The chaos surrounding Donald Trump’s executive orders suspending entry into America for refugees and (subject to case-by-case exceptions) anyone from a select list of Muslim countries is being widely interpreted as signaling a major blunder. Internationally, the mess is alienating allies, ruining America’s image, and quite possibly inciting the very terrorism it is alleged to prevent. At home, protests have erupted at most airports with international flights, where federal judges are beginning to intervene to stop implementation of the orders. Confusion is evident within the administration, with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security having been blindsided by the orders. And Republicans, whose relationship with Team Trump is already being strained by confusion and conflict over a host of domestic policy issues, are mostly running for the hills or publicly protesting.
It is all, to bring back a metaphor from the 2016 campaign, a dumpster fire. And as with major elements of the Trump general-election campaign, the whole brouhaha is being micromanaged by Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, two nonlawyers and outside-the-mainstream political operatives who are ignoring the legal and political ramifications of their actions.
It’s all so familiar that Trump’s critics should resist the temptation to underestimate these people yet again. They do not give a damn about respectable opinion; they live to defy it. They will not be shaken by judicial thunder; they view judges as pawns in larger battles involving more powerful political and economic forces. They don’t fear GOP elected officials; they’ve watched Republicans turn tail, roll over, and beg for tax-cut treats and other policy concessions; just the day before Trump started this latest conflagration the entire congressional party assembled in Philadelphia to beg its new master for direction.
And most of all, Trump and his closest associates do not fear blue-state protests of the sort that swept the nation this weekend. More likely than not, they exult in them, and have planned all along to exploit them to show Trump loyalists they are fighting disorderly and essentially unpatriotic people who value civil liberties more than national security, diversity more than national identity, and America’s enemies more than America.
The “Muslim ban” is just one of many signs that the new administration is courting confrontation and encouraging fear and anger among its enemies. So where a lot of liberal observers may look at this weekend’s events and envision an early grave for Trump’s presidency, a victim of its leaders’ incompetence and extremism, it could well be the beginning of four or eight years of regular provocation and intensifying polarization engineered by people on both sides who value the radicalization of American politics as essential to their radical goals.
Bannon and company could, of course, miscalculate and overreach. But the thing to watch is not how many people join protests in places where Donald Trump has always been despised and derided. Nor do the conservatives who have not completely sold their souls to Trump have many battalions, either. It’s whether Trump’s core supporters and the closely associated GOP “base” begin to lose faith. A movement built largely on hatred of “political correctness” is not going to be stopped by protesters demanding acceptance and equality for Muslims and other minorities. And there are early signs Trump fans are either indifferent to the chaos at the airports, or are enjoying the anguish of those most affected.
In any event, Trump-haters need to remember how often they were wrong in the past about the political salience of his strange crew’s hateful message. The weekend’s protests, like the women’s marches the day after Trump’s inauguration, and the many signs of defiance before that, could be critical in building the kind of united and energized opposition that could inspire fear in Republicans facing reelection in 2018 and 2020, and eventually drive Trump from office. But the new regime is not going to collapse by the weight of its craziness and irresponsibility, certainly not so long as the people who own much of America see the glittering prospect of owning even more, while millions thrill at the discomfiture of hated elites.