In certain respects, Donald Trump has been a far more “normal” Republican president than many pundits had predicted (or are willing to admit). Upon taking office, the mogul left his most heretical deviations from GOP dogma at the White House gates: The “populist” insurgent’s welfare chauvinism gave way to Paul Ryanism; his neo-isolationism, to something resembling conventional right-wing hawkery; his gestures of tolerance toward “the LGBT community,” to the pious persecution of transgender Americans.
On other fronts, the president’s apparent abnormality has had less to do with his ingenuity than with our collective amnesia: There is nothing abnormal about a Republican administration launching a crusade against voter fraud that is, in reality, a crusade against Democratic voter participation; or about one imposing tariffs on foreign steel; or running up the deficit; or sabotaging regulatory agencies; or even politicizing federal law enforcement.
And yet, it would be a mistake to suggest that Trump’s innovations have been purely stylistic, that he’s merely stamped his garish branding on the GOP’s classic product. Beyond the unprecedented illiberalism of the president’s rhetoric, his approach to governance has been substantively distinctive enough to warrant its own title. Trumpism is real.
True, the president hasn’t converted his party to the populist paleoconservatism he preached on the campaign trail. But he has implemented an immigration policy that serves white nationalist aims to a degree without modern precedent; elevated corruption into a philosophy of government; and prioritized spectacle over substance in his approach to foreign affairs to the point that America’s geopolitical strategy is now less neoconservative or isolationist or realist than it is nihilistic.
Taken together, these innovations amount to a novel variation on the conservatism Trump inherited — one that truly came into its own this past week. To see why this is the case, consider three developments from the past five days:
(1) The White House stripped legal status from 57,000 Honduran immigrants — who had been residing in the United States for decades — over the fervent objections of the State Department.
American immigration policy has long been cruel, and shaped by nativist fears. Donald Trump’s approach to policing undocumented immigration is less distinct from Barack Obama’s than many of the latter’s admirers would like to believe.
Nevertheless, the current administration’s overall immigration agenda is markedly different from those of its predecessors. Racist cruelty is not merely a feature of Trumpist immigration policy, but its first principle: The White House’s overriding goal is to inflict terror and suffering on America’s nonwhite noncitizens, as a means of combating “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty” — as former White House national security adviser Michael Anton once described America’s status quo immigration regime. (The president gave less eloquent expression to this same worldview, when he insisted that America did need not any more immigrants from “shithole countries.”)
This reality is best illustrated by Trump’s treatment of immigrants with temporary protected status (TPS). Established by Congress in 1990, TPS allows migrants whose home countries have been destabilized by natural disasters or civil strife to live and work in the U.S. legally, on a temporary basis. In practice, it has provided hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the developing world with de facto permanent residency in the U.S. Over the past two decades, various earthquakes and hurricanes led the United States to give large numbers of Salvadorans, Haitians, and Hondurans TPS; then, the resiliently adverse political and economic conditions in those countries led our government to allow those migrants to keep their protected status, indefinitely.
Many of these immigrants have now lived the majority of their adult lives in the United States. Some have started families here — TPS recipients are the fathers and mothers of an estimated 273,000 U.S.-born children, all of whom are entitled to American citizenship. In a different political era, Congress might have passed legislation providing this population with permanent legal status by now. But with comprehensive immigration reform paralyzed on Capitol Hill, previous administrations — Democratic and Republican — have simply allowed TPS recipients to renew their protected status every 18 months. After all, what good would be served by deporting hardworking, longtime U.S. residents, who are raising American citizens, back to countries plagued by poverty and violence?
The Trump White House refuses to answer that question.
Instead, it has moved to deport 300,000 Central American and Haitian TPS recipients without providing any justification beyond a transparently fraudulent appeal to legal necessity: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has insisted that her hands are tied — the administration is legally obligated to withdraw these immigrants’ protections once the conditions that prompted them subside. Honduras has recovered from Hurricane Mitch; “temporary” means temporary. If Congress wishes to give these people permanent status, it can do so.
But this narrative is patently false: U.S. law requires the Executive branch to consider whether the TPS recipients’ home countries are stable enough to accept a large number of deportees before it terminates their protected status. And as the Washington Post revealed this week, career officials in the departments of State and Homeland Security concluded that those countries weren’t. In fact, U.S. diplomats warned the White House that deporting TPS recipients en masse was likely to produce a “bonanza for smuggling networks and gangs,” as many of those longtime U.S. residents would seek extralegal means of returning to this country.
