Opinion writer

As you may have heard, President Trump openly fantasized about the prospect of U.S. troops unleashing violence on desperate migrants, many of whom are trying to exercise their legal right to seek refuge in the United States.

At a fundraiser in Texas late Wednesday, Trump seethed that our military is constrained from getting “a little rough” at the border, because “everybody would go crazy,” preventing it from acting the way it would “normally act,” or how “another military from another country would act.”

In saying these things, Trump previewed an important component of his reelection strategy.

We know this, because Trump basically has now told us so.

The New York Times reports that at the very same event, Trump declared that the current humanitarian crisis at the border will be a political winner for him against Democrats in the 2020 campaign.

“I think they’re going to pay a very big price in 2020,” Trump said. “I think the border is going to be an incredible issue. And they’re on the wrong side. They want to have open borders.”

We’ve heard this boast before

You may recall that we heard the same boast in the lead-up to the 2018 elections. Top immigration adviser Stephen Miller crowed that “the fundamental political contrast” would pit Trump’s vision against the “open borders” Democratic Party, which, he said, was “completely marginalizing itself from the American voters.”

The arrival of asylum-seeking migrants was also central in 2018. House GOP incumbents across the country ran ads saturated in ugly and lurid demagoguery about them, and Republicans suffered their biggest House loss since Watergate. Even Republicans admitted Trump’s immigration focus helped cost them the suburbs.

It’s worth noting that painting migrants as criminals, and creating the vague impression that military force might be required to repel them, were also key in 2018. Trump lied endlessly to criminalize them, and sent in the military as a prop to dramatize the supposed danger they posed. He even made this explicit by saying things like: “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”

Thus, it doesn’t look like an accident that at the Texas event, Trump also said that “I’m gonna have to call up more military,” while claiming that Central American countries are “sending” the “tough ones” and “the gang members.” This telegraphs we’ll likely see more of the very same lies and hate-mongering in 2020.

The 2018 loss does not guarantee that this won’t work for Trump’s reelection. It’s possible Trump’s base will turn out for him in a way it didn’t for House Republicans, and that anti-immigrant demagoguery will boost that. But we can say for sure Trump does not acknowledge that this strategy cost his party in 2018, and thinks the worsening of the asylum crisis can only help him.

No, Trump has not been vindicated

Trump’s swagger about 2020 is of a piece with an argument Trumpworld has been making: that the enormous spike in asylum-seeking families proves he was right all along — it helps politically because it confirmed his underlying diagnosis of the situation.

But this is utterly ludicrous on just about every level. The centerpiece of that diagnosis has been Trump’s treatment of the situation as a security crisis that required a border wall to manage. But more barriers can’t prevent these arrivals due to basic geographic and legal realities. The very fact that the crisis continues even as Trump’s national emergency to build barriers is in effect reveals the profound folly here.

Then there are Trump’s efforts at deterrence. Trump’s now-canceled family separations did not slow the arrivals. Various efforts to make it harder to apply for asylum have been blocked in court.

Finally, there’s what Trump wants to do now. The core of the administration’s argument is that families keep coming — despite not qualifying for asylum — because they can get past an initial “credible fear” screening and can exploit backlogged courts and legal settlements preventing the detention of children to vanish into the interior while awaiting a hearing.

Thus, Trump and Miller are now plotting new efforts to make it harder to pass that initial screening, by putting tougher-minded border patrol officials in charge of it, and are demanding the right to hold families indefinitely. But as Dara Lind shows, the first of those is probably illegal and unworkable, and the second might be illegal as well (and even some inside Trump’s administration are resistant to it).

Could Democrats in Congress give Trump legal changes that accomplish those goals? Yes, in theory. But they aren’t going to do that, because it would require a huge retreat on our international and humanitarian commitments.

Besides, Trump cannot go around calling migrants criminals, threatening to shut down the government and the border, and bashing Democrats as “TREASONOUS” while simultaneously demanding serious Democratic engagement on this problem. It’s absurd. That’s another way Trump’s whole approach is proving a disastrous failure. Trump thought he could solve this with maximal “toughness” both toward migrants and Democrats. Nope.

Democrats can quite plausibly argue that there’s a better response. This is an extremely difficult and complex problem. But it’s precisely because of this that we should attempt a massive, multifaceted approach that includes big investments in improving conditions in the origin countries to mitigate “push” factors, which are dominant; sustained regional cooperation; major resources to unclog and streamline courts; and even involvement by the United Nations and improved refugee infrastructure in the region.

But Trump has cut aid to those countries, making regional solutions harder. And “toughness” fails again.

Democrats are beginning to coalesce around such solutions. Trump obviously believes that the worse this gets, the more easily he’ll persuade swing voters that the migrants are a criminal “infestation” that must be repelled through cruelty or even force. There’s no need for Democrats to fear this argument, and one hopes they will engage it frontally.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Fox News host inflates Trump’s approval far beyond what Fox News polls show

Paul Waldman: Trump’s reelection campaign just got a lot tougher

Paul Waldman: What will Trump offer the voters next year? Probably not much.

Greg Sargent: For Trump, the cruelty is the point. But it’s actually worse than that.

Greg Sargent: Kirstjen Nielsen just revealed how Trump’s pathologies and lawlessness will get worse