For weeks before the midterm elections, President Trump warned ominously about the threat from a caravan of migrants streaming from Central America toward Mexico’s border with the United States. It was a fearsome mix of criminals and “unknown Middle Easterners,” Mr. Trump claimed darkly, one that constituted a genuine national emergency.
But since the election last week, Mr. Trump has tweeted about the caravan exactly once — to issue a proclamation preventing those who cross the border illegally from applying for asylum in the United States. Fox News, which faithfully amplified Mr. Trump’s warnings about the migrants, has gone similarly quiet on the subject.
There was little dispute, even before Election Day, that Mr. Trump was exploiting the caravan for political purposes. But analysts, historians and veterans of previous administrations said there were few comparable instances of a commander in chief warning about what he called a looming threat, only to drop it as soon as people voted.
While the caravan has faded from television screens, the costs of Mr. Trump’s response to it have not. Nearly 6,000 active-duty troops remain deployed from the Gulf Coast to Southern California, where they are putting up tents and stringing concertina wire to face a ragtag band that is still not near the border.
“Now that the political utility of troops on the southern border to face a fictitious caravan invasion threat is over,” said Adm. James G. Stavridis, a former commander of the military’s Southern Command, “let’s hope the president will stand down the troops so they can be with their families — especially over the holidays.”
But some officials in the Defense Department worry that Mr. Trump could do the opposite — seek an exception to the Posse Comitatus Act, the 1878 law that prohibits the government from using active-duty troops to enforce laws inside the country’s borders.
.. voters who made up their minds in the last three days before the election said they voted for Democrats over Republicans 53 percent to 41 percent. That coincides with the period in which Mr. Trump redoubled his focus on the caravan, rejecting the advice of aides who wanted to air a commercial promoting the healthy economy.
.. At one campaign rally after another, Mr. Trump said the election came down to “the caravan, law and order, and common sense.” In Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 19, he said: “You got some bad people in those groups. You got some tough people in those groups. And I’ll tell you what — this country doesn’t want them. O.K.? We don’t want them.”
.. A day earlier, he tweeted about the “assault on our country at our Southern Border, including the Criminal elements and DRUGS pouring in.”
Mr. Trump posted footage of an undocumented immigrant on trial for killing a police officer, and his campaign organization produced an ad featuring migrants trying to scale a wall to dramatize the stakes of the election.
“I’ve never before seen an American president, after going all over the country about this national crisis, then the day after an election shrug,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University.
The closest parallel that Mr. Brinkley drew was to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who seized on — and mischaracterized — two murky encounters between American and North Vietnamese warships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 as a pretext to accelerate America’s engagement in the Vietnam War. Still, he said, Mr. Trump’s response was of a different order.
“It was a dangerous form of xenophobia, aimed solely for electoral purposes and had nothing to do in the end with real national security,” Mr. Brinkley said.
For the troops, so far, it has mostly been an expensive field trip. The cost of the deployment is not known, but budget officials believe it could reach $200 million if all 15,000 troops that Mr. Trump pledged are ultimately sent.
.. Defenders of Mr. Trump said the troops would take little notice of his sudden lack of emphasis on the caravan.
“Knowing the troops, knowing how busy they are, they’re not focused on him,” said Jack Keane, a retired four-star general who is a former vice chief of staff of the Army. “They’ve got a job to do.”
But other former military officers said the soldiers were well aware of the political motivation behind their mission. Lacking much else to do, they will quickly pick up on Mr. Trump’s loss of interest in the caravan, and it will add to their already depleted morale.
Stephen Miller’s Biggest Gamble Yet
With less than a week to go before the midterm elections, President Donald Trump is warning darkly of an imminent immigrant “invasion,” deploying thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, releasing a racist ad on Twitter, and threatening to issue an executive order aimed at ending birthright citizenship.
The president has, in pundit-speak, found his “closing argument” for the 2018 campaign season.
Indeed, many savvy observers in recent weeks have interpreted Trump’s efforts to inflame national tensions around immigration as a desperate, last-ditch ploy to save his party’s at-risk congressional majorities. But while the president himself may be acting on some mix of impulse and improv, the roots of the strategy go deeper—and its architects in the West Wing are looking far beyond the current election cycle.
To understand the thinking behind Trump’s gambit, it is necessary to spend a few minutes inside the head of Stephen Miller, the 33-year-old speechwriter and senior policy adviser to the president. A fierce immigration hawk who’s championed a right-wing nationalist agenda, Miller is Trump’s most trusted adviser on immigration, and he is constantly looking for new ways to push his policy priorities into the national spotlight. Earlier this year, it was reported that Miller was leading an effort within the administration to crack down on immigrants in the run-up to the midterms. And as Politico reported Wednesday, Trump’s latest string of provocations—from the immigrant-caravan scaremongering to the likely unconstitutional executive order—represents a “dream come true” for Miller.
