But he’s not just holding rallies. Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report:
Trump in recent days has made aggressive moves aimed at pushing policies that could boost Republicans next week — deploying thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in the largest such operation since the Mexican Revolution, floating the idea ending birthright citizenship and warning he intends to halt the caravan of Central American migrants.
The president has also moved to lower Medicare drug prices and suggested the idea of a 10 percent tax cut for the middle class, sending administration and congressional officials scrambling to assemble a new tax policy.
The cumulative acts reflect the extent to which Trump has transformed parts of the federal bureaucracy into a factory of threats, directives and actions — an outgrowth of a campaign strategy which the president and his political advisers settled on as their best chance to hold the Republican congressional majorities.
That’s what he’s up to now, when the threat is a Democratic-led Congress that would make his presidency more difficult. Now consider what will happen two years from now, when the threat is the end of his presidency. What’s he going to do then?
If we take a close look at what Trump is up to now, we see that while all of the ideas he has floated in the past couple of weeks have the purpose of seizing control of the news media’s attention, they come in a variety of forms.
The first is a proposal that Trump likely devises not long before he speaks it aloud, and which not even anyone who works for him seems to have known about before he brought it up. The 10 percent middle-class tax cut falls into this category. Since Trump will always claim that it’s actually something they’ve been working on intensely, White House staff and Republicans in Congress will then feel obligated to pretend that it’s in the works, since admitting that it isn’t would mean acknowledging that the president is a liar. But since they have more important things to worry about, they don’t actually invest much energy into formalizing the proposal, perhaps on the (usually accurate) assumption that within a few days Trump will forget all about it.
The proposal to end birthright citizenship is the second kind of proposal, one that has been circulating in right-wing crackpot circles for some time and which Trump finds appealing, and which he unveils right at the end of the campaign in an attempt to stir up his most ardent supporters. Unlike the tax-cut idea, this isn’t something Trump just decided to embrace on the morning he first proposed it; it was clearly something he has thought about for some time and was waiting for the right time to present.
The third kind of proposal is one that, unlike the first two, produces an immediate and substantial policy response, mobilizing the government to do Trump’s bidding. Sending 5,200 troops to the border to confront a “caravan” of migrants currently in southern Mexico — which, I kid you not, is called “Operation Faithful Patriot” — is an example of this type of proposal.
This is in some ways the phoniest of all the ideas Trump has presented in recent days. First, given U.S. law, the troops won’t be able to engage in law enforcement activities, meaning they will be restricted to things such as “providing helicopter support for border missions, installing concrete barriers and repairing and maintaining vehicles.” But as we all know, Trump ordered the deployment in order to convince people that the migrants are an invading army that can be repelled only with deadly force.
In the interest of accuracy (crazy idea, I know), we should note that pretty much every reason Trump has given for why this caravan is a threat is false. There’s no evidence that there are criminals or gang members or Islamic State terrorists among the migrants. They aren’t fighting with Mexican troops, and George Soros is not funding them. Perhaps most importantly, they aren’t planning on “invading” the United States. According to all the reports we’ve gotten, they are hoping for asylum, meaning they’ll present themselves at the border and enter into a legal process we administer every day.
It’s also important to understand just how far away they are. Right now the caravan is nearly 1,000 miles from the closest port of entry, if they head to the area around Brownsville, Tex. But they may also travel a longer but safer route to Tijuana and San Diego, which is almost 2,200 miles from where they are now. At an ambitious rate of 20 miles a day, that means that whoever is left (the caravan gets smaller as it goes, with people giving up and turning back or deciding to stay in Mexico), that would get them to the border some time between the end of December and mid-March.
All of which is to say that Trump is trying to create a phony sense of immediate crisis in order to persuade his supporters to turn out to vote, and mobilizing the resources of the government to that political end.
Which is exactly what he’s going to do two years from now. While it isn’t uncommon for presidents to roll out appealing initiatives in their fourth year to build a case for their reelection, with Trump it will likely be driven by alarm that increases as the election approaches. There’s a good chance he’ll be trailing in the polls — after all, even with the economy in excellent shape right now his approval ratings barely top 40 percent, so if there’s a slowdown he’s likely to dip even lower. Even so, with partisan attachments so rigid, it’s a near-certainty that the race will be close. As we get into October 2020, Trump could be ready to panic.
What will he do? It’s hard to tell this far in advance, but we’ve seen over and over again that Trump believes playing to his base — and making it as angry and fearful as possible — is the only way for him to win. That means heightening divisions, playing up xenophobia and appealing to white racial resentments.
It will have to be big and dramatic, in a way that’s impossible for voters to ignore. It will probably be profoundly anti-democratic, in a way guaranteed to generate outrage not just from Democrats but also from the news media and anyone else Trump can characterize as the “elite.” That way Trump will be able to pose as the rebel taking on powerful forces in the service of his regular-guy supporters.
Right now, Trump is afraid, as he should be, of losing one or both houses of Congress. But when his own job is on the line, that fear will be multiplied tenfold as he confronts the possibility that he’ll be forever remembered as the thing he hates most: a loser. We don’t know what he’ll do, but we know it will be ugly.