by Neil H. Buchanan
Fifteen days ago, I left the United States to attend academic engagements in Toronto and Vienna. In that time, there have been at least four enormous political stories, each of which erased all discussion of the previous enormous story:
(1) Donald Trump's damaging, childish stunts at the G-7 meeting in Quebec,
(2) Trump's meeting with Kim Jong-Un, which elevated North Korea's international status and downplayed Kim's brutal dictatorship,
(3) the Inspector General's report that undercut every Trump talking point about the Russia investigation (but that Trump and his people are predictably lying about),
and now (4) the disastrous human rights crisis that Trump's (in)Justice Department has created by separating children from their parents at the U.S. border.
There have, of course, also been big stories about various Supreme Court decisions and other issues. Before the next big outrage comes along (most likely when the Supreme Court destroys public employee unions and/or blesses Trump's Muslim ban), I thought I would take a few moments to comment on how the "children ripped from their parents' arms" story is likely to play out.
Bottom line: It will not end badly for Trump, which means that it will end badly.
One notable aspect of Trump's new zero-tolerance border policy is the appropriately outraged reaction from even weak-kneed liberals. There is, of course, a cottage industry of nervous scolds in the major newspapers who fret about, say, whether Robert DeNiro
should have used the f-bomb at an awards ceremony, as if all of the world's problems are somehow made worse by liberals being impolite to the
people who are supporting a not-at-all-subtle march toward dictatorship.
Now, however, even career lightweights like NYT columnist Frank Bruni are sounding the alarm. Bruni actually accused the Trump Administration of "taking hostages" when Trump said that he would keep up the horrifying (and completely optional) family separation policy unless Congress acceded to his demands to restrict immigration (and, of course, pay for his wasteful and pointless wall).
Bruni's normally pearl-clutching counterpart at The Washington Post, Aaron Blake, decided to go for even more aggressive rhetoric, writing that a speech on Tuesday "made clear that Trump is holding a knife to Congress's throat."
It is nice that these men are finally using strong words, although it must be noted that this is all in a context in which even many Republicans are making public statements opposing Trump's awful policy. Profiles in courage, this is not.
Now that the public conversation includes accurate descriptions of Trump's policy as hostage-taking, I could not help but think about the years during which Professor Dorf and I were writing about the debt ceiling. Back then, we were among those who regularly likened Republicans' threats not to increase the debt ceiling -- which was a threat to create a completely unnecessary economic and constitutional crisis -- to the taking of hostages. We were hardly the only people to use that terminology.
Of course, Republicans insisted that they were offended by the very idea that they were taking hostages, but how else could one describe it? "Do what we want, or we'll gratuitously harm innocent victims." It is one thing to play hardball in negotiations and insist on concessions in exchange for one's own concessions, but holding out by threatening to blow everything up is not hardball. It truly is hostage taking.
It was possible for Republicans to try to deny the reality of their hostage-taking in large part because the harm was hypothetical. No one could get their head around the notion of a debt ceiling-induced crisis, and Republicans could thus piously claim to be concerned about "excessive debt" -- which, of course, the debt ceiling in no way controls, even if the debt were excessive (which it was not at the time) -- rather than admitting that they were threatening Armageddon in order to advance their reactionary agenda.
Notably, the difference now is not simply that there are children involved. During the Obama-era budget wars, I reluctantly (but emphatically) took to describing congressional Republicans as sociopaths, and the moment that pushed me over the top in reaching that conclusion was when I learned that the second-ranking Republican in the House insisted that any budget deal include cuts in nutrition programs for the poor (most of which are aimed at helping poor children).
This was not even a matter of saying, "Well, we reluctantly have to cut those funds to save money, but we'd be happy to be shown other possible cuts that would be less cruel." Republicans actually specifically demanded that cuts to nutrition programs be part of a budget deal. This is cruelty for its own sake.
