When it mattered most, Donald Trump was able to hunker down and let the rancid environment he’d helped cultivate swamp his divided opposition. A week later he won the presidency.
As trying as they’ve been, the past several weeks have provided a few timely reminders: that the anti-Trump majority remains vulnerable to splintering, that Trump’s repugnance is uniquely calibrated to help Democrats paper over these divisions, but also that his behavior is unpredictable, which means Democrats can’t console themselves with the hope that he will self-immolate during the election.
Before Trump decided to tweet an unprompted, racist attack on four congresswomen, Democrats had spent July mired in ugly and public infighting, which pit the party’s leaders against these same four avatars of the progressive movement. The individual volleys in this dispute were tragicomic, but the heart of it was deadly serious. What should House Democrats do with their real but limited power to address the human rights crisis Trump has created along the southern border?
The squad would say: starve the anti-migrant forces of resources until public outrage over the camps and caged humans forces the Trump administration to accept a benevolent solution from Congress, even if the situation deteriorates in the near term.
The leadership—and indeed most House Democrats—held that doing nothing, at unknown risk to the migrants themselves, was untenable, which left them vulnerable to being jammed with whatever legislation Trump would agree to sign. That legislation appropriated $4.6 billion in border funds and included few restrictions on how the administration spends the money.
At the time, there was no way to resolve the debate over who was morally right about how to proceed, and there still isn’t. Absent solid reporting on how the funds have been spent, and on whether they’ve concretely improved conditions we may never know.
But we do know that the bill didn’t and couldn’t solve the problem.
As a logical matter, whatever benefit the money provided will attenuate, because Trump has created a cruel policy machinery that works by funneling more and more migrants into detention. He has starved the northern triangle countries in Central America of aide, driving more asylum seekers northward; he has manufactured chokepoints at ports of entry, so that migrants can’t make asylum claims in an orderly way, leaving them stuck and vulnerable in Mexico, unless they decide to cross the border illegally and claim asylum once detained; and he now seeks to exacerbate these incentives by lawlessly denying nearly all migrants who traveled through Mexico the right to claim asylum at all.
We also know that in absence of a more confrontational approach to Trump, Democrats, the media, and then the public, will soon move on from Trump’s racist outburst, and when they do, Trump will still be caging migrants, Democrats will remain divided over what to do about it, and the infighting will return.
In this case, the conflict is about border policy, but Trump behaves unacceptably across a whole range of issues, many of which compel Democrats to do act, and when they act in a way that doesn’t remedy the problem, the behavior persists, and Democrats return to fighting about how to respond. The infighting is thus, in large part, referred pain from the Democratic caucus’s unwillingness to confront Trump with all of its might.
Trump’s best hope to win re-election with approval ratings stuck in the low 40s is to divide the opposition. That opposition is, unfortunately for him, burning hot. Nearly everybody who disapproves of Trump disapproves strongly. The Democratic Party is united in righteous loathing, which should be a source of great strength, but a faction of House Democrats from conservative districts is too scared to confront Trump the way he deserves to be confronted, Democratic leadership has allowed this faction to set the party’s strategic agenda, and it’s tearing the party apart.
The rift over what to do about Trump in the here and now is just one surface manifestation of a related debate over what kind of party the Democrats should be as a foil to a Republican Party that becomes more extreme, antidemocratic, racist, and dangerous with each election. If Republicans elect an authoritarian criminal and bigot like Trump, should Democrats respond with lackadaisical oversight or with impeachment? If Republicans are hellbent on entrenching minority rule and destroying the Democratic Party, should Democrats govern with an eye toward bipartisan consensus, or by doing whatever is in their power to help as many people as possible? If corporate interests have proven eager to align themselves with authoritarians to keep their taxes low, should Democrats treat them as equal stakeholders in health care, financial, and environmental reform? Or should they welcome their hatred?
Democrats will answer these questions in the primary, and whatever they decide will help determine whether the party enters the general election united, or divided the way the House caucus is divided today. But in both the caucus and on the campaign trail, there is a widespread sense that Trump is an emergency that needs to be addressed. As long as the party’s lead actors don’t reflect this sense of urgency, the divisions will persist, and there’s no guarantee that Trump will have a racist outburst on the eve of the election.