There is no doubt that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings electrified Republican voters. Democrats spent two weeks demonstrating how they would govern in the majority, illustrating clearly for Republicans who might have been lukewarm on the GOP in the Trump era that the alternative was deeply problematic. But if the Kavanaugh effect was real, it had a short half-life. And Donald Trump seems to know it.
The president was never comfortable with the notion that GOP voters might be motivated to vote because of their enthusiasm for Republicans other than himself. Within days of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Trump insisted that his first midterm election should be a “referendum about me.” The terrible massacre of observant Jews in Pittsburgh and a disturbed Trump fan’s campaign of terror directed at Democratic officials (an act Trump inexplicably attributed to political media’s critical coverage of his administration) has all but reset the nation’s political consciousness. Trump senses that, and he resents it. “The Republicans had tremendous momentum, and then, of course, this happened, where all that you people talked about was that,” Trump said last week to the cameras that followed him into a North Carolina campaign rally.
So, Trump has set about trying to reset the national narrative himself, and a caravan of migrants walking north from Guatemala through Mexico on a supposedly inevitable collision course with America’s southern border has helped him do it. While this is a real assault to American sovereignty, those who see it as a politically convenient development have wildly exaggerated the threat and damaged their credibility in the process.
The last time this stunt was attempted—in April—a small number of those who initially set out on the journey made it to the United States. Once at the border, they congregated on the Mexican side and awaited processing by U.S. officials. Most were processed without incident. Some were charged with the misdemeanor offense of entering the country illegally and without proper paperwork.
Although this month’s caravan is larger than April’s, the response it has generated from the president is entirely divorced from anything resembling sobriety and circumspection. Trump harangued Democrats for failing to do anything to stop this caravan, though he remained vague about the actions the minority party in Congress could take. Trump has warned that the march contains criminals and possibly even radical Islamic terrorists, though he later admitted that he had no evidence to support that contention. The president initially threatened to close the southern border entirely for all comers, including asylum-seekers. Finally, he took matters into his own hands.
On the 25, Defense Sec. James Mattis consented to a Department of Homeland Security request to dispatch 800 U.S. troops to the border. Failing to impress, it seems, the Pentagon soon increased the number of soldiers to 5,200. It would be the largest quick deployment of American soldiers since the mobilization to provide aid to Haiti following a devastating earthquake in 2010, and the U.S. footprint would greatly exceed the number of Americans deployed in an advisory capacity to Iraq and Syria. But even that wasn’t impressive enough. A Pentagon official told Newsweek that “the units deployed right now are of actual strength between 5,000 and 7,000. With another 7,000 on standby on 24-hour notice.” That’s a total of 14,000 soldiers on call for deployment at the border—a number equivalent to the total number of service personnel Trump deployed to Afghanistan as part of a late 2017 troop “surge.”
There is no strategic justification for these deployments. This caravan is still weeks away from the U.S. border. Today, the procession is believed to number approximately 4,000 people—a dramatic decline from the 7,000 who began the march earlier this month. They must still travel at least another 1,000 miles to get to the nearest U.S. border crossing in Texas, all while maintaining the group’s integrity. Then there’s the interference by Mexican authorities and the myriad logistical hurdles in their path. We’re left to reach a cynical conclusion: These deployments are a political tactic designed to keep the caravan on the minds of Republican voters, not a strategic defense of U.S. interests.
If the game wasn’t clear enough, Trump resurrected a road-worn campaign-trail theme on Wednesday by flirting with the prospect of issuing an executive order that would repeal the right of people born on U.S. soil to automatic citizenship. This is, quite simply, nonsense. The voters at whom this is aimed should be insulted by the White House’s underestimation of their intelligence. On the right, there is a robust debate over both the value of birthright citizenship and whether it can be severed from the 14th Amendment to the Constitution for the children of illegal immigrants via legislation. But there is no serious debate as to whether a Constitutional Amendment can be undone via the presidential pen. The very idea is anathema. Those who allow themselves to be taken in by this ruse are being willingly manipulated by a White House that appears to think they’re idiots.
After several weeks of recovery, Donald Trump’s job-approval rating is reverting to an abysmal mean. The Democratic Party’s edge in the generic ballot test is once again steadily increasing. The “Kavanaugh effect” is dead and gone. Donald Trump appears to think he can reverse the tides by banging the nationalist drum. Amid disorientation and desperation, Trump and his advisers have bought into their own hype. Their awakening on the morning of November 7 could be a rude one.