Well, darn. That was disappointing. Here we were, braced for Donald Trump to come out in full American Carnage mode, a little unhinged, declaring a national emergency and citing some obscure part of the United States Code that made it clear that he and he alone could seize property along the Rio Grande and build the damn wall and next week he was going to start doing exactly that. I was following conversations among liberals over the course of the afternoon in which people were all but laying bets on whether the Supreme Court would buy Trump’s take on eminent domain.
Instead? Nothing. It’s always disappointing when Trump tries to act like an actual president. Oh, yes, there was fear-mongering in the speech. The whole thing in fact was devoted to laying out the facts of a crisis that very few other people in government think exists. But this crisis, as Trump described it, wasn’t wholly the kind of crisis demagogues usually describe, a crisis of the hordes at the doorstep (though it was that in parts).
He also allowed that it was a “humanitarian” crisis; even “a crisis of the soul.” That’s a nice phrase, actually. Unfortunately, the only humanitarian crisis is the one his administration created, as people sleep in cold steel boxes with no blankets, and the only soul in crisis is his.
He didn’t say anything new, was the thing. He said what he’s been saying for months, all the same racist tropes and exaggerations and fabrications. He just said them all in that softer, hey-I’m-really-the-president voice. He said what the Republicans ran on while losing 40-plus seats. Maybe he’ll move the needle a little here, because of his softer tone and because the networks decided to try to help bail him out. Maybe. But nothing in the short speech will change the conversation.
So why did he do it? Here’s the best theory I’ve heard, tweeted by Joan McCarter, who writes at Daily Kos:
That seems exactly right. When the speech was scheduled, Trump and Stephen Miller wanted to come out guns blazing and deliver the kind of speech I described up top. Then, more responsible parties in the GOP got hold of them and told them “you can’t be serious.” But they’d already blocked the time, so they had to go ahead and do their best to have Trump act kind of presidential. But Trump hates presidential. You just know he wanted to bite that script and spit it out.
Except for the one section of the speech that was aimed straight at our collective amygdala, which was the last couple minutes, when he catalogued some violent crimes committed by illegal arrivals. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, to my surprise, didn’t come to their response with rebuttals to that. These stories are staples of right-wing media, so you’d have thought that maybe they’d at least say, “Of course our hearts go out to all those who’ve lost loved ones” and that sort of thing, but I guess they figured their move was to say they’re for border security, too, and to emphasize the government shutdown part of this.
I’m half tempted to say that on points, Trump won the speech battle. He always benefits from low expectations, and I’m not going to go all Van Jones on you here but the fact that he didn’t use the occasion of the speech to stick another dagger in the Constitution’s heart is a plus.
But it also seems likely that this debate is going to take a big turn next week if government employees who aren’t getting paid (specifically TSA employees) start staying home—let alone quitting. If there are long lines at airports, that changes everything. This isn’t yet a disaster for Trump, who downplayed the shutdown in his 10 minutes. But if that happens, it will be an epic disaster.
I was on a radio show the morning of the speech. The host said, “But this was his key promise, he can’t not do this, can he?” And I said something like, “You’re right; but he also can’t do it.”
He can’t not do it because Rush Limbaugh & company will tell his constituents to give up on him, he’s a fraud. The funny thing here is I bet most MAGA-heads don’t really care; Trump could just say to them hey, I tried, but the Democrats and the fake news people who hate American blocked me. And they’d accept that. But for whatever reason, Limbaugh and Ann Coulter decided to draw their red line here.
And yet he can’t do it because America doesn’t want it; Republican senators don’t want it. Believe it or not, when presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat, make promises, they’ve usually spent 20 minutes thinking about whether that promise is remotely realistic. Trump just thought “wall” sounded great. “Mexico will pay for it” sounded great. It was all just a TV show to him.
It still is, but now we’re all trapped in it.