President Trump in Beijing in November 2017. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
Opinion writer

We are now learning that the special counsel is seeking a transcript of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone’s testimony to Congress, to determine whether he concealed advance knowledge of a public dump of Democratic emails stolen by Russia. This could help determine whether people around President Trump conspired with Russian electoral sabotage or create an incentive for Stone to cooperate — meaning the case is inexorably advancing.

Meanwhile, the Senate just voted to keep the government open into February, but without the $5 billion in border-wall money Trump craves. The House is expected to follow suit. It’s unclear whether Trump will go along, but this makes it more likely that he’ll fold, at least for now. (Updated below.)

These two developments provide a hint as to what will likely happen next year: Trump’s mounting legal travails and his increasingly unhinged demands for victories like the wall — ones that will thrill his #MAGAhatter base and no one else — may well grow more tightly intertwined as narrative lines. As the former leads Trump to increasingly fall back on his base for support, he’ll need the latter to keep his voters energized, which means keeping them persuaded he’s “winning.”

Republicans brace for more Trump wall-rage next year

If you look at current GOP rhetoric about the wall, it’s clear Republicans expect Trump’s wall-rage to continue into next year, and they’re laying the groundwork accordingly. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) supports short-term funding rather than the government shutdown Trump wants, yet he somehow blasted Democrats for opposing the wall, ripping them for refusing to “secure the integrity of our borders as well as the safety of American families.” Other Republicans are vowing a “rational” debate over the wall and “border security” next year.

In short, Republicans are tethering themselves to Trump’s definition of the wall as “border security” and defining opposition to the wall as opposing secure borders, signaling how they’ll frame the fight in the next Congress.

But this is a strikingly weak talking point. And the reason for this actually illustrates why this battle could get worse for Republicans going forward.

In an interview with Bloomberg, GOP pollster David Winston offered the rosy view of GOP immigration messaging. Winston allows that Trump’s hateful anti-immigrant xenophobia helped engineer the GOP’s epic midterms wipeout in the suburbs and among independents and women, an analysis shared by other Republicans.

But Winston says immigration merely distracted Republicans from focusing on matters those voters care about and claims they can still develop a solid contrast on the immigration issue. It goes like this: The meta-GOP position is that the United States is a “country of laws,” while the Dem position is that the United States is a “country of immigrants.”

This is the hopeful framing that Republicans such as McConnell employ when they cast the wall as “border security” and claim Democrats oppose this. The wall equals the rule of law. Opposition to the wall equals prioritizing immigrants and celebrating browning America over the rule of law.

Accommodationist Republicans

In a sense, Republicans are following what some European center-right parties are doing in the face of rising anti-immigrant populism: Adopting an accommodationist stance. As Shadi Hamid explains, this entails “meeting the far right halfway” on the ugly cultural dimensions of this populism — making peace, albeit in careful tones, with its overt treatment of immigration and multiculturalism and ethnic minorities as constituting a “problem” that must be “solved.”

Republicans have carried out their own version of this. Before Trump, to be sure, plenty of Republicans wanted to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants, including young immigrants brought here as children, and some wanted to cut legal immigration. But Republicans were genuinely split, with some tacitly or even openly backing genuine reform compromises that included legalization. Some even treated immigration as a positive, salutary force.

Now Republicans as a group have stampeded toward Trump, even if they haven’t fully embraced him. Republicans don’t want to shut down the government over the wall, but they feed the fiction that it’s crucial to solving the immigration “problem.” They issue statements when Trump’s cruelty grows too overwhelming to ignore — such as during the family and child separations crisis — yet they are supportive as Trump indefensibly games the bureaucracy to dramatically slash refugee admissions, or perverts the law to block desperate migrants from exercising their legal right to apply for asylum.

Real rule of law versus fake rule of law

But here’s a prediction: It will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to frame all of these things as the true rule of law position. We have already seen this fail: The very fact that Republicans went all in with Trump’s campaign depiction of destitute migrant families as criminal invaders — and Democrats as their lawless enablers — helped produce the GOP midterm elections bloodbath.

The percentage of Americans who now see immigration as good for the country is at record highs, which suggests decisive public rejection of Trump’s overarching tale that immigrants are a destructive, malevolent force. And as Tom Jawetz points out, the drumbeat of cruel Trumpian imagery — families torn apart, children in cages, the tear gassing of migrants — does not inspire confidence that we’re seeing the orderly application of law. Rather, it creates impressions of the chaotic, overbearing, arbitrarily motivated application of brutal state power, which does not remotely come across as true rule of law.

House Democrats must seize this moment. They must use the oversight process to appropriate the idea that sane, humanely-motivated, reality-based immigration reform represents the real rule of law posture.

Trumpism sits on a shrinking island of public support. Ron Brownstein recently surveyed multiple polls and noted that the wall — a grand symbol of Trump’s immigration narrative and agenda — is overwhelmingly unpopular among precisely the voter groups that moved away from Republicans to fuel the big Democratic victory. As Brownstein concluded, Trump’s continued push for the wall has left the GOP in the precarious position of “trying to extract greater advantage from groups that are shrinking.”

Trump has left little doubt that this will continue in to next year. And there’s a deep irony to this. If ongoing probes bear fruit, Trump will double down on his immigration demands to keep his base in line. Republicans will cast that as the pro-rule of law stance. In reality, support for the investigations revealing the true depths of Trump’s corruption and lawlessness, and resistance to his cruel and arbitrary immigration policies, will constitute the true rule of law positions.

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Update: In fairness to GOP pollster Dave Winston, who is quoted above, he has publicly said that the American mainstream is looking for immigration policies that successfully make the two values he discusses -- the U.S. as country of laws, and the U.S. as a country of immigrants -- work together.

Update II: Since this post went up, Trump has dug in behind his demand for his wall money. The House has passed it, and since it’s D.O.A. in the Senate, we now may be headed for a shutdown.