The administration finalized plans to target undocumented families in mass raids announced in advance – perhaps for maximum political effect – which are sowing anxiety in 10 cities.
Covering up a reversal in his bid to add a citizenship question to the census, Trump said liberals want to hide “illegal aliens in our midst” and questioned the loyalty of his opponents.
“This is part of a broader left-wing effort to erode the rights of the American citizen,” he said.
At a “social media summit” of invited conservatives, Trump tried to redefine free speech as information favorable to him and warned Democrats were attempting a communist takeover.
“Some of you guys are out there. I mean it’s genius, but it’s bad,” Trump told a crowd including fringe social media personalities and conspiracy theorists who carry his message.
It was a glimpse of the bunker mentality shaping Trump’s reelection campaign, rooted in themes of national identify and patriotism, the singling out of outsiders and the demonization of Democrats as extreme radicals who want to destroy America.
Trump’s bet is that a fired-up base will counter the liberal enthusiasm stirring in the Democratic presidential primary and offer him a narrow but genuine path to a second term.
In many ways, Trump’s entire presidency has been an exercise in base management, given his aversion to the political center.
More from Stephen Collinson
And the President is a master of distraction – the tumult he stirred all day meant that the focus shifted from his Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s struggles to explain a non-prosecution agreement he approved a decade ago for accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Yet Trump’s political maneuvering was especially flagrant on Thursday, recalling the scorched earth phase of campaigning in 2016 when populist guru Steve Bannon was an adviser and Trump’s stark convention and inaugural addresses.
Commentators have often remarked that Trump has authoritarian instincts. US democratic safeguards and a robust public square prevent the repression that sustains dictatorships. But Trump’s language and deliberate tearing at cultural and political divisions have few parallels in modern American politics, even if on most days – unlike Thursday – his rhetoric has lost the power to shock.
There is no guarantee this will work in 2020. Moderate voters outside Trump’s red state heartlands were alienated by his explosive tone on immigration in the midterm elections. The President’s strategy could also inflame Democratic base turnout. But his political course was set years ago, meaning that a maximum grass-roots turnout is his best and perhaps only hope of reelection. There is a method in his polarization.
Thursday brought a fresh lesson that even Trump’s defeats have a political purpose. The abandonment of an attempt to ask a citizenship question on the census was humiliating.
When a loss is a political win
But the President got days of mileage out of the effort. The checks and balances of the political system merely play into his narrative that establishment forces are combining to undermine his popular uprising. And his crusade against the media means accurate reports of his loss will be discounted by Trump supporters.
“I’m here to say we are not backing down,” the President said, in his latest appearance meant to put a triumphant spin on defeat that recalled his capitulation after a government shutdown early this year.
Trump’s day of extremes unfolded against a backdrop of other political and economic trends that may weigh heavily on the President’s hopes of reelection.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 27,000 points for the first time, underscoring the strength of that part of the economy. A more conventional President might spend every hour hammering into the number as part of a traditional reelection message.
A fight for the political soul of the Democratic Party intensified on Capitol Hill, offering potential openings for Trump to probe as 2020 looms and he warns of leftists on the march.
Democratic front-runner Joe Biden proposed an antidote to Trump in a major foreign-policy speech that promised to counter his nationalism by holding of summit of world democracies.
And, offering a reminder that presidential best-laid plans can founder on outside events, New Orleans braced for serious flooding and potential hurricane landfall this weekend.
An inflammatory face saver
Trump’s decision to abandon his census gambit followed defeats in the Supreme Court and lower courts.
As a face saver, the President ordered the Commerce Department to collect data on noncitizens and citizens – a step he could have taken months ago but that would have deprived him of a politically beneficial court battle.
Trump disguised his reversal with a speech laced with inflammatory rhetoric targeting his base.
“Are you a citizen of the United States of America? ‘Oh, gee. I’m sorry. I just can’t answer that question,’ ” Trump said.
“There used to be a time when you could proudly declare: ‘I am a citizen of the United States.’ Now, they’re trying to erase the very existence of a very important word and a very important thing, citizenship,” he added.
The President’s comment pulsed with the notion that sinister forces are threatening the birthrights of Americans to shield outsiders he paints as a threat to US – white – culture.
Escalating his rhetoric, the head of state suggested that anyone who disagreed with his rejection of constitutionally based arguments on the census was un-American.
“I’m proud to be a citizen. You’re proud to be a citizen. The only people who are not proud to be citizens are the ones who are fighting us all the way about the word citizen,” he said.
Attorney General William Barr helped soothe the President’s blushes in defeat in a remarkable display of genuflection.
“I applaud the President for recognizing in his executive order that including a question on the census is not the only way to obtain this vital information,” Barr said. “Congratulations again, Mr. President, on taking this effective action.”
In another controversy from which the President is seeking a political payoff, undocumented families braced for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raids starting on Sunday.
Trump has repeatedly spoken about the raids, which are normally kept quiet so as not to tip off targets. This may be a sign that his main hope for the operation is to shore up his tough-on-immigrants image.
Democrats who criticize the move will trigger another presidential base play – Trump’s claim that their leftward drift means they are all in favor of open borders and are not willing to enforce immigration laws.
Activists and undocumented migrants spoke of fear ahead of the weekend, with people afraid to go to work and moms avoiding medical appointments with kids amid dread about a knock on the door.
The President also made progress on another prong of his reelection strategy on Thursday by gathering conservative social media acolytes at a White House “summit.”
At the event, streamed live by the White House, Trump meandered through a speech laced with conspiracy theories and off-the-cuff grievance airing that verged on the Nixonian.
“I call Twitter a typewriter,” he said at one point.
His main point was to accuse social media companies like Twitter – a platform on which he has 62 million followers – of making it impossible for his followers to access his content.
In one chilling aside, Trump – who maintains a constant stream of falsehoods in speeches and on social media – tried to redefine the parameters of free speech, injecting a motivating campaign message directly into the bloodstream of conservative media.
“I don’t think the mainstream media is free speech because it is so crooked, so dishonest,” the President said in the East Room of the White House.
“To me, free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposefully write bad,” Trump said.