The administration ignored this advice. When Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke extended protections for Hondurans last fall, John Kelly called her from Asia “to convey his frustration,” while Stephen Miller hectored other DHS staff. Duke resigned in February; last Friday, the administration moved to expel the 57,000 Honduran recipients of TPS, despite the fact that their home country is suffering from an epidemic of gang violence so severe, many of its citizens joined the caravan that marched from Central America to the U.S. border just last month.
Between the 300,000 immigrants stripped of TPS and the 700,000 Dreamers denied DACA, the Trump administration has attempted to revoke the legal status of roughly 1 million longtime U.S. residents; all while offering no explanation for its actions beyond the bogus claim that they were legally required.
The reason that the White House has neglected to disclose the actual rationale behind these policies is simple: Its true motivation is too incendiary to formally acknowledge.
You cannot expel immigrants who have been thriving in the U.S. for two decades, out of concern that they might prove unable to assimilate. You can’t deport a population that has a higher labor-force participation rate than native-born Americans on the grounds that it will be a burden on the U.S. economy. You cannot claim that your immigration policy is motivated by concern for public safety, when you move to deport law-abiding longtime residents — even though your diplomats warn that doing so will benefit criminal gangs and smugglers. And you certainly can’t claim that your hard-line immigration agenda puts the interests of all American citizens first, when you’re trying to separate hundreds of thousands of American citizens from their mothers and fathers. None of the polite restrictionist arguments apply.
But an impolite argument does: If the Trump administration’s goal is to combat the demographic threat posed by America’s rising population of “Third World foreigners,” then its TPS policy makes perfect sense. Trump can’t stem the tide of new, nonwhite immigrants without Congress’s help. But he can expel those with only a temporary claim to legal residence. And so that is what he has done. Which is to say: A mild form of ethnic cleansing is now a cornerstone of American immigration policy.
Protecting the racial character of the United States was an explicit goal of American immigration law until 1965 — and has been an implicit one since January 2017.
(2) The president declined to condemn his former attorney for openly selling access to his administration.
The American government runs on legal bribes. It is unclear whether Congress would have the resources to function if corporations suddenly stopped paying armies of lobbyists to supply lawmakers with legislative language. And every White House has well-connected friends who make a buck off leasing their access to the halls of power.
But Trumpist corruption is different than the D.C. standard. The Trump White House does not treat influence-peddling as an open secret, but as a philosophy of government. The president routinely argues, in no uncertain terms, that the state should safeguard his personal interests. He has excoriated his attorney general for failing to “protect” him the way (that he imagines) Eric Holder “protected” Obama. Trump and his administration have openly threatened to punish businesses and billionaires who fund media critical of his presidency — while they’ve done massive regulatory favors for a local news broadcaster that retails their propaganda. And, of course, the president and his family have worked to convert his public power into personal gain in myriad, conspicuous ways.
His Cabinet officials have heeded this example, together amassing a cornucopia of corruption scandals more varied and abundant than than any previous administration has ever assembled. A few have resigned for their offenses; the most serious offenders have not.
And none of it has had an appreciable effect on the president’s (admittedly low) popularity. Trump has ostensibly pioneered a form of corruption in which the public is inundated by so many scandals, no single one can linger in the news long enough to make a significant impression — a form of immunity many have analogized to Montgomery Burns’s immunity to disease:
But the administration’s innovative brand of mind-bogglingly ostentatious corruption reached new heights this week, when a lawyer representing the porn star whom the president paid to keep quiet about their alleged affair in October 2016 (in apparent violation of campaign finance law) revealed that Trump’s lawyer had collected millions of dollars from major corporations that were looking to buy access to — and influence over — the White House.
AT&T has publicly admitted to paying Michael Cohen $200,000 for his “insights” into the administration, just as that administration was reviewing the telecom’s desired merger with Time Warner. The Swiss drugmaker Novartis has confirmed that it paid the president’s attorney $1.2 million in hopes of influencing Trump’s approach to repealing the Affordable Care Act. And an investment firm tied to a Russian oligarch deposited $500,000 in Cohen’s “Essential Consultants LLC,” the same limited liability corporation that Cohen used to pay off Stormy Daniels.
And yet, as of this writing, the president has felt no need to feign concern over these revelations, or even so much as publicly address the now-public fact that his personal lawyer was selling access to his administration. Previous presidents (almost certainly) would have been compelled to put out a statement expressing shock and dismay at their once trusted adviser’s shady scheming, while reassuring the American people that their White House wasn’t for sale. But Trump doesn’t have to; because his White House is — and proudly so.
(3) The president withdrew the United States from a functional nuclear deproliferation agreement — thereby, undermining its diplomatic credibility and alienating its allies — primarily because he wanted to announce that he was doing so.
