On December 7, 2015, Iowa’s Monmouth University released its latest poll of the Iowa primary. For the first time, Ted Cruz had pulled ahead of Donald Trump. This followed a series of weeks in which Cruz seemed to be surging and Trump seemed to be having trouble retaining his hammerlock on media coverage. And so later that day, Trump stepped before the cameras and, in an unusually formal statement, wrenched back control of the narrative:
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” he said.
Trump’s sentiment may have been sincere. But the timing reflected a broader political problem Trump faced. His anti-immigrant statements had ceased to shock. The media was covering his opponents. He had to do something shocking enough, severe enough, offensive enough, to recapture the public’s attention. Pivoting from Mexicans to Muslims was his solution.
“As the political establishment (and political press) has become frankly desperate to stop paying attention to him,” wrote Dara Lind, “he's started replacing some of his anti-Latino rhetoric with anti-Muslim rhetoric to maintain the media's attention.”
This is a strategy Trump would employ repeatedly, and to great effect. Each time he felt himself losing control of the media’s narrative, he would do something outrageous enough to wrench it back — even if it meant exposing himself to heavy criticism. Better to be attacked on his terms than overshadowed on someone else’s.
After Trump decisively lost the first debate to Hillary Clinton (and to his own obsession with former Miss Universe contestant Alicia Machado), he came into the second debate with a twofold plan to make himself the story, no matter the cost. First, he invited a group of women who had accused President Bill Clinton of sexual assault to attend as his guests. When that failed to rattle his opponent, he announced, onstage, that he intended to jail her if elected president:
I didn't think I would say this, but I'm going to and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it. And we’re gonna have a special prosecutor.
It worked. The headlines were Trump’s again — “Trump threatens to jail Clinton if he wins election,” blared CNN — and the debate was back to playing out on his terms.
Trump becomes meaner and more dangerous when he’s losing. He looks for scapegoats, he embraces illiberal plans for revenge, he retreats to the strategy that launched his political career and his presidential campaign: capturing press coverage through shock and offense.
Trump is losing. His health reform push is in tatters. Republican senators are speaking out against him. Congress is tying his hands on Russia. Bob Mueller’s investigation is advancing, and two senators have introduced a bipartisan bill to protect it from Trump’s ire. His poll numbers are poor. He just fired his chief of staff and communications director.
He needs to regain control. And over the past week, we’ve seen he’ll do it by returning to his campaign’s darkest roots: fear of immigrants, defense of police brutality, and appeals to white resentment.
“I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
On Friday, Trump traveled to Long Island to speak before an audience of police officers. In a dark, chilling speech, he described an America beset by roving gangs of foreign murderers:
Think of it. They butcher those little girls. They kidnap, they extort, they rape and they rob. They prey on children. They shouldn’t be here. They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs. They slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives. They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They’re animals.
Trump spoke of his task in the language of war. “We’re liberating our American towns. Can you believe that I’m saying that? I’m talking about liberating our towns.”
It was time, he continued, to unleash the police against these monsters, time to remove the guardrails, to meet violence with violence. And here, Trump, remarkably, offered a straightforward endorsement of police brutality:
When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?
As Lind wrote, “It’s the closest Trump has come since inauguration to his infamous calls for violence against protesters at campaign rallies during the presidential primary. The themes aren’t new — they’re literally the oldest trick in Trump’s book — but they’re increasingly explicit. That’s a very bad sign.” Trump’s comments were so extreme that the local police department took to Twitter to disavow them:
As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners.— Suffolk County PD (@SCPDHq) July 28, 2017
But then, the local police department wasn’t Trump’s target audience.
Trump’s attack on legal immigration
On Wednesday, Trump rebooted his legislative agenda at a White House event where he endorsed Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue’s plan to cut legal immigration by 50 percent.
“This legislation will not only restore our competitive edge in the 21st century, but it will restore the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens,” Trump said. “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.”
It also, Trump emphasized, “prevents new migrants and new immigrants from collecting welfare, and protects US workers from being displaced. And that's a very big thing. They're not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare.”
Trump’s stated arguments for his policy don’t hold up: Cutting legal immigration would make Americans poorer, not richer. It would not protect our social services or keep our streets free from crime.
But if Trump’s defense of the policy doesn’t fit the evidence, it does fit his own political history. As Peter Baker put it at the New York Times, “Trump returned to a theme that has defined his short political career and excites his conservative base at a time when his poll numbers continue to sink. Just 33 percent of Americans approved of his performance in the latest Quinnipiac University survey, the lowest rating of his presidency, and down from 40 percent a month ago.”
Later that night, Trump sent Stephen Miller, his controversial policy aide, to brief the press. In a combative, strange event, Miller berated journalists who questioned whether legal immigration is really harming American workers. (It isn’t.) “Maybe we’ll make a carve-out in the bill that says the New York Times can hire all the low-skilled, less-paid workers from other countries and see how you feel then about low-wage substitution,” he said. At another point, Miller, who grew up in sunny Santa Monica, accused his interlocutors of “cosmopolitan bias.”
When Trump was a long-shot political contender with little support, he began his campaign by attacking immigrants and framing himself as the sole politician willing to defy the media’s cosmopolitan consensus. Now that he’s an embattled president, he is doing the same thing. It’s not a strategy that wins Trump a majority, but it is a strategy that wins him the devoted loyalty of a passionate minority, and right now Trump needs to excite his loyalists.
Trump is at his most dangerous when he’s losing
Trump is gentler when he is winning. In victory, his thirst for revenge abates, his fear of foreigners diminishes, his imagination for what he and his presidency can be enlarges. But Trump is not winning. He is losing, and he is losing badly.
And so Trump is returning to the themes, provocations, and scapegoats that have always supported him, and that he knows will let him control the narrative when all else fails. It is no accident that in this time of trial, Trump has turned to John Kelly, his Department of Homeland Security chief, to take over his White House. As Lind writes:
Kelly, who caught the president’s attention by carrying out Trump’s immigration agenda, is perfectly in line with the brand that first brought Trump to campaign success: the idea that the world is a terrifying place full of people (mostly foreigners) who want to undermine social order and the American way of life, and that the tough American men who stand up to them shouldn’t be too closely questioned about how they keep those threats at bay.
That brand has succeeded for Trump — it’s made the right people happy (his base and the cable news networks that generate endless debate over inflammatory remarks), it’s made the right people angry (Democrats and people who go on cable news networks), and if it’s terrified certain groups, they’ve been people who don’t seem to matter to Trump (immigrants and black Americans who vote for Democrats).
As Trump’s presidency flails, it becomes more dangerous — perhaps not to the entire country, but to its weakest and most vulnerable members. If Trump learned, in the health care debate, that he cannot overcome the interests of white Americans who rely on Medicaid and tax subsidies, he will fall back to his strategy of trying to unite white Americans against outsiders who are coming to take their jobs, to leech off their social services, to bring crime to their streets.