If the arc of history does indeed bend toward justice, then we know what soundtrack will greet future visitors to the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Golf Resort.
It will be the eight-minute audio recording, obtained and authenticated by ProPublica, of children in a Border Patrol detention facility screaming for their parents.
Discussing the Trump administration’s deliberate family separation policy, it may appear unseemly to analyze this affront to decency in terms of political messaging. But the language of politics may be the only lingo that Donald Trump’s many Republican enablers on Capitol Hill understand.
It has become a cliché to suggest that Trump sees all political controversies in terms of his background in the intellectual precincts of reality television. Under this interpretation, Trump — with his tweets, tantrums and trigger-happy attacks — becomes the character you can’t take your eyes off, the figure who dominates every scene.
But this time around, the arresting visual story is at the border, where more than 2,300 children have been wrenched from their parents’ arms. Reduced to the role of bit players, Trump and his no-tolerance sidekicks have grown more and more frantic in their claims for attention.
In a Monday night interview with Laura Ingraham within the supposedly safe confines of Fox News, hard-line Attorney General Jeff Sessions made an important distinction between the child-separation policies of the Trump administration and those of a certain powerful European nation in the 1930s. As Sessions explained, “Well, it’s a real exaggeration. In Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country.”
Nothing in government is more reassuring than the head of the Justice Department proudly asserting that comparisons with the Nazis are “a real exaggeration.”
Immigration, Immigration, Immigration: Talk of the Policy Separating Families Envelops Hill
Humans, not insects
Trump himself Tuesday resorted to the demagoguery of those hateful times when he assailed the Democrats for wanting “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country.”
Nothing is more uplifting than the president using the word “infest” — normally associated with roaches and termites — to describe human beings who appear at our border requesting asylum.
But by every political measure, Trump and his personal Axis of Evil (Sessions, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and top White House adviser Stephen Miller) are losing.
The polling is dismal, with recent surveys by CBS News, CNN and Quinnipiac University all showing that two-thirds of adults oppose separating children from their parents at the border.
The panic by Republicans on Capitol Hill may be worse.
It is one thing for GOP senators with a streak of moderation, like Susan Collins (“contrary to our values”) and Lisa Murkowski (“cruel”), to wring their hands over the excesses of the Trump take-the-children border policy. But it is a different story when Ted Cruz joins in: “All Americans are rightly horrified by the images we are seeing on the news, children in tears pulled away from their mothers and fathers.”
Now Senate Republicans are talking about standing up to Trump with a bill that would mandate that families requesting asylum remain together. But passing legislation — especially with the shrill anti-immigrant fanaticism of some House Republicans — and surviving a possible Trump veto remains a daunting task.
The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page — which will never be confused with press releases from Elizabeth Warren — began its Tuesday commentary on immigration with a forceful question: “Are Republicans trying to lose their majorities in Congress this November?” The editorial concluded in equally blunt fashion: “If Mr. Trump wants to lose the House and risk impeachment, he’ll ... keep giving Democrats a daily picture of children stripped from their parents.”
Slowly and unsurely
All this gives rise to one of the most baffling questions in politics: Why have congressional Republicans been so slavish in their devotion to Trump?
It is certainly not ideological consistency, since the president’s policies on everything from tariffs to North Korea defy conservative Reaganite ideology. And somehow, I suspect, most Republicans have not gravitated to Trump because they admire his moral bearing, his fidelity to truth and his constancy in serving as a role model for children.
The standard explanation for the cravenness of the GOP is fear of being aggressively challenged in a primary for being insufficiently pro-Trump. Mark Sanford (defeated in South Carolina) and Martha Roby (forced into a runoff in Alabama) serve as the prime examples of the risks.
But roughly half the states have already held their 2018 primaries. And 42 of the current 51 GOP senators do not face the voters until 2020 or 2022. What are these Republicans — two or more years away from their next primary — so afraid of?
A Trump tweet? Really?
As Trump demonstrates with his nonstop pyrotechnics, the political mood can change in a few days. So why are Republicans so convinced that thumping the drum for Trump is a long-term strategy for political survival?
Maybe the GOP is mesmerized by Trump’s approval rating in the low 40s, with a booming economy and few military casualties. In comparison, with the Vietnam War still raging, Richard Nixon hit 70 percent approval a month after he was sworn in for a second term in February 1973.
Despite the popular assumption today that Nixon was driven from office by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s scoops, in truth it was a long, slow collapse — a political death by many cuts (and tapes).
Too many Trump critics believe that some dramatic revelation from Robert Mueller will bring the president to his knees. In truth, Trump’s downfall, if it occurs, more likely will be a progressive collapse brought on by the heedless cruelty of the president and his personal Axis of Evil.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.