To hear the New York Times’ David Brooks tell it, there are two White Houses. One White House he describes as the Potemkin White House — a misleading facade constructed of the Russia investigation, angry tweets from President Trump and establishment defenses of his wilder assertions. The other White House — the invisible White House — is the nose-to-the-grindstone operation that has been faithfully chipping away at the legacy of President Barack Obama and signing into law long-standing policy goals of the Republican Party.
In a column on Tuesday, Brooks advocates that conservative opponents of Trump spend less time focused on the facade and more on acknowledging the administration’s conservative successes. This, he writes, “isn’t just a struggle over a president. It’s a struggle over what rules we’re going to play by after Trump. Are we all going to descend permanently into the Trump standard of acceptable behavior?”
As is often the case, Brooks is evaluating the right evidence and drawing the wrong conclusion. The more important question in his piece is raised by his acknowledgment that he and other Republican Trump opponents have built social barriers between themselves and Trump supporters in their families, with the goal of limiting confrontation. The underlying question, then, isn’t “Will Trump’s behavior be the norm,” but, instead, “How will the Republican Party deal with the Trump base, much of which rallied to him in the first place because of his unusual brand of xenophobia?”
Although Trump’s belligerence and insecurity is certainly a significant part of his presidency, it’s not true that Trumpism starts and ends with his behavior. Yes, to Brooks’s point, Trump has done a lot of things that other Republican presidents would have done, such as advocate health-care and tax legislation that he neither crafted nor advocated for on the campaign trail. But Trumpism also includes an anxious hostility to immigrants that the quiet, invisible White House is advocating just as earnestly and successfully as it has everything else.
On Monday, for example, we learned that 200,000 Salvadorans will lose their protected status and may be forced to leave the United States. An additional 700,000 people who entered the United States as children may face a similar fate, pushed out of the country to birthplaces of which they have no memory. The administration is also advocating changes to immigration law that will limit the number of people allowed to enter the United States — even apart from the clumsy attempt to ban Muslim immigrants in the ostensible name of fighting terrorism and the White House’s virtual abandonment of refugees seeking a new home.
This is not ancillary to Trump’s election as president; it’s central to it. In June 2015, when he announced his candidacy, it made a splash. But it wasn’t until he got into loud, public fights with political opponents and private businesses over his anti-immigrant campaign-launch comments that his Republican-primary stock started to soar. A rally in Phoenix, carried live on cable television and predicated on continuing that fight, spurred a surge in his poll numbers. His opposition to immigrants earned him a fervent core of support — predicated to some extent simply on his willingness to say negative things about immigrants and others, sure — which then meant he was able to weather the crowded Republican field much more easily than many of his opponents. Late in the primaries and certainly in the general-election campaign, a lot of Republicans made the choice that Brooks seems to tacitly embrace in his essay: accepting Trump as preferable to a Democratic president and or a splintered party.
Some of those Republicans made that decision under the assumption that Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims and immigrants was just an effort to curry favor with that xenophobic base. This was a miscalculation for two reasons. The first is that, whether or not Trump began making this case as a rhetorical point, the nature of his approach to politics means that he’s committed to delivering on these promises he made to the voters who liked him the most. The second reason it was a miscalculation is that it established and formalized those positions as part of Republican politics. When the establishment — Brooks included — disparages Trump’s behavior while touting as acceptable his policies, the anti-immigrant policy that seemed on the trail like aberrant behavior instead becomes an acceptable and unremarkable part of Republican policy.
This may be reversible, should the party wish eventually to reverse it. (After Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, remember, improving outreach to Hispanic voters became a spirited talking point within the GOP — even among those who are now the most obsequious to Trump, such as Sean Hannity.) But a formal policy reversal in 2020 or 2024 won’t eliminate the mistrust that Trump’s moves have certainly engendered in the Hispanic and Muslim communities — and nonwhite communities more broadly. And just as the GOP deciding post-Romney that a more liberal stance on immigration was a key to future electoral success didn’t immediately convince the base of that need, it’s not clear why a shift back to the pre-Trump norm on immigration would fare any better with party hard-liners.
There are indeed two White Houses: The Trump White House and the establishment White House. The latter is accomplishing a lot. But it’s also carrying Trump’s water on immigration without question, and there’s far less outcry from Republican pundits about that than there is about Trump’s random tweets.
Trump’s tweets are specific to him and, when he’s gone, they will be, too. The xenophobia central to earning him the Republican nomination and the presidency, though, is embedded in part of the Republican base. Trump-supporting friends and relatives aren’t going to be persuaded to root that out if you don’t want to talk to them about it.
Or if you don’t think it’s worth talking about yourself.