To rile up his legions, Trump went back to basics. It is vile and unforgivable that Trump would separate thousands of children from their families just to display his power over the powerless. But it is not surprising.
Trump launched his run for president in 2015 by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” He began his campaign to survive the midterm election by referring to members of the MS-13 criminal gang as “animals” and attacking anyone who dared defend the gang members’ status as human beings. In recent days, echoing language used in the past to incite pogroms and genocides, Trump has accused migrants of coming across the border to “invade” and “infest” the country. He portrayed the anguish of parents whose children were ripped away as “phony stories of sadness and grief.”
Trump says he wants to put the focus on immigration. Democrats “just want to use this issue” of family separations, he said Saturday at the Nevada Republican Party convention, but “I like the issue for [the] election, too. Our issue is strong borders, no crime. Their issue is open borders, get MS-13 all over our country.”
It is foolish to underestimate the power of Trump’s lies — even the deranged claim that Democrats are somehow in league with a violent street gang. Like all successful demagogues, Trump has a talent for identifying scapegoats. It is not hyperbole to say that he speaks of Latino immigrants in much the same way that European monsters once spoke of Jews.
It is equally foolish, however, to look past a sign that all is not well in Trumpland and that the president is rattled: He backed down.
Trump was forced to meekly end the sadistic practice of seizing and shipping away the children of migrants caught crossing the border without papers. He vowed to continue the “zero tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting every single border-crosser, but this will mean holding families together for indefinite periods of time in what amount to internment camps.
Trump seems to know that this will not play well in the courts of law or public opinion. He announced his preferred solution Sunday on Twitter:
“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents . . . ”
Translation: no judges, no courts, no due process. Please. And pay no attention to those children torn away from their families.
On Monday, Trump once again tweeted his wish that migrants who cross the border could be summarily expelled. “Hiring manythousands [sic] of judges, and going through a long and complicated legal process, is not the way to go - will always be disfunctional [sic],” the president wrote. It was more than a frustrated lament for unchallenged executive power; it was an acknowledgment that “zero tolerance” is a logistical nightmare that cannot work.
Trump has to wonder if even his staunchest supporters have the stomach for the kind of cruelty inherent in the family separations and the detention camps. He has to worry that his latest anti-immigration gambit is doing more to energize and mobilize anti-Trump political forces than the “Make America Great Again” crowd. He has to realize that it is hard to whip up punitive anger toward crying children — and that even his great skill at lying is not enough to obscure the truth of a mother’s tears.
And he has to know that backing down is a betrayal of his carefully cultivated brand of damn-the-torpedoes toughness. Who’s the snowflake now?
This was supposed to be a “good” crisis in which only some desperate Central Americans got hurt. Demonizing immigrants has always worked for Trump in the past, but he has to be deeply worried that it’s not working now.