many problems with wars is that they are notoriously unpredictable and prone to unwanted escalation. Some simply can’t be won. But Abbott has come this far, and he has been rewarded for his stance. Even if his conscience could stop him, his political base won’t.