The people who didn’t want television networks to cede time the other night to the president of the United States were implicitly giving Donald Trump a credit that he does not deserve. There is a kind of silver-tongued orator who can persuade in any situation, who like Caesar’s Mark Antony can find a crowd leaning one way and leave them stirred up for the opposite cause. But that is not our president: His rhetoric is a bludgeon, and what we saw Tuesday was just an attempt to club his enemies and critics with the same arguments he has made a thousand times before.
In fairness to Trump, the immigration bludgeon was effective once — for two reasons that played out in surprising ways across the 2016 campaign. First, Trump-the-candidate’s dire warnings about criminals and terrorists crossing the Southern border dovetailed with two 2016-specific trends — the spike in violent crime after decades of decline and the rash of Islamic State-inspired attacks on both sides of the Atlantic.
Second, the extremity of his rhetoric persuaded skeptics of mass immigration, long burned by politicians of both parties, that Trump would not betray them. In a political landscape where every year seemed to bring a new bipartisan push for amnesties and immigration increases, his xenophobic style was an effective political marker for anyone with inchoate anxieties about immigration. You did not have to literally believe that he would build the Wall and make Mexico pay for it to regard that wild promise as evidence that he would be more genuinely restrictionist than politicians merely paying lip service to “border security.”
But the problem for Trump is that presidents have to deal with changing circumstances, not just fulminate in the same style regardless of the context. And the world of 2019 looks different from the world in which he campaigned. The crime rate did not keep rising, the pace of terror attacks has not quickened and fate has given him an immigration crisis that is substantially different from the crisis of murderers and terror plotters that he invoked in his campaign rhetoric — a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of families and children, in which the problem is not the people whom we can’t catch crossing the borders but the people who surrender willingly, hoping to exploit our overstrained asylum system and disappear with their kids into the American interior.
A more supple strategist and orator might have been able to adapt tough-guy proposals to this complicated new reality, and in the process to exploit the Democrats’ core vulnerability — their difficulty figuring out exactly what kind of deportation policies, if any, their base will allow them to support.
Such an adaptation would have involved making two arguments in parallel. First, Trump could have argued that 15 years of increased spending on border security — walls and fencing and other barriers very much included — has played a big role in reducing the old kind of illegal immigration, in which single young men cross the border looking for work. My proposed wall, really an expansion of steel fencing, would build on this success, he could have said, and build on policies that Democrats once voted for, in order to make sure the old rates of illegal immigration don’t come back.
Then, second, he could have explained the new challenge of family migration, admitted to mistakes (I know, imagine that) in the child separation policy of 2018 and emphasized that he is asking for more money and various legal and administrative changes to ensure that inhumane conditions can be improved, that families can be kept together, that the system can adjudicate, process and deport without last year’s performative cruelty. He could have even talked about the attempts at deal making with Mexico, the attempt at a bilateral arrangement that our southern neighbor would keep migrants on its territory while they applied for asylum on ours.
If you parsed Tuesday night’s 10 minutes of presidential words carefully enough, you could find fragments of these arguments — but only fragments, shored around an argumentative edifice that was just the same old 2016-vintage Trumpian warnings about how (to quote Vox’s Dara Lind) “immigrants are coming across the border to kill you.”
And this argument just does not match up with the news that most Americans consume. There is no rising immigrant crime wave, no wave of terror attacks by border jumpers, the immigrant caravan did not end in bloodshed and the dominant images from the current border crisis are pictures of exhausted parents and frightened, incomprehending kids.
So what we heard from the president was a play to people deep in the Trumpian bubble, a pledge to his electoral rump that he is still fighting the fights he promised two years ago even if the facts on the ground require a somewhat different strategy.
Where the rest of the country was concerned, including many voters a more effective president would be trying to win over or win back, it was almost certainly just a waste of breath.