Trump Is Baiting Democrats

The president is trying to divide the House caucus and force it to fight the election on his terms. So far, it’s working.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Don’t impeach Donald Trump.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reached that decision early, and she reached it firmly.

The Senate will not remove him, so the impeachment drive will end in failure. In the aftermath of a failed impeachment, holding President Trump to account will become even more difficult than it is now. He’ll think, Why comply with subpoenas? What will they do—impeach me? They already dropped the atom bomb and it went fzzzzt. They’re not going to do it again!

A failed impeachment will rally hesitant and embarrassed Republicans to Trump’s side, risking the seats of moderate Democrats elected in 2018. Meanwhile, it will commit all Democrats, even in safe seats, to a year of talking about process issues. Important as those issues are—Who doubts that Pelosi feels them?—they are not the issues that will mobilize the voters Democrats need in 2020. Pelosi wants to set the board to run on two themes: (1) Trump will take away your health insurance, and (2) Trump wants to deport your husband or wife or nephew or neighbor.

That’s the message, she seems to feel, that can beat Trump in a year when 56 percent of Americans rate their personal finances as “good” or “excellent,” and 57 percent expect even more improvement for themselves and their family in the months ahead.

From the beginning, however, the no-impeachment strategy has faced one big obstacle: Trump himself. It’s not that he wants to be impeached, exactly—but more that he cannot refrain from behaving so outrageously that he drives his opponents toward impeachment. He did it again this past weekend, tweeting at “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” to go back to where they came from. The rage of Democratic indignation, always simmering, was immediately turned to boil.

Three of the four Democratic congresswomen Trump seemed to have in mind were born in the United States. Trump refuses to recognize the Americanness of nonwhite Americans. He led a campaign to slur the Hawaii-born Barack Obama as a Kenyan imposter ineligible for the presidency—and now he is redeploying his ugly racialized concept of citizenship against new targets. A fourth congresswoman attacked by Trump, Representative Ilhan Omar, was born in Somalia. Omar has been naturalized. She has sworn her oath to the United States as a citizen and to the Constitution as a member of Congress. Her own history of defaming American Jews as insufficiently loyal to the United States does not justify turning the trick back upon her.

Barred from expressing their rage against Trump through impeachment, progressive Democrats are turning their rage instead upon Pelosi. They blame her for stopping impeachment. They are now attacking her in increasingly racialized terms. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez complained to The Washington Post on July 10 about Pelosi’s cautions to her progressive members not to ventilate their disagreements on Twitter:

When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood. But the persistent singling out … it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful … the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.

After Trump’s own Twitter eruption this weekend, the job of corralling the progressive Democratic caucus becomes that much more difficult. Trump and Omar do not agree on much, but they do agree on this: Omar should be the face of the modern Democratic Party. Unlike Omar, Trump can force it to happen.

Trump is not playing 3-D chess here. He was probably just watching Tucker Carlson on DVR, and being plunged on tape delay into the same rage that Carlson had stoked in real time in the angry old men who watch him live.

Plan or no plan, though, Trump hit the Democratic Party at its point of vulnerability. He is driving it toward ever more radical outcomes: against the enforcement of immigration laws and for the acceptance of virtually all border crossers; against the bread-and-butter issues that will mobilize the voters the Democrats need and for the symbolic actions that will gratify the educated urban progressives who live in the safest Democratic districts in the country.

Pelosi has been right at every move of this game. She is working to replace Trump at the ballot box, and she is working as best she can from the House to avoid mistakes that will help him and hurt the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.

Most of Pelosi’s party may well know and agree that she is right. But knowing and doing are two very different things. Trump is determined to make it impossible for Democrats to act on Pelosi’s knowledge—to break the discipline Pelosi has imposed on her party and to empower the Democrats who want to win Twitter today, rather than win the White House in 2020.

Will Democrats be goaded? The 2020 outcome may turn on whether the Democratic House caucus can continue to emulate its leader’s clarity of purpose and firmness of self-command.