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Trump's Family Separation, and Why Some Things Matter

President Donald Trump holds up an executive order he signed to end family separations at the border, during an event in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2018. Standing behind Trump are Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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President Donald Trump holds up an executive order he signed to end family separations at the border, during an event in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 20, 2018. Standing behind Trump are Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, left, and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Trump breaks every rule of politics on a daily basis. He is oafishly incompetent, a serial liar, and so corrupt that if Richard Nixon were alive, he’d say “damn, Donald Trump is extremely corrupt.”

And yet usually nothing happens. Trump holds his base, Fox News ignores his misconduct, and Republicans in Congress—on a good day—fire off sad tweets.

This week something different happened.

Under fire for his barbaric policy of separating children and parents apprehended at the southern border, Trump relented. At least partially, and at least temporarily. The battle over family separation must continue, because we don’t yet know if the policy will resume, or how Trump will reunite these children with their families, and we most certainly can’t trust an administration that blends the cruelty of Ramsey Bolton with the managerial acumen of Michael Scott to competently handle a massively complicated policy issue.

But Trump faced real-time accountability, and it’s worth looking at why, in the hope of learning lessons for the battles to come. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the idea that Trump can only be forced to back down when he does something as vile as kidnap and torture children.

Why was this week different?

Yelling is more than just catharsis. Your voice still matters. I know it is exhausting to fight this hard, but you know what’s even more exhausting? Quietly watching Trump do whatever he wants without consequences.Trump and the Republicans have been forced to reverse course three time in the last 18 months: In the earliest days of his administration, when he promulgated the Muslim Ban; in the middle of 2017, when their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed; and this week.

The one thing that these moments have in common is that in each case, people mobilized en masse, and made their voices heard, in calls to Congress and on social media. This week, citizens flooded congressional phone lines more aggressively than at any time since Republicans were advancing Trumpcare.

The uproar was so loud that even airlines like United and American—major corporations, not exactly known for their compassion or liberal politics, felt compelled to resist the policy.Brand-sensitive companies do not want the majority of Americans who had the good sense not to vote for Trump to boycott them. Pressuring them is a good tactic going forward. Their incentives are different (and more straightforward) than the ones confronting Republican politicians, who represent gerrymandered districts, fear primary voters, and inhabit closed propaganda ecosystems. Corporate actors are easier to sway on to the right side of history, and they in turn can influence Republican behavior.

Images are the antidote to cries of Fake News. In most political and policy battles, Trump—backed by a massive propaganda apparatus—is able to hold onto his base by screaming “Fake News” and convincing his voters that the media is lying or that the truth cannot be known. Eventually, persuadable people throw up their arms and move on, until we reach the next racist utterance, insane tweet, or policy travesty, and the process repeats itself. But this time, compelling images and heartbreaking audio went viral, and served as an antidote to the propaganda and lies coming from the White House and the conservative movement.

Most Trump voters claimed to support family separation. Many claimed to believe that the stories coming from the border were faked. But a substantial minority of Republicans opposed the policy, as did overwhelming numbers of Democrats and independents—and that made a huge difference.

In my book, Yes We (Still) Can (book plug!), I take a close look at how the rise of Twitter and Facebook have made American politics and media coarser and frankly dumber. But there are upsides to these changes too (I swear). The same activists who were calling Congress and shouting down Kristjen Nielsen’s taco dinner, were sharing these images on social media. You couldn’t log onto Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram this week without having your heart broken, but also without seeing Trump’s lies disproved.

The Trump administration and its lackeys tried to claim the kids weren’t in cages, but for every lie, people shared dozens of photos of kids in cages millions of times. Social media has spread lies and conspiracy theories far and wide, but in this instance it was a force for good—an easy tool anyone with a phone could use to make the truth go viral.We won’t always have such compelling images to use as pushback, but when we do, making them go viral, and making sure they pierce the right-wing information bubble, has to be a top priority.

Lying has its limits. The rules and practices that have governed journalism for decades never anticipated a president who lies so brazenly. The media has struggled to call balls and strikes, because telling the truth conflicts with its larger, corrosive incentives to treat both parties as equivalents.But this time journalists did their jobs. The media aggressively called out the administration’s false claims: that Democrats were to blame, that Trump’s hands were tied, that the policy his advisers touted didn’t actually exist. Of course, the fact that the Trump braintrust was too dumb to get its story straight made the media’s job relatively easy. The lies weren’t just disprovable, they contradicted one another. But, the conduct of the reporters covering this story was a real, positive development, and something that hopefully repeats itself when it becomes clear to all that the crisis didn’t end when Trump signed that executive order.

Trump picks the fights, but we can win them. Every time Trump picks a racially divisive fight over immigration, crime, or the NFL, pundits and even some Democratic strategists and politicians experience an onset of preemptive panic about the political implications. I understand the reflex. I would much rather spend every minute between now and Election Day talking about Republicans raising people’s premium to pay for a massive tax break for Wall Street and rich GOP donors.

Unfortunately Trump has the biggest megaphone and the press will cover what he says no matter how absurd or offensive. Democrats cannot—and should not—run or pivot away from these fights. They must find a way to win them.Trump and Stephen Miller put this policy in place because they are cruel, racist trolls, but also because they thought making the Democrats defend undocumented immigrants would be good politics. Trump lost this round because Democrats didn’t run from the fight. They took it head on with discipline and passion, and refused to relent. And this is the approach that is likely to inspire the low-propensity voters they need to turn out in November.

Maybe this moment of hope will prove to be fleeting, but I believe it is a sign that we can win more of these battles in the months and years to come.