According to Miller, Trump benefits politically any time Americans are focused on immigration—no matter how bad the headlines, no matter how bleak the polls, no matter how big the controversy. “You have one party that’s in favor of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border,” he told The New York Times earlier this year. “And all day long the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit. Not 55–45. 60–40. 70–30. 80–20. I’m talking 90–10 on that.”.. Even setting aside the hyperbole, this view of the electorate is debatable. (Voters seem to have given Trump mixed reviews on his handling of the caravan, for example.) But it’s still worth understanding how Miller lays out his political calculus. While he may be a committed ideologue, he works for and with a lot of Republicans who are guided more by opportunism than by ironclad conviction when it comes to immigration. The long-term relevance of his sharply nativist politics within the GOP will depend in part on the Miller faction’s ability to keep selling it as a winning strategy (even in the face of evidence to the contrary)... “The future of the Republican Party should be tapping into … the feeling of belonging and meaning and pride that comes with being part of this whole ‘America First’ movement,” he told me. “There’s something really beautiful about people from all different walks of life … who are bound together by this big idea about American identity, and American unity, and American interests.”.. Continuing in concern-troll mode, Miller said, “I think one of the big challenges facing modern liberalism is that there’s not a great emotional appeal to an international identity, like a citizen-of-the-world identity.”.. “Look, the current nation-state model is the product of thousands of years of political, social, and cultural evolution,” Miller said. “I mean, it was only recently, in like the last few decades, that people have tried to create an organizing principle larger than the nation-state.” The desire to root for your own native country is “intrinsic” to human nature, he told me. “You see that flag, you sing the national anthem, or you hear your team wins the gold medal … it creates a kind of pride in you that is really hard to translate.”.. “Find today your most liberal friend, and ask them this question: Who has more of a right to a job in America—a U.S. citizen, or an illegal immigrant? And if they don’t say U.S. citizen like that”—Miller snapped his fingers—“then that means on some philosophical level they find the idea of America First objectionable.”.. “But the idea of having official membership in the nation-state, and therefore that state has an obligation to protect you”—that was the big idea he believed voters would keep coming back for. Voters feel that connection at a visceral level, Miller suggested, and in the end they would always side with a president offering that appeal.
Hoping for a Midterm Split Decision
The conservative case for a Republican Senate and a Democratic House.
.. Let me suggest a third option. If you are a conservative who is moderately happy with some of Trump’s policy steps, fearful of liberalism in full power, but also fearful of Trump untrammeled and triumphant, the sensible thing to root for — and vote for — is the outcome that appears most likely at the moment: A Republican majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
.. The best argument for conservative support for Donald Trump was always defensive: Elect him and you prevent the installation of a long-term liberal majority on the Supreme Court, and perhaps chasten the Democratic Party and arrest its leftward march.
For that argument to persuade, you had to trust the institutional Republican Party’s promise to contain Trump’s authoritarian instincts and restrain his follies. You also had to downplay the long-term damage, to conservatism and the body politic, of putting someone with such poisonous rhetorical habits in the bully pulpit.
.. so far Trump has been more constrained and less destructive than I expected — his foreign policy less destabilizing (so far) than either of his predecessors, his cruelest policy instincts walked back under pressure, the country more prosperous, his appointments more responsible and a large-scale investigation into his possible crimes proceeding, beset by Trumpian insults but otherwise mostly unimpeded by the White House.
To the extent that any Republicans deserve credit for this constraint, though, they are mostly elected Republicans in the Senate. The House is more pure, uncut MAGA, more reflexive in its defense of a president whose behavior is often indefensible, more poisoned by the worst Trumpist tendencies (witness the steady migration of the Iowa congressman Steve King toward an overt white nationalism) and more inclined to allow Trump a free hand should he seek to make his actual presidency exactly like his Twitter feed.
.. So a Democratic House would supply a much more effective check on that temptation, along with more vigorous scrutiny of corruption in the White House, about which congressional Republicans have been studiously incurious. And it would offer that check without jeopardizing any potential conservative legislative achievements — because, let’s be frank, the congressional G.O.P. isn’t going to do anything serious with its power if it gets re-elected except confirm judges, and you don’t need the House to elevate Amy Coney Barrett if there’s one more high court vacancy.
.. for the genuinely populist sort for conservative (that is, the best kind), having a Democratic House might force Trump himself back toward the economic populism of his campaign, which he mostly abandoned but has suddenly remembered in the last days before the midterms, talking up a phantom middle-class tax cut and proposing an “America First” approach to drug pricing.Given the more favorable Senate map and the possibility of a recession, Democrats can reasonably hope to retake the upper chamber in the next four years no matter what. And it will go much worse for the right if that Democratic majority has 60 seats in that scenario as opposed to 52 — something that will be determined by this fall’s election as much as by what happens two or four years hence.
Of course, if you’re a Trump skeptic who believes that only an earth-salting defeat will enable the re-emergence of a decent right, then trying to constrain a future liberalism will seem less important than rooting for the necessary disaster to arrive for Republicans today. But I don’t think our polarized system lends itself to salt-the-earth defeats anymore, and I also don’t think that parties necessarily emerge from them wiser than before — since in such defeats they’re condensed to their more fervent and often foolish core.
In Illinois, Obama Hits the Midterm Campaign Trail—and Trump
Fascist politics bear particular and notably contradictory hallmarks:
- ideas of equality are used to cloak discrimination;
- demands for “law and order” camouflage growing corruption and official lawlessness.
Those descriptions are increasingly applicable to the current state of affairs in the United States, and, more extraordinarily, they mirror Obama’s comments at Urbana-Champaign. “Demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems,” he said.
- “They promise to fight for the little guy even as they cater to the wealthiest and the most powerful.
- They promise to clean up corruption, then plunder away.
- They start undermining the norms that insure accountability, try to change the rules to entrench their power further.
- And they appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all.”