In almost any sport, there comes a time in the dwindling minutes when a losing team has to start making otherwise ill-advised desperation plays. In football, it’s the onside kick and the hail mary pass; in hockey, it’s pulling the goalie; in basketball, it’s quick fouls and long-shot three pointers. It does work every so often or teams wouldn’t do it. But most of the time it only ends up making matters worse, embarrassing the losing side and rendering the final score even more lopsided than it would otherwise have been.
Donald Trump’s latest maneuvers have a similar whiff of desperation to them, and they are backfiring in similar ways. Trump is well aware of his personal and political peril: the Mueller investigation is closing in on targets ever nearer to the president and his family, his longtime consigliere seems almost ready to turn state’s evidence, his businesses and organizations are being sued, and his cabinet is a hotbed of corruption. Just as Trump has always had to stay a step ahead of his creditors and his victims to avoid disaster throughout his career, so too must he avoid accountability from Congress in the form of investigations and possible impeachment. That means ensuring Republicans stay in control of both the House (where Republicans are actively obstructing justice to protect him from real congressional inquiries) and the Senate (which ultimately has the power to remove him from office pending impeachment in the lower chamber.) Things look dire for the president on that front, with Democrats maintaining a significant edge in generic congressional polling matchup.
Stripped of its ugly racism and human rights abuses, that’s ultimately what is driving Trump’s disastrous family separation policy and subsequent reluctant reversal. Trump needs to motivate his base, and he knows that his base wants the border wall above all else. He needs it desperately. Much as Andrew Sullivan seems to have missed it, Democrats have for years been willing to negotiate with Republicans on stricter border security measures in exchange for reasonable immigration reforms–including granting Trump large amounts of funding for his wall. But immigration hardliners like Steve King and Stephen Miller won’t make the necessary concessions.
So with November and a dispirited Republican base barreling down at him, Trump decided to make the same play that desperate bank robbers do: he took hostages. Like a classic mob protection racket, he calculated that Democrats would have enough heartbroken empathy for children ripped from their parents’ arms that they would give Trump all his border wall funding and other concessions just to bring an end to the pain and suffering.
Trump is an ignorant fool by most measures, but he does have a keen gut feel for shifting political winds. He must have sensed the danger in the move and the potential for universal moral condemnation on all sides, but the peril of his situation demanded that he take the risk. It backfired badly.
Like a hockey team victimized again by an empty-net goal and compelled to reinsert the keeper, Trump was forced to pull back where normally he would double- and triple down. But to save face, he lurched forward with an embarrassing attempt to reframe the conversation to victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. But that only earned him tepid coverage even in the right-wing media, and nearly horrified looks from anyone else insofar as they even noticed. After all, undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at lower rates than citizens do, and Trump couldn’t help embarrassing himself again by tactlessly signing autographs on the photographs of the very victims whose bloody shirts he was trying to wave.
Now, just a few days after insisting that Republicans take up immigration legislation, Trump has again reversed course, insisting that Republicans wait until after the midterms. But that would only make sense if Trump thought Republicans were going to win a significant number of seats in November, which he must know isn’t going to happen.
But it’s important to remember that Trump’s proclamatory missives aren’t meant for the country as a whole, or for his opponents or even his allies in Washington. They’re for his base, the people who attend his rallies, the deplorables on whom he is depending to flood the polls in November. That’s why he’s bizarrely tweeting about a “red wave”: not because there is any real indication of such a thing, but because he believes that the best way of creating one is through sheer magical realist willpower.
Are these gambits reckless and counterproductive? Certainly, in a normal political sense. But hail mary passes and onside kicks are bad football strategy in a normal football sense, too, until time starts running out on the losing team.
Time is running out on Trump and his party as we approach a midterm election that seems likely to go against him. That in turns means the plays he will calls will likely become even more bizarre and heedless in the months ahead.