It’s a pathology of this presidency that continues to go under-examined: Donald Trump simply does not recognize that his role as president confers on him any institutional obligation toward the American people of any kind.
This is the through line that runs through the biggest stories of the moment: Trump’s demonization of Rep. Ilhan Omar; his unhinged policies and lawlessness toward the humanitarian crisis at the border; and his effort to prevent the voters from gaining a full accounting of his finances, and, by extension, of his corruption.
That through line also explains the need for his survival strategy over the long term, which rests on a backup plan that banks on salvation at the hands of the electoral college, or the courts, or perhaps both.
Trump’s disregard of the institutional obligations attendant to his role as president is the subject of a good piece by Peter Baker of the New York Times, who frames the point in a more restrained way. As Baker notes, Trump’s latest actions demonstrate that he’s dispensed with even the “pretense” of pretending to be “the leader of all the people,” and instead is functioning as only the leader of his people.
Trump has repeatedly called Democrats “treasonous” and has threatened to dump migrants into their districts (as someone remarked on Twitter, it’s as if they are bearing smallpox blankets), because they won’t give him the changes to immigration law he wants.
What’s more, even as Trump is ostensibly demanding that Democrats engage with him constructively on the asylum crisis — he just tweeted as much again — he is threatening to shut down the border and is reportedly pressuring officials to break the law by banning asylum seekers entirely.
This idea — that Democrats can be bulldozed into doing his bidding even as he carries out an unchecked, destructive and lawless rampage — is itself a display of deep, seething contempt for the opposition party and its voters.
The big-picture strategy
Baker summarizes Trump’s big-picture strategy this way:
His social media advertising is aimed disproportionately at older Americans who were the superstructure of his victory in the Electoral College in 2016. His messaging is permeated with divisive language that galvanizes core supporters more than it persuades anyone on the fence, much less on the other side.
That social media advertising aimed at older voters heavily emphasizes nativist themes. And indeed, the key to all this is how that plays into the electoral college.
Even some Republicans admit to this. Several of them recently told the Washington Examiner that they fully expect Trump to lose the popular vote but are banking on him winning via the electoral college.
An electoral college win is a win, of course, but what’s notable about all this is that, in Trump’s apparent view (whether by instinct or design is hard to say), it requires telegraphing to his base that he’s essentially not functioning as president for other groups.
Take Trump’s ongoing attacks on Omar. He remains unrepentant about the fact that his monumentally dishonest video on her 9/11 remarks — which was plainly intended to foment hate against Muslims — appears to have inspired death threats against her. Asked recently whether those threats had given him “second thoughts” about the video, Trump replied: “No, not at all.”
On display here again is Trump’s utter refusal to accept any institutional obligation to use his bully pulpit to calm his supporters down about Omar, if only to reassure U.S. Muslims. We saw the same after the Charlottesville violence: Trump refused to unambiguously condemn white supremacy, disregarding any obligation to speak to the whole country in a unifying way.
Again and again and again, reporting has confirmed that Trump has conceived of his most widely hated and polarizing policies as gestures his base will love, whether it’s the horrific family separations, pardoning racist Joe Arpaio or attacking African American football players.
Trump would perhaps prefer to win a popular majority outright — and he still very well might — but it’s obvious the campaign sees an electoral college win amid a popular-vote loss as its most likely path to victory. As Joshua Green and Sahil Kapur report, such a win runs through incredibly juiced-up energy among non-college-educated whites in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Given Trump’s travails (in part due to trade) in those states, cranking up the anti-immigrant energy is the way to make it happen.
Trump will fight to keep tax returns secret
On another front, The Post reports this about Trump:
He is particularly angry about the efforts by the Ways and Means Committee to obtain his tax returns, telling aides he will fight that demand all the way to the Supreme Court and adding that, by then, the 2020 election will be over.
The case for getting Trump’s tax returns should be a legal slam dunk, but Trump’s allies have not even remotely given up on the possibility that the Supreme Court could rule that the law empowering Congress to do this is unconstitutional. Trump is either hoping for that, or hoping the courts string this along until after his reelection.
Once again, what’s crucial here is that Trump recognizes no institutional obligation of any kind to disclose his tax returns as a gesture of transparency to the American people that they are entitled to from their public officials — an obligation recognized by previous presidents for decades.
Similarly, it’s perfectly plausible that Trump’s handpicked attorney general, William P. Barr, could fight Democratic efforts to get the full Mueller report all the way to the Supreme Court. We don’t know if that’ll work, but at a minimum Trump is plainly betting that a sustained court battle will dissipate the ultimate impact of the full findings. Yet again, there’s zero sense that the American people might be entitled to a full report on a foreign attack on our democracy.
Trump’s voters don’t care if those things never come to light. And that’s all that matters. Indeed, fighting the release of those things, it is said, will energize them. It’s often observed that Trump is a minority president. But it’s worse: Deliberately functioning as a minority president is itself the long-term survival strategy.