Last year, when he was preparing to deliver his first speech to Congress, President Trump reminded his staff that he had consistently delighted crowds with his racist diatribes. “Acting as if he was at a rally, he then read aloud a few made-up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, like rape or murder,” reports the Washington Post today, reconstructing the scene. “Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country — as they did when he highlighted crimes by illegal immigrants at his rallies.”
When we invoke Trump as a populist figure, this is the kind of dynamic we envision — the demagogue whipping up his base by unleashing primal forces that a more principled politician would hesitate to exploit. And yet the revulsion created by the political spectacle, and the horrifying human costs of its implementation, has obscured the reality that Trump’s immigration policy is a total failure. It is not merely destroying the lives of its targets, it is failing to carry out its intended goals or to help Trump at all.
The Post story also provides more details of a meeting earlier this spring, one which has been widely reported on before. In it, Trump berated Homeland Security Director Kirstjen Nielsen for more than 30 minutes over her failure to secure the border. Illegal crossings are rising again — a reversal that, the Post notes, “has stripped the president of one of his proudest accomplishments — the sharp drop in illegal migration in the months immediately following his 2016 win.” Immigration hawks — Trump’s most natural allies — are despondent. Naturally, Trump has no no grasp of the policy details and simply rages at his subordinates.
Trump’s public message is hardly cheerier than his private assessment. Watch this short clip of Trump giving a softball interview to Fox News. He is denouncing the system as a failure and a joke:
“We have the worst immigration laws in the entire world by far. Other countries laugh at us” is a fine message for a challenger. It’s an awful message for an incumbent. Trump tries at the end to pawn this off on the opposition. (“It’s because of the Democrats, it’s because of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.”) But there’s not much record of presidents successfully blaming the minority party for the failures that occurred on their own watch.
The attendant harm of Trump’s policy is undeniable. Indeed, while the human toll of the cruelty has horrified immigration-rights activists, the political fallout may ultimately spread far more widely than the current political headlines indicate. Trump has unleashed border agents and goaded them into vicious and frequently illegal enforcement, with inhuman consequences. They are tearing children from the arms of their parents, and losing track of the children they seize.
If you are so cynical as to assume white voters are simply too racist to care, think again. The visceral power of harm to children and families can overcome deep-rooted racism. In the early and mid-19th century, abolitionists emphasized how slavery tore apart African-American families, causing revulsion among white northerners who were assuredly quite racist on the whole. The emotional power of the stories of families torn apart by Trump’s policy has an unknown, but vast, potential.
Against this negative ledger, what positive can Trump point to? He has mused publicly about making a deal to protect the Dreamers, but after briefly striking such a bargain, he blew it up. He has no plan to obtain funding for The Wall from Congress, let alone Mexico. The Post notes, with hilarious understatement, that Trump “has also blamed [Nielsen], at times, for not securing enough money to finish the border wall — even though she was not part of the spending deal struck by senior White House aides and that the president signed.” Right, it’s not the Homeland Security director who bungled budget negotiations with Congress — it’s Trump.
The general operating method of Republican politics is to use ethnonationalist resentment to generate support for elite-driven anti-government policy. That is, there is one basket of issues Republicans use to harvest votes — talking tough against communists or terrorists; defending the flag; posturing against criminals; getting tough on welfare cheats — and then the different basket of policy objectives they spend their political capital on — tax cuts for the rich, deregulation for business. We have implicitly slotted Trump’s border demagoguery in the former category. But there’s little reason to believe this particular form of populism is actually popular.