Donald Trump doesn’t defy political gravity, as many pundits like to say he does, but he has benefited, repeatedly, from the mismatch between election cycles, which are long, and news cycles, which are brief and shrinking.
This good fortune has convinced Trump that he can triumph over almost every outrage, no matter how intense, or how damaging, through sheer force of will. Most people have moral perimeters that inhibit them from inflicting endless harm, even when they fear no consequences; most people lack the ethical defect that inhibits egotists from admitting error. But Trump is not most people. If common sense points toward retreat, he will press ahead, no matter how many lies he has to tell, or how much collateral damage he has to inflict.
The concern today, as the U.S. government kidnaps and imprisons children at the southern border on his orders, is that Trump will bring this conscienceless persistence to bear against the forces opposing his family separation policy, and that, in at least the short term, he will win.
By win, I don’t mean that the public will embrace child separation, but that the rest of our political system will move on from it, and that the depths of depravity his supporters tolerate will plummet.
This may sound like defiance of political gravity, but it is more like a deferred reckoning. He became president as a popular vote loser, because the country happened to learn he was a serial sexual abuser weeks before learning that the FBI had reopened the Hillary Clinton email investigation—because news cycles are much shorter than election cycles, and he chose to wait them out, rather then relinquish the GOP nomination.
The day after his inauguration, millions of women and their male allies marched in cities around the world to demonstrate that the public has never been on his side. That show of force has lurked like a phantom in the background of his presidency ever since. Despite inheriting a growing economy and a relatively stable world, his approval numbers have been under water for nearly all of his 500-plus days in office. Perhaps more importantly, the intensity of the opposition to him is unrivaled in modern history, and has propelled Democrats running in deeply conservative precincts into power all across the country.
But Trump himself won’t face voters until 2020, and Republicans as a national party won’t face them until November, and in the meantime, Trump has brazened his way through the traumas he inflicted upon the nation as if they were minor political blips.
He instituted an effective ban on Muslim travel to the U.S., which briefly resulted in the detention of green-card holders and others at airports around the country for no reasons other than their national origins and presumed religion. He fired the FBI director for investigating his campaign. He aligned himself with Nazis marching for white supremacy in Charlottesville, VA, last year, even after one of them killed a counter protester. He oversaw the destruction of an island territory by a biblical hurricane, then took no extraordinary steps to rescue its citizens.
We’re more or less one year on from all of these abominations, and Trump has recovered nearly all of the support they and other politically damaging decisions caused him to bleed.
That’s not to say there haven’t been other consequences. Judges enjoined the Muslim ban and subsequent iterations of it have been tied up in the courts ever since. Firing James Comey prefigured the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The law has held up somewhat better than general decency, and it is possible that the law will rescue the children at the border, even if politics won’t. The ACLU has sued to force the government to reunite the children with their parents. Attorneys general in 21 states, including D.C., have also made the case that the policy is illegal.
But the political opposition, unfortunately, remains captive to both Trump’s strategic patience, and the broader system’s tendency to give up and move on. Through every past outrage, the effect has been to acclimate about 40 percent of the country to accepting bottomless moral turpitude. Taking children hostage to deter asylum seekers and seek leverage in legislative negotiations is not popular. It will take a political toll somewhere, at some point. Trump knows this, but he also has good reason to believe that scrutiny will fade, and his political standing, weak as it is, will recover before he has to bear that cost. If he weathers a policy of torturing children without being forced, finally, to back down, just imagine the world of possible horrors that will open up to him.