Which brings us back to Trump's family separation policies. There, the difference is that the damage is neither hypothetical nor hidden (How would a news report show a family not receiving a nutritional supplement every month?), and even Republicans who have happily voted over and over again to harm children are suddenly worried about the public backlash to Trump's policy. Crying children are difficult to ignore, and they change the political landscape.
As of this writing, the Trump Administration has effectively admitted that it was lying all along when it claimed that it had no choice but to separate migrant families (and that it was somehow the Democrats' fault). The new policy, however, appears to be little more than an effort to change the narrative without actually changing course. Rather than splitting up families, Trump will now send intact families to prisons for unspecified periods of time. (And, of course, Republicans will refuse to spend money to make these prisons livable.)
Compare this to Trump's claim of a "win" on North Korea. There, he had spent months whipping up the threat of nuclear war, and now he wants a Nobel prize simply for putting things back to where they were before he began pushing us toward disaster. Yes, he made matters worse by legitimating the Kim regime, by undercutting and ignoring South Korea's government, and by making it clear how much he loves dictators. We are not at the status quo ante in the larger scheme of things, but on the fundamental question of nuclear war, our sense of relief should not blot out the memory of why things were spinning out of control in the first place.
By contrast, the slight improvement in the border policy still leaves matters much, much worse than they were two months ago. Who knows how many of the families that Trump (and his eager attack dog, Attorney General Jeff Sessions) separated will actually be reunited? What happens when we reach the 20-day limit on the amount of time that children can be held in detention? Even so, the current story seems to be playing out so that Trump can say, "Problem solved!"
Let us, however, imagine that my most cynical predictions do not come true. Suppose that the political conversation continues to focus on the gratuitous cruelty that Trump and Sessions have gleefully inflicted on people, and suppose further that public opinion polls show Trump's popularity dropping and Republicans' fortunes in this year's midterm elections sinking.
The one thing we know about the Trump era is that his support exhibits a shockingly reliable reversion toward the mean. The obvious examples are the Access Hollywood tape and the post-Charlottesville "very fine people on both sides" outrage. In both instances, Trump looked horrible and even some Republicans in elective office began to move away from him. In the end, however, time passed and everyone went back to where they started.
And we have every reason to think that this will happen again. It is not that there will be no erosion of Trump's support in the immediate future but simply that there will again be reversion to the mean, as the people who support him but still feel occasionally embarrassed about doing so find their way home.
Yet another study was announced yesterday showing that Trump's support (among white evangelicals in this case) is not based on "economic anxiety" but instead arises from an all-out panic about "losing racial status." That is not going to change merely because of a temporary controversy about mostly non-white (non-American) children, no matter how cruelly Trump treats them.
Among all of these cynical thoughts, I have saved the most mundane -- but still somehow the most worrisome -- for last. In a Dorf on Law column last month, I described how the desultory horse-race mindset of the political press in the U.S. all but guarantees that Trump will receive positive coverage at least some of the time. This is because so much of the reporting describes trends in polling, where the "news" is the latest slight movement in support for Trump, even though that support remains at historically low levels (which has been true for as long as Trump has been president, making it non-news).
Therefore, even if Trump's support temporarily craters because of the latest outrages, and even if Republicans look increasingly vulnerable in the midterms because of public revulsion, the news will move along relatively soon. When the Trump/Republican poll numbers eventually recover -- even a little bit -- we can be sure that the political reporters at the major papers and on cable news will be touting the "good news" for Republicans.
If I am right about that, then the future of democracy in the U.S. might actually come down to the luck of timing. If something happens shortly before the midterms that pushes a few percent of voters away from the Republicans, Democrats will win. But if that bit of bad news happens too soon, the spin will be all about Republicans "surging" or some such thing in late October and early November.
That next bad thing might be further horrors on the immigration front, or it might be something else entirely. Based on the pace of news that we have seen recently, we can count on many such outrages between now and Election Day. Each time, Trump's support -- not just among voters but among congressional Republicans -- will waver and then recover. And each time, the recovery will be taken as validation for Trump.
As the title of this column advertised, this is a glum prediction. At this point, however, it is difficult to see how our political dynamic will play out in any other way.