Trump could reform immigration and make history — but he'd rather fire up his base

U.S. President Donald Trump has such a grip on the Republican Party, he could probably push through the kind of immigration reform that has eluded his predecessors. But, as Keith Boag explains, what Trump seems to want most is continued chaos on immigration that he can exploit in the midterms.

The president knows nothing energizes his supporters quite like the issue of immigration

President Donald Trump knows immigration is an issue that can excite his devoted base ahead of the midterms. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Time magazine synthesized the country's horrible and complicated week with a cover illustration of Donald Trump coldly staring down a bawling child and a simple caption: "Welcome to America."

The cover would be criticized for misrepresenting the child's true circumstances, but that didn't erase the simpler truth that, for many, the week had pitted the president against children.

Getting tough on immigration and the chaos at the border is one thing, but the president-versus-the-children issue is not a winning one for Republicans and many were rattled by what the Trump administration is doing in their name.

Those who thought a common sense immigration policy also required common decency have been shaken by the tone deafness of the administration's various explanations for why government agents would separate children from their parents at the country's southwest border.

For some, it was the last straw.

Veteran Republican strategist Steve Schmidt likened it to the evil of separating families during slavery as he exited the party with a tweet saying the GOP is now "fully the party of Trump."

The scorn heaped on Schmidt by Trump supporters such as Fox News host Laura Ingraham seemed not only to underline Schmidt's point but also herald yet another battle of attrition in the civil war that has consumed the party for close to a decade.

Veteran campaign strategist Steve Schmidt announced on Twitter that he's no longer a Republican because he was so appalled by the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Polls show Republican women in particular recoiled at the Trump policy. With little more than 130 days until the midterm elections, they are not a constituency the party can afford to squander.

But the hard core of the Trump base believes the president when he says his "zero tolerance" policy at the border is an overdue fix for a mess handed to him by his predecessors. They're with him all the way.

"If you're really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people," Trump said Wednesday. "And if you're strong, then you don't have any heart. That's a tough dilemma. Perhaps I would rather be strong."

Brink of history

Obviously Trump wants to appear strong, but the family separation issue undid him.

Unlike the most ideological of those around him, who proudly took credit for being tougher at the border, Trump blamed Democrats at every turn and denied he could stop splitting up families on his own. And then, after days of heart-wrenching stories and pictures from the border, he turned around and did exactly that.

Trump claimed he couldn't stop authorities from separating migrant children from their parents at the border. Then he signed an executive order to do just that. (Leah Milllis/Reuters)

The thing is, Trump has a chance to succeed on immigration where Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all failed.

Because Trump has the Republican Party in his grip, and because he has made immigration a priority issue, he could probably force the compromise among Republicans that would break the logjam that has blocked reform since the failed Gang of Eight Bill in 2013.

The Gang of Eight Bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate with bipartisan support and would have passed in the Republican-controlled House with bipartisan support had Republicans allowed a vote on it. But there was no vote because the bill would have passed without the support of a majority of Republicans — and for Republicans, that made it a non-starter.

But if Trump, as he says, "could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters," then he surely has enough political clout to lead Congress toward a compromise on immigration reform.

That's what Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander was trying to convey to the president when he looked him in the eye on Wednesday and told him he stood at the brink of history. "You may be able to do for immigration what Nixon did for China and Reagan did for the Soviet Union," said Alexander, appealing to Trump's yearning for affirmation.

"Thank you very much. We need Democrats' support," said Trump, ignoring the point.

Inspiring the base

What Trump seems to want most is continued chaos on immigration that he can exploit in the coming campaign. He has seen Democratic turnout in special elections rise into a blue wave, and to counter that he needs an issue that will excite his own base to vote in November.

His record on the economy might be good, but it's not a base-vote driver. Ditto the tax cut. And no one votes for a trade war.

But immigration reliably electrifies the Trump voter. And so, once again, the president is appealing to the cultural anxieties of his base.

Trump arrives for an event in Washington on Friday with people who have lost family members from crime committed by undocumented immigrants. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Last week, he tweeted about the influx of migrants as an infestation. He linked them to the brutal MS-13 gang and stood on a stage to showcase the victims of illegal immigrant crime and amplify their heart-rending personal stories.

All of that is to persuade Americans to judge the families who are seeking asylum at the border by the worst imaginable standards — to see them as an existential threat to the culture, a mortal threat to the population, as less than human.

In a speech Tuesday, he boasted about calling Mexicans rapists when he launched his presidential campaign. "That's why I got elected!" he said.

He's not finished with that yet. In fact, he might have only just begun. But there's no certainty his strident approach will resonate as widely as it might have a week or so ago.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.