Just because more people are worried about immigration doesn’t mean they agree with Trump. People feel strongly about family separations, but a majority are opposed. Opposition to the border wall remains strong. General support for immigration is soaring. The disconnect between making people pay attention to an issue and persuading people to agree with him is why Trump occasionally overreaches with his crisis creation.
Since the early days of the Trump administration, journalists, including me, have wondered what might happen when Trump faced a crisis that was not of his own creation. If he can bobble a self-created catastrophe, what would happen when he had to grapple with an unforeseen one? I’m starting to think I might have been wrong, though, in asking that question. Perhaps what’s really happening is that Trump is able to control what becomes a “real” crisis, too.
As Kombiz Lavasany pointed out when this idea came up again this week, Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico was a genuine crisis. It’s possible as many as 4,600 Americans died because of the hurricane, and while storms are natural, the disasters that ensue are often the result of human decisions. The island remains devastated; water and electricity have been slow to return. Despite all this, Trump seems to have escaped the kind of opprobrium that George W. Bush received after Katrina. Some of the reasons for that are particular to Puerto Rico: The island is far away from the mainland U.S., it’s populated by minorities, and there seems to be some confusion about the fact that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
Yet Trump’s de facto escape on Puerto Rico is also the result of decisions he made. When the storm hit, the president took widespread criticism for his detachment from the crisis, even as compared to his arms-length handling of hurricane landfalls in the Gulf Coast and Florida. When he finally did go to Puerto Rico, his visit was an embarrassment.
But Trump was playing a long game. By ignoring the storm for so long, he managed to shrink its perceived importance. When he finally did go, his appearance was painful—especially images of the president tossing paper-towel rolls to supplicating recipients like a baseline jumper—but that served to distract the focus from the squalor in Puerto Rico to Trump’s own gaucherie. That’s a success, after a fashion. By creating his own mini-crises, the president effectively marginalized a real one.
The family-separation crisis is not over. Thousands of children remain separated from their parents, with no clear plan for reunifying them, and the executive order that Trump signed seems vulnerable to judicial intervention. Even so, and despite the volatility of the Trump White House, it might even be possible to spot the next crisis coming over the horizon. Trump has started a multi-front trade war, which escalated this week when the president announced plans for a second round of $200 billion in punitive tariffs against China, which promised to respond in kind. Farmers, some of whom were Trump’s strongest supporters, are starting to get upset about the damage the trade war could inflict on them.
For the White House, the game plan seems simple, if not easy to execute: Create a trade war, solve it (either by cowing China or by somehow compensating farmers), and then declare victory and take credit. If it turns out that winning trade wars is not as easy as he has said, however, the president can always just concoct a new crisis.