Column: Donald Trump’s threat of mass arrests reflects weakness

Greg Sargent

Perhaps it’s entirely a coincidence that President Donald Trump announced that he’s unleashing his deportation force only hours before he’s scheduled to kick off his re-election campaign with a rally in Florida.

But, coincidence or not, Trump undoubtedly sees this announcement as a show of fearsome political strength. Trump plans to run in 2020 on the notion that he represents law and order on the southern border, while painting Democrats as weak and in favour of open borders.

What better way to dramatise this contrast than to crank up the deportations, displaying Trump’s toughness while provoking Democrats into squealing about their squishy, pointy-headed, elitist humanitarian concerns?

But this latest threat is better understood as a grand expression of weakness and failure on Trump’s part – political weakness, rooted to no small degree in his abject failure on immigration, his signature issue.

Trump tweeted late Monday that next week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will soon begin removing the “millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States”.

This is an apparent reference to a plan for a blitzkrieg of arrests of thousands of parents and children that was shelved amid concerns about workability and political blowback over imagery of cruel child arrests. Trump appeared to tweet that the plan is back in motion: “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”

But in an important piece, The Washington Post reports facts and context that raise serious doubts about the motives and timing of this ‘announcement’. ICE officials were caught off guard by Trump’s declaration. What’s more, the mass arrests don’t appear immediately imminent, though they could come soon.

It’s also not clear whether ICE has the manpower to fully unleash such a strike force. And the very act of announcing the action itself raises questions, because, as The Post noted, “publicizing a future law enforcement operation is unheard of at ICE”.

It’s important to note that there’s an actual set of policy ideas embedded in this threat.

The idea here is that asylum-seekers are driven by the notion that if they can enter the asylum system, they can exploit court backlogs and disappear into the interior without showing up for their hearing, and stay illegally even after a deportation order has been issued for them. Dramatically arresting families sends a message that this is the treatment waiting for them if they try this scam.

But – say this with me slowly now – the administration’s efforts at deterring asylum families through displays of toughness and force have failed spectacularly, because they are fleeing conditions at home that are also terrible. There is a legitimate policy dispute here – Trump wants to detain families for far longer, so they cannot evade hearings, while Democrats favour addressing root causes of migrations and reforms to humanely manage the influx – but one thing that is inescapable is that toughness as deterrence has been unmasked as total folly.

Thus, Trump’s threat to unleash deportations – while a genuine humanitarian menace – is also a reminder that on his signature issue, Trump is caught in a feedback loop of failure. A given threat or act of toughness fails to produce the desired effect, only to be followed by another threat or act of toughness, which Trump and his supporters then hype as forceful and effective.

Thus, Trump’s threat of mass arrests is probably intended to no small degree as spectacle and gesture. This may be the case in a ‘cruelty is the point’ kind of way – in Trump’s mind, the imagery of mass arrests of families is a feature of this plan, one that will appeal to at least some core supporters.

Is that far fetched? Trump reportedly remarked of his family separations: “My people love it.”

But, given this announcement’s suspect timing, it’s also likely meant to project decisiveness and action, in an area where Trump knows he’s failing. It’s been repeatedly established that Trump is extraordinarily sensitive to surges in border crossings, which he sees as a metric for judging his presidency.

Trump’s answer, in such moments of panic, is frequently some kind of threat of action. He will close the border entirely (he backed off), or flood Democratic districts with migrants (which never happened), or impose tariffs on Mexico (it’s unknown whether that threat prompted Mexico to agree to anything new or what impact it will have).It’s never been clear whether Trump acknowledges any political downside to his immigration cruelties and all around border-related impulsiveness. He appears to refuse to accept that they helped Democrats win a large national majority in the 2018 House races. He appears certain – outwardly, at least – that in 2020, it will energise his core supporters by enough to tip the electoral college, due disproportionate blue collar whites in the Rust Belt.

But the backdrop to all this is that the Trump campaign is firing several pollsters, because internal data leaked revealing Trump as deeply vulnerable to losing reelection – including trailing in Rust Belt states.

Trump still enjoys the advantages of incumbency and the good economy. But if his immigration agenda in particular is helping boost his reelection chances in those places, there’s no sign of it yet. Until that changes, this threat of mass arrests looks more than anything else like doubling down on a failing strategy – both substantively and politically.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog. He joined The Post in 2010, after stints at Talking Points Memo, New York Magazine and the New York Observer. © 2019, The Washington Post.

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