As always for Donald Trump, the outcome was not important. The price this time: sobbing immigrant toddlers separated from their parents, wrapped in foil blankets in chain-link cages in Texas or shuttled 2,000 miles across the US in the dead of night.
No matter. His goal was not to stop a supposed flood of asylum-seeking families from crossing the border into the country from Mexico. The president, campaigning without pause to retain Republican majorities in the House and Senate and for his own re-election in 2020, orchestrated a crisis just to be able to say this:
The dilemma is that if you’re weak, if you’re weak—which some people would like you to be—if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I would rather be strong, but that’s a tough dilemma.
It was a sort of win, though he uttered it at a moment of capitulation. Trump, with Republican lawmakers at his side, announced he would end his own administration’s family separation policy through executive order. As the Washington Post’s Michael Scherer wrote, “What matters is that each scene in the unfolding drama shows him as the leader, taking control, calling the shots, appearing defiant and always, most important, strong. He understands politics on a more theatrical level, what one of his close friends has called ‘the emotional truth’ of a situation. That instinct helped him win the presidency.”
The effect is more important than the cause
In retreat, Trump made no mention of his own dishonesty: He had previously blamed Democrats for the family separation chaos, and claimed only Congress could fix it. He continued to blame Democrats at a campaign rally in Minnesota last night.
“Democrats don’t care about the impact of uncontrolled migration on your communities, your schools, your hospitals, your jobs or your safety,” he told the crowd in a hockey arena in Duluth. “Democrats put illegal immigrants before they put American citizens. What the hell is going on?”
Expect much more of the same, as Quartz’s Heather Timmons wrote earlier this month. Trump’s Us-vs.-Them assaults are a way to unify his most loyal supporters—and perhaps entice a few other million voters fearful about change: “Stoking the US’s already inflamed cultural divides is one of the Republican party’s key tactics heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Trump’s plan for the coming months is to add ‘gasoline’ to the system, a GOP consultant told Quartz earlier.”
Playing offense defensively
It’s the same tactic the president has employed in railing against Obamacare (which he failed to repeal), attacking the patriotism of NFL players (which backfired when the Super Bowl champion team decided not to come to the White House), and unveiling a broad plan to reorganize the government (likely to die in Congress). Even if Trump loses on the actual gambits, he wins supporters’ hearts by dominating the debates with inflammatory posturing.
Today, in another image-management move, Melania Trump made a surprise visit to McAllen, Texas, purportedly to get a firsthand look at what would-be immigrants are encountering.
Her own spokeswoman may have said more than she intended in explaining why the first lady decided to fly in. “She wants to see what’s real,” said Stephanie Grisham told CNN. “She wanted to see as close to what she had been seeing on TV. She wants to see a realistic view of what’s happening.”
Apparently that’s not the kind of view desired by all residents of the White House.