Here is an unpopular observation about Donald Trump’s latest assault on immigrants: It might work, politically.
Delivering the odious message through his feckless, oft-humiliated Justice Department subordinate, Jeff Sessions, Trump this week announced that the Department of Homeland Security would stop processing applications under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
Begun under Barack Obama’s administration in 2012, DACA allowed undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive work permits and renewable exemptions from deportation.
Sessions delivered the news with anxious excitement, like he was finally getting to the fun part of being the designated organ grinder’s monkey of the Trump administration. He insisted that he was only righting a wrong, undoing an executive branch dictum that Obama had forced down the throats of Congress years before.
“Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws,” Sessions said, “was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch.”
Sessions was just warming up. The bulk of his argument against DACA was phrased with an unmistakable nod to the kind of nationalist, identitarian rhetoric you’d expect to hear from someone like Steve Bannon.
“We have inherited from our founders, and have advanced, an unsurpassed legal heritage,” Sessions said. “[This] is the foundation of our freedom, our safety and our prosperity.”
The idea of anyone from Alabama bragging about his unsurpassable “legal heritage” sounds like a joke, but it’s not – there’s not a lot of irony to go around in American politics these days.
In a statement issued after Sessions’, Trump himself doubled down on the Bannonite themes. He promised to “resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion,” but added that compassion isn’t just for penniless children fleeing violence and corruption in foreign countries.
“We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling and forgotten Americans,” Trump explained.
Trump announced a plan to continue renewing permits for anyone whose status expires in the next six months, then saddled Congress with the mess, giving them a March 5th, 2018, deadline to preserve or kill DACA.
The press, a parade of celebrities and a significant portion of our national elected officials denounced the manoeuvre as transparent racism and cruelty.
Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg both ripped the decision. Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon and George Takei unsurprisingly chimed in with their own denunciations. Director Rob Reiner put it as follows: “Unfortunately there is no other way to say this: Donald J. Trump is a heartless prick.”
Democrats, too, lined up one after another to take a whack. The move, said Elizabeth Warren, was “part of the bigoted policies that are a cornerstone of [Trump’s] administration.”
“Cruel. Not America,” was Joe Biden’s contribution.
Some Republicans rushed to condemn the move, or at least seemed to. Paul Ryan said he hoped Congress could find a solution so that “those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute.” Sen. Jeff Flake, facing re-election in Arizona, said that DACA kids “should not be punished for the sins of their parents.” John McCain said in a statement that Trump’s move was the “wrong approach.”
It’s these Republicans who are being targeted politically with this move.
This just-concluded month of August saw Trump in political freefall, denounced worldwide for his decision to stand up for the “very fine people” who, according to him, were included among a crowd of marching neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.
But September so far shows Trump returning to what has worked for him over and over in the past two years: Daring establishment Republicans to enter into policy agreement with the liberal consensus, particularly on immigration.
Trump won the presidency thanks in significant part to the Republican Party’s misread of its own electorate on that issue heading into 2016. Essentially, Trump and the Republican leaders were reading the same tea leaves, but coming to two different conclusions.
While leaders in both parties saw a general trend toward acceptance of immigrants – in January of 2016, 55 percent of Americans overall said immigrants strengthen America – Trump courted the recalcitrant half of Republican voters who continued to decry immigrants as a menace who weakened the country.
The establishment Republicans saw they couldn’t be viable as a national political party long-term if they continued to maintain an intolerant stance on immigration.
But Trump, thinking on a more selfish and short-term basis, understood that he could control the Republican Party in the here and now by running sharply in the other direction. He wiped out the likes of “low-energy Jeb” and “little Marco,” both party-approved choices with some pro-immigration leanings, by blasting both as “weak” on the issue.
Ted Cruz, who probably never imagined he’d have to start off running to the left of anyone on immigration, spent much of the campaign trying to prove he was just as dickish as Trump on border matters – a tough trick to pull off, when you’re leading off your stump speeches with tales of your immigrant dad sneaking into Texas with a hundred bucks sewn into his underpants. Ben Carson found himself promising a campaign of drone-striking border-crossers, and it still wasn’t enough. And so on.
A few weeks ago, Trump looked finished as a politician. He was wrapping his arms around Nazis in public and then emptying his id for all the world to see in a pair of remarkable unscripted tirades, first at Trump Tower, and then in a 77-minute rant in Phoenix.
He is now fighting back, and it’s a mistake to be distracted by the transparent loathsomeness of this DACA manoeuvre. Trump knows that while this doesn’t play in newsrooms or in Lena Dunham’s trailer, it goes over pretty damn well in other parts of the country.
He also knows that other Republicans are watching what’s happening with the likes of Flake, who is currently getting roasted for opposing Trump on this and other issues. The Arizona Republican is getting beaten like a gong in the polls by a more conservative and Trump-aligned primary challenger in Dr. Kelli Ward.
Flake’s numbers are currently so bad that there are some who think he might consider dropping out before the primary. If such a wipeout were to take place, it would have a devastating effect on the opposition to Trump generally.
For all the talk about unseating Trump with impeachment or an Article 25 proceeding, the reality is that Trump will likely have a chance to get some scalps of his own first in the midterm elections – even if they come from his own party.
Just one particularly gruesome loss by an open Trump antagonist like Flake or even the recently waffling Bob Corker of Tennessee (to whom Trump recently tweeted, “Tennessee not happy!”) might be enough to chill out any hint of serious Republican rebellion.
As historically unpopular as Trump has been as a president, he is still nowhere near as unpopular as the institutions of the House and Senate generally. Last month, across five different polling agencies – Gallup, CNN, CBS News, Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University – public approval of Congress never exceeded 20 percent. Trump’s numbers, hideous as they are, consistently run about twice as high.
Meanwhile, a major Republican leader like Mitch McConnell was last month running at about 30 percent approval rating among Republicans, according to Public Policy Polling. That’s compared with 81 percent favourability for Trump among the same Republican respondents. Trump knows, and most Republican officials know, that the president still has a hammer over most of the elected hacks in his own party.
For two years now Americans have been bewildered by the train-wreck persona of Donald Trump, wondering how he could be succeeding despite a seemingly fierce determination to offend every voting bloc on earth outside of angry half-literate white dudes.
The answer lay in the fact that the rest of the political landscape is increasingly fragmented, and other institutions – Congress, the media, the Republican and Democratic Party establishments – all have ratings that are nearly as low or lower even than Trump’s. This allows the Orange One to survive seemingly unsurvivable scandals.
Not even Trump can thrive embracing torch-bearing Nazis. But just a slight retreat from that extreme, pushing Jeff Sessions forward to air out a watered-down, tie-clad version of the same racialist politics, might be enough to help Trump reassert control over the same furious anti-immigration plurality that won him the election.
That giant blob of dumb support might not be enough to help him win re-election. But it could easily be enough to help him survive all four years, and that’s bad enough.