The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott served up an interesting analysis on Tuesday suggesting that whenever President Trump feels frustrated, or not in control of the political narrative, he will take action on trade or immigration. Plott argues that this explains last week’s threat to impose tariffs against Mexico unless they took action to stem the tide of asylum seekers crossing the border. Trade and immigration? That is Trump’s sweet spot:
While his tariff announcement was in many ways a surprise, it also had a tinge of inevitability. According to current and former aides, who requested anonymity to speak freely, when Trump feels he has lost control of the narrative, he grasps at two issues: border security and trade. Those aides said he sees these topics as reset buttons, ways to rile both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and draw attention away from whatever dumpster fire is blazing in a given week. “Whenever a negative story comes around, his instinct is to pivot to immigration or trade,” a senior campaign adviser told me. “It’s kind of like his safety blanket. He knows that Fox and conservative media will immediately coalesce and change what the base is talking about.”
That tactic often works: By the end of a week in which the lies of the White House’s representation of the Mueller report became more apparent than ever, reporters, pundits, and the stock market were all responding instead to Trump’s latest attempt to curb immigration at the southern border. (The Dow Jones closed Friday at four-month lows in response to the tariffs.)
Now there are multiple ways to react to this line of thinking. I suppose Plott is correct to point out that Trump can shift the narrative by pivoting to these issues. At the same time, this sounds an awful lot like the Mendoza Doctrine, a term that I have just coined in honor of Jason Mendoza, a character on “The Good Place.” To understand the doctrine, watch this clip:
There is no denying that whenever Trump has a political problem, he escalates on trade or immigration and boom, right away, he creates a different problem. Is it a better problem, though?
On trade, at least, it sure seems like the answer is no. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been arguing for some time that Trump’s position on trade policy was never popular and has grown less popular during his presidency. As Bloomberg’s Joshua Green notes, few of his trade moves have boosted his support:
[Trump’s] protectionist trade policies haven’t produced the kind of political boost in critical swing states that his backers are depending on. “Voter approval on trade policy appears to be no higher in key competitive states than in other states,” Goldman finds, “and overall presidential approval in those states has declined by more than the national average.”
One reason why Trump’s trade policies haven’t lifted his approval rating is that, aside from the original $50 billion of tariffs on Chinese imports announced last June, voters have on balance disfavored every one of his subsequent trade actions, including recent tariffs on China. ... Voters’ disapproval is particularly severe when it comes to tariffs targeting U.S. allies such as Canada and Mexico.
While the Goldman study doesn’t take into account Trump’s newest threat against Mexico or the possibility of penalties on Australian aluminum, there are several reasons to believe both acts would be highly unpopular.
Even GOP senators appear to be tiring of the trade wars. Trump White House officials who attended Tuesday’s GOP Senate meeting got an earful, and then reporters got even more of an earful afterward. Politico’s Burgess Everett and James Arkin reported some juicy quotes, including Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) accusing the administration of “trying to use tariffs to solve every problem but HIV and climate change” and Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) saying “a lot of Republican members of the Senate are tariff weary. It’s like, anything but tariffs.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell concluded, “There is not much support in my conference for tariffs, that’s for sure.”
I do wonder, however, whether immigration might prove to bolster Trump’s support, thought not for the reason he thinks.
Fifteen years ago, during the 2004 campaign, I suggested that the deteriorating situation in Iraq perversely helped George W. Bush: “Ordinarily, presidents are rewarded for doing their jobs well. In Bush’s case, however, quiet in Iraq would allow Americans to focus on their pocketbooks. ... The latest Gallup poll shows a 54 percent disapproval rating on Bush’s handling of the economy. Bush’s best hope for reelection is for the electorate to focus on his leadership abilities — and one way for that to happen is for there to be trouble in Iraq.”
The economy now is better than it was in 2004, but that has not been reflected in Trump’s approval numbers. Instead, people seem pretty dissatisfied with Trump’s toddler-like style of leadership. One wonders, therefore, if the same dynamic will play out for Trump on immigration. Much like Bush with the Iraq War, it is hard to deny that Trump’s approach to immigration has made the situation worse on the southern border. Nonetheless, there is also a real crisis there, and Americans believe immigration to be one of the most important policy issues facing the country. Unless Democrats can proffer a coherent and credible plan about what to do on the southern border, then Trump will be able to own this issue.
Trump has precipitated the current immigration crisis. But he also claims that he can fix it. Democrats seem reluctant to even discuss the issue. Until that changes, it is not insane for Trump to think of this topic as his political security blanket.