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The Art of the Spectacle

Tear gassing migrant children took only a moment. But it was the work of years.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

For any authoritarian government, defining reality is crucial to exercising power. History becomes a series of myths that justify and animate the regime’s actions; truth becomes a weapon to be wielded against enemies; lies become a shield for supporters and sympathizers to escape scrutiny. Trump has adopted one authoritarian trick after another to his playbook over the years. But obscuring truth with theater will always be his signature act.

On Sunday, after a peaceful march protesting U.S. immigration policies on Sunday, some members of a Central American migrant caravan tried to cross the border at the closed San Ysidro port of entry. Border Patrol agents responded by firing tear gas at the crowd to drive them away. Among those caught up in the incident were young children traveling with their parents.

Liberals were shocked. But conservative media outlets eagerly devoured the imagery. Fox News Channel aired wall-to-wall coverage of the saga over the past 48 hours, casting asylum-seekers as an invading force and justifying extraordinary measures to stop them. Rob Colburn, the president of the Border Patrol Foundation, told Fox & Friends that pepper spray wasn’t harmful because “you could actually put it on your nachos and eat it.” Other commentators responded with unnerving enthusiasm. “Watching the USA FINALLY defend our borders was the HIGHLIGHT of my Thanksgiving weekend,” right-wing pundit Tomi Lahren wrote on Twitter.

Cruelty, I noted in May, is both a means and an end for the Trump administration, which aims to curtail legal and undocumented immigration to whatever extent Congress and the courts will allow. And on Sunday, the sensationalism through which the administration carries out that cruelty was on full display. The White House, over the past two years, has taken every opportunity it could to exacerbate the tensions that ultimately led to this moment: threatening to close the border if migrants in the caravan tried to lawfully seek asylum, shutting down the channels by which they could obtain it, deploying thousands of soldiers to the border in a campaign stunt, signing an executive order to ban some asylum claims, and more. It’s hard to see what more they could have done to manufacture the conditions—desperate migrants denied internationally recognized legal processes for entry—under which Sunday’s clash unfolded.

Favoring chaotic, freewheeling press scrums instead of reading policy memos, Trump prefers to govern by spectacle over substance. Immigration is one of the few policy spheres where he can do both. Whether consciously hewing to a premade plan or not, the White House’s sequence of policy decisions effectively engineered a border crisis with clear political benefits. With Democrats now set to retake the House in January, this penchant for governing through public surreality will only get more aggressive as his opposition gathers strength.

Part of the problem for Trump and his allies is that, in absolute terms, there isn’t really an “immigration crisis” in the way they conceptualize it. Measuring undocumented immigration can be tricky, but most indicators suggest it has been declining over the past ten years. Apprehensions for illegal border crossings have dropped sharply from their heights under the George W. Bush administration, for example, even as the amount of money spent on border control has more than doubled. Fewer children are born in the U.S. to undocumented parents each year. Almost one million fewer undocumented immigrants are believed to live in the U.S. now than before the Great Recession, when many of these trends began to change.

The Trump administration already imposes labyrinthine barriers to people seeking asylum in the United States. The key threshold is whether an applicant faces a credible fear of persecution if they are returned to their home country. Many applicants fail to cross this hurdle: Immigration officials only granted 20 percent of the asylum requests made during the 2017 fiscal year, the last period for which full Justice Department statistics are available. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who oversaw the nation’s immigration courts, issued multiple rulings that raised the threshold for asylum claims even higher over the past year.

Trump, like many authoritarian figures, understands the value of spectacle. In some ways, this is the defining trait of the president’s life. Trump captured the presidency by casting himself as a successful businessman whose vast personal fortune would insulate him from Washington’s corruption. His career, however, displays no extraordinary business acumen or particular skill at dealmaking. An exhaustive New York Times investigation earlier this year found that Fred Trump, the president’s father, used his own wealth to keep his son afloat as Donald bounced from one failed venture to the next throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

What the president truly excels at is marketing himself. Even as his father kept open a spigot of cash to prop up his son’s enterprises, Donald Trump cultivated a public image of wealth, extravagance, and success. In recent years, his image became an asset of sorts that he burnished with a reality-TV show and leased to hotel properties owned by savvier entrepreneurs around the world. Trump University, his defunct business seminar program, was the ultimate expression of this strategy. While it promised to reveal Trump’s unique insights into real estate investing, the program often amounted to a predatory scheme to extract tens of thousands of dollars from financially troubled “students.” In a way, they learned the secrets to his success better than most.

The president brings the same carnival-barker mien to governing a superpower. He showed little interest in the legislative details of the GOP’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, though he was ardent in demanding that it happen in some fashion. Trump took a similarly hands-off approach during the successful push to overhaul the nation’s tax code a few months later. Trump’s priority was securing a victory, regardless of what form it took. Presidents don’t always delve into the minutiae of the legislative process, but rarely are they so uninterested in it.

This approach has occasionally backfired when it comes to administrative rule-making. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s high-profile and ham-fisted efforts to roll back environmental regulations have fared poorly under judicial scrutiny, for example. (Andrew Wheeler, his more low-key replacement, has had better luck.) Perhaps the best example is Trump’s Muslim ban, which initially began as a slapdash executive order that sparked chaos at U.S. airports and a swift rebuke from multiple federal courts. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the third iteration in a deeply divided 5-4 ruling that Justice Sonia Sotomayor compared to Korematsu v. United States, the infamous 1944 ruling that allowed Japanese internment camps, in dissent.

Whenever the courts rule against Trump on border-related matters, he responds by challenging the judiciary’s legitimacy. After a federal judge in California ruled against his asylum ban earlier this month, Trump denounced him last week as an “Obama judge” and threatened to take action against the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he’s been handed multiple legal defeats. That prompted an extraordinary rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” he told the Associated Press in a statement. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

Trump responded to the chief justice in his usual fashion. “We need protection and security—these rulings are making our country unsafe!” he wrote on Twitter. “Very dangerous and unwise!” This is his strategy in a nutshell: to eliminate nuance, to flatten discourse, to polarize public opinion, and to delegitimize any obstacles in his way. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both sought grand bargains in Congress to change the nation’s immigration system. Trump, by comparison, is amplifying the nation’s divisions, aided by a feedback loop in the conservative media ecosystem and the executive branch’s broad latitude in immigration matters.

The benefits for the latest spectacle—purchased at the price of human suffering—are many. It helps shift the narrative away from the president’s shellacking in the November midterms, where Americans roundly decided to elect a Democratic House of Representatives to keep him in check. Stoking fear along the border distracts the growing economic damage wrought by his trade war, from his dwindling and dispirited White House staff, and from the ever-looming shadow of special counsel Robert Mueller. Telling the American people that he’s saving them from hordes of criminal migrants and throngs of undocumented immigrants sounds better than admitting he’s trying to leave office with a whiter America than when he was sworn in.

The impact is most tangibly felt at the U.S. border, where hundreds of migrants find themselves in a bureaucratic purgatory of sorts while they wait for a chance to apply for asylum. Americans, too, could soon feel the brute force of Trump’s approach to governance, however. With Democrats set to take over the House of Representatives in January, the president will have a new adversary to wrestle with. The looming threat of multiple Democratic inquiries into his administration, his businesses, and his campaign could prompt Trump to try similar hard-edged tactics to change the narrative. The spectacle, along with the all-too-real pain with which it is carried out, and from which it is intended to distract, is just beginning.