The United States has long been a reckless, lawless actor on the world stage. It remains doubtful that Trump will ever do as much damage to American interests and human welfare as the last Republican to occupy his office. And yet, as delusional and destructive as George W. Bush’s foreign policy was, you couldn’t fairly call it nihilistic. His administration had a clear idea of what it wanted to change about geopolitics, and a clear theory of how American power could be marshaled to bring those changes about. (Say what you want about the tenets of neoconservatism — at least it’s an ethos.)
Trump has neither. The mogul did not run for president because he had any deeply held convictions about how he wanted to change the world, but merely because he had a deeply felt desire to change how the world saw him. Thus, he is essentially indifferent to the realities of geopolitics; his concern is primarily with how those realities appear to his fellow Fox News viewers. This is why he prefers to get his information about foreign affairs from Steve Doocy, rather than from the most powerful intelligence apparatus ever assembled by humankind. The Trump doctrine isn’t about putting “America First” or achieving “Peace Through Strength.” Its objective is far more innovative: instead of using propaganda as means of advancing his preferred policies, Trump uses policies to advance his preferred propaganda.
The president nearly announced America’s withdrawal from the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement last April — because he wanted to produce a splashy headline to mark his 100th day in office. It took vigorous, last-minute lobbying from the White House staff to prevent Trump from upending America’s diplomatic and economic relationships with its neighbors for the sake of “winning” a news cycle. But no one succeeded in stopping Trump from pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord to achieve the same objective. In announcing that decision, the president insisted that he was open to staying in the deal if it could be made fair to the United States — even though the agreement’s carbon emissions targets are self-imposed, and thus, Trump was free to revise America’s at will.
Critically, Trump’s quest for spectacle is not constrained by any overarching worldview. Earlier this year, the president wanted to use Syria as a prop for performing his isolationism, and therefore called on his advisers to plan an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from that country. Weeks later, Fox News broadcast the bodies of dead children from an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, and Trump promptly decided that he’d prefer to play the role of world policeman, instead.
This week, Trump took his privileging of propaganda over policy to harrowing new heights. On first glance, the president’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement may look more like an example of Republican extremism than Trumpist idiosyncrasy. After all, every major conservative media outlet and political figure opposed Barack Obama’s diplomatic breakthrough, and most called for it to be undone at the first opportunity. But most Establishment Republicans understand that there’s a difference between how their party chooses to represent reality on cable news, and what reality actually is. No Republican president would have entered the Iran deal — but it’s unlikely than any other Republican president would have exited it in the manner that Donald Trump did this week.
The reason for this is simple: Withdrawing from the agreement, over the opposition of all its other signatories, requires accepting immense diplomatic costs with little discernible benefit.
Less than three years ago, America promised Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China that it would suspend sanctions on companies and countries that did business with Iran, so long as Tehran suspended its nuclear weapons program. European and Asian firms proceeded to establish investments and trade relationships with Iran, while Tehran dutifully paused its proliferation efforts (even Trump does not actually deny that it has). And yet, the U.S. is abrogating the agreement anyway — and vowing to impose sanctions on our allies’ firms unless they abandon their investments in Iran. The effect of this behavior is to antagonize our core European allies, and forfeit the credibility that underwrites all of America’s diplomatic efforts, not least its imminent attempt to broker a denuclearization deal with North Korea, which will require convincing Pyongyang that the U.S. can be trusted to honor its promises to regimes it does not like.
The ostensible reason for accepting these grave costs is not to prevent Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon (the deal was achieving that objective), but rather to impose economic hardships on Iran that will undermine its ability to expand its regional influence. It’s unclear why America would have a greater interest in protecting Saudi hegemony than preventing nuclear proliferation. But even if one accepts that premise, Trump’s decision makes little sense: Europe remains committed to the agreement and is already taking measures to ensure that the deal still benefits Iran’s economy, including by providing Tehran with European Investment Bank financing.
The reality is that America just poisoned its relations with the EU because Donald Trump wanted to go on television and say that he had killed Barack Obama’s rotten deal. Maintaining the Iran agreement required Trump to bless his predecessor’s diplomatic victory every six months, by extending a waiver on U.S. sanctions. It took heroic efforts on the part of James Mattis and Rex Tillerson to get Trump to bite that bullet last year. But this president simply could not be expected to formally pass up the opportunity to realize a propaganda victory — over and over again –— while John Bolton, Israel, and Saudi Arabia were all imploring him to indulge his instinct.
America’s diplomatic credibility is now dead. But Trumpism is alive and kicking.