THEATER OF DESPAIR
This Was the Week That Finally Broke Trump’s Spell
He was defeated by the two things he hates most: immigrants, and the media.
Donald Trump can’t define or pronounce the word Manichaean, but he knows it when he sees it. For Trump, there are two types of people; Donald Trump, and losers, and the one thing Donald Trump can’t abide is a loser. Donald Trump lost this week on immigration, and across the board. He lost, doubled down, lost again, hocked his cufflinks, lost, tried to flip the table and was finally escorted out of the casino and had his knees broken in the parking lot when he couldn’t pay his marker.
Donald Trump was defeated this week by the two things he hates most: immigrants, and the media.
Donald Trump’s superpower has been a war with the media that keeps the Republican base locked down tight. His ability to make the press the enemy, to change any story of his failings, flailings, and fuckups into an account about the evil mainstream media hit a wall of kryptonite this week.
Once a president who stood astride the media narrative like an orange god, simultaneously captivating and revolting the nation’s press corps, Trump was no match for images of crying children torn from their mothers. His seemingly magical ability to change the subject vanished, and the arsenal of his weapons of mass distraction were duds. Everyone in Washington noticed. One House member spoke to me on background Wednesday night and said, “This mistake broke the spell.”
Worse for Trump, the hated mainstream media flooded the zone, drilled into the story, and found sources to tell the horrific tales of the Trumpkampf against 2,500 immigrant children. Instead of taking the dumb, tendentious “But Obummer” bait, they asked the questions about what was happening now as a direct consequence of orders from this president’s administration. Dogged, passionate, and visceral coverage changed the climate. Trump is getting dragged and dragged hard.
The stories and the coverage combined two things; first, they exposed how gleefully the Trump Administration viewed the pain and fear of children. Second, they made Americans face what was being done in their name.
It was in-depth coverage of the human tragedy of this policy, and it swept aside the usual dumb, bleating whataboutism that now comprises too much of conservative argument. It was a reminder for the people living in the Fox/Breitbart/talk radio bubble that the mainstream media’s power to illuminate stories can’t be spun away with the night-time lineup of Laura, Tucker, and Sean’s ham-like head filling the screen with a spittle-flecked rage.
Aggressive, constant hostility to the media isn’t just a part of the Trump GOP’s ideology; it’s now the central pillar. The press has to lose for Trump to win. The press has to fail for Trump to triumph. He often bests them in single combat, but like the nerdy kid who has had enough and finally knocks the bully on his ass, mainstream reporters and commentators wrecked Trump's week. They don’t always get a win like this, but watching the powerful, evocative, stories coming out of the border, and as the scope of the Trump Archipelago became clear, the news cycle was entirely out of Trump’s control. As hard as the Trump-right media machine tried, “It’s Obama’s fault” or “Why didn’t you complain about family separations then, shill?” were failed rhetorical gambits overcome the harsh shock of the now. Retrospective whataboutism is always a weak hand.
The only thing worse than losing on his central political issue to the hated news media was losing to brown-skinned children from Central America, but lose he did. Trump’s crapulous, aggressively dumb team of political arsonists thought they had a surefire winner for the core of the Trump demo. What could go wrong with a heartless, callous policy of visible and aggressive separation of migrant children from their parents? They capered and giggled, secure in the knowledge that Fox and talk radio, and the alt-right and alt-light media would cheer Trump’s aggressive steps against the cocoa-colored horde of MS-13 toddlers.
Instead, Americas rejected this policy, embraced the plight of these kids, and showed an outpouring of support that reflected the very best of America’s values and history, not the dark, wicked aspects of Trump’s. The delta between the reaction of the vast majority of Americans to Trump’s policy was horror. The response by Trump’s base was confused, finding themselves caught up in their dominant response mechanism—the transubstantiation of Trump’s punitive, heartless, and repellent actions in the essence of pure conservatism—and a creeping idea that the story was horrific.
Engineered from the beginning to be a spectacle of cruelty, this Stephen Miller-designed plan to ratchet up the pain and terror of families fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico was a live-fire exercise in state power with weeping, traumatized children as cannon fodder. They boasted it was a political winner in a year when Republicans aren’t exactly crowned with legislative laurels, and admitted it was a play to appeal to the darkest, shittiest residents of our national shame closet. They thought it would appeal to Trump’s desire to seem strong and decisive, the alpha-male winner. Instead, it was a political and moral disaster for the president and the administration.
In a week of brutal and evident human suffering, the wall-to-wall media coverage meant the political costs of this policy rose and rose, and Trump’s defeat was inevitable from the start. When Trump signed the executive order reversing his policy on Wednesday, it was an epic political defeat for his presidency, his staff, his congressional defenders, and his media cheerleaders.
By Thursday the scope of his defeat was evident. Beaten to a political pulp, Trump found even Republican stalwarts disowning him and his policy. The otherwise obedient Gimp Caucus has members going on the record to decry the heartlessness of separating children from their parents. Congress is in chaos, flailing to pass something, anything to mitigate the damage. Even the Trumpiest Trumpers broke. In Florida, Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, a man who emulates Trump so strictly I expect him to sport a blond wig, ran like a scalded dog.
Now, his administration has added to its catalog of calamitous failures, his Department of Homeland Security director is politically radioactive, and as hard as it is to imagine, his government looks even more inept, chaotic, malicious, and deceptive than his White House crew. Whipsawed between holding on to his image as the hardest of the immigration hardliners and the terrible, horrible, indelible images, Trump has had a spectacularly awful week.
The private polling members of Congress saw this week was a white-hot disaster. The public polling was the same; between two-thirds and three-quarters of American voters opposed the policy. Strikingly, Trump didn't hold his usual levels of base voters support on this issue, even with the IV drip of the Trump-right news media pumping in their most potent opiate load of MS-13 scare stories.
By Friday afternoon, Trump's political peril over the immigration fight was rising. His manic Friday tweeting and late-afternoon train wreck press event showed him caught between his narrow base and the widespread national disgust his policy is causing. Trump can’t seem to fight his way out of the box. Families are still separated, and the stories from those separations will continue to drive coverage and condemnation at home and abroad. This policy and the administration’s nonstop failure to manage it is a gift that keeps on giving for Trump’s opponents and critics.
This was the worst week of Trump’s administration, by far. Letting Trump be Trump has always been a political disaster, and this week was vivid proof. There’s no adult supervision, just impulse, instinct, and hindbrain reflex. Impotent Chief of Staff John Kelly has abdicated even vague attempts to constrain this president. Sarah Sanders is so checked out she may as well not show up for press briefings. Jeff Sessions’ upcoming book on the Biblical basis for holding kids in cages promises to be riveting reading. The White House is rife with reports of staffers simply hanging on for dear life as a rogue president follows his astoundingly sub-par political and managerial instincts into the ditch.
Kirstjen Nielsen’s handling of the crisis showed a person utterly unready for political prime time. She saved her job at the cost of her last iota of integrity. Stephen Miller is so in love with his hate that he believed he was close to finally being able to beat someone up; to wit, screaming, terrified toddlers in cages. He spent a few days thumping his concave, 98-pound-weakling chest, hissing his delight at the political utility of highlighting the misery of refugee children but by the end of the week the architect of this stunningly nasty policy was reduced to muttering darkly about vengeance being his and licking his wounds.
Trump’s week started off wrong, jumped every possible shark, and landed in the deep waters of political disaster. Unhinged, uncontrolled, and unstable as hell, Donald Trump’s pratfalls would be laughable if they didn’t involve thousands of children scattered into the bureaucratic winds, separated from their families, and reduced to political pawns in a theater of despair.