The Worse Things Are, the Better They Are for Trump

The president’s latest moves on immigration and health care suggest his goal is not to fix the system, but to exacerbate turmoil for political gain.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

President Donald Trump has spent time recently attacking socialists, which makes it all the more peculiar how closely his recent moves on immigration and health care echo Vladimir Lenin.

Not in their specifics, of course. The Bolshevik leader would have favored greater government control of health care, and in 1913 he delighted in that era’s equivalent of Latin American immigration to the United States: “American capitalism is tearing millions of workers of backward Eastern Europe out of their semi-feudal conditions and is putting them in the ranks of the advanced, international army of the proletariat.”

But Trump and Lenin share a strategic instinct. Lenin reportedly said, “The worse, the better”—meaning that conditions that were more miserable for the people were likely to help his political aims. Trump’s approach to immigration and health care, both in the past few days and throughout his presidency, evince a similar understanding of power. My colleague Adam Serwer has argued that the cruelty of many of Trump’s policies is the point. In some cases, however, the point may be making things worse to his benefit.

Last week, the president announced plans to end assistance to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. “No money goes there anymore,” Trump said Friday. “We’re giving them tremendous aid. We stopped payment.” The move affects about $450 million, according to The New York Times, including money to support law-enforcement efforts against gangs. The actual cash is a minimal amount—a little less than 8 percent of the $5.7 billion Trump demanded for his border wall when he shut down the government in December, and less than 2 percent of the $25 billion the administration estimates the wall would cost overall.

The fact that the aid numbers are small doesn’t justify spending them per se, but there’s a strong consensus among Latin America experts that these cuts are counterproductive. It’s common to talk about push and pull factors in immigration. Pull factors are things that draw migrants to a new country: the promise of better work, for example. Push factors are those things that drive migrants to leave home: unstable politics, high crime, poor economies. Trump has worked to reduce one pull factor by trying to make it harder to get asylum, but he has limited options beyond that, because no president wants to make the economy worse in order to deter immigration (though Trump has been willing to risk hurting the economy to install protectionist tariffs).

But Trump’s decision to cut aid to countries that are major sources of immigrants to the United States seems likely to only increase the push factors, driving more people to attempt the journey as conditions in their home countries stagnate or worsen. As my colleague Peter Beinart writes, push factors have been badly overlooked in the U.S. political debate over immigration. There’s not much to suggest that Trump disagrees about the likely effects of cutting aid. Maybe he doesn’t care, or maybe he’s neglected to learn, which would fit with his general approach to policy.

Perhaps more likely is that increasing push factors is the point. Many of Trump’s decisions on border issues seem designed not to solve any problem. This includes Trump’s standing threat to close the border with Mexico; his decision to end DACA, a program that he has said achieves goals he favors; and most prominently, his decision to separate unauthorized immigrant families arriving at the border. None of these do anything to solve or reduce what Trump has called a crisis at the border. In fact, they are likely to only worsen the crisis. Separations, for example, became a costly and distracting circus, taking up already short space in detention centers and then necessitating a major effort to reunite families and restore the status quo ante when courts predictably rejected the policy.

Along similar lines, it’s more politically useful for Trump to be in a lengthy fight about building a border wall than it is to have actually built it. If and when the wall is built, it will become clear that it isn’t a panacea for immigration, but in the meantime, it’s a useful political wedge. The more migrants are coming toward the United States, the more Trump can warn of an “invasion” and inflame nativist fears that he thinks will help him win reelection. Trump isn’t really interested in solving immigration. A permanent crisis is more useful to him.

The same dynamic holds true on Obamacare. Last week, the White House told a federal appeals court that the Affordable Care Act should be thrown out entirely. Trump then announced that he was calling on Congress to produce a replacement for the law. The decision was reportedly made over the objections of Trump’s attorney general and secretary of health and human services, and it has received a chilly reception from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

When the GOP controlled Congress in 2017 and 2018, it tried at length to repeal Obamacare and failed, and there’s no chance a Democratic House will be amenable to rescinding or replacing the law. In the absence of legislative movement, Trump has worked to weaken the ACA throughout his presidency. He has cut back on outreach and advertisement, slashed subsidies, supported repeal of the individual mandate, and enabled so-called association health plans, which a judge struck down last week, calling them “clearly an end-run” around the law.

The cynicism of Trump’s latest move on the ACA runs deep. The administration still doesn’t have any plan for what it actually wants to do on health care. Meanwhile, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports that the president doesn’t expect to win in the courts: “Trump has privately said he thinks the lawsuit to strike down the Affordable Care Act will probably fail in the courts, according to two sources who discussed the matter with the president last week.” For Trump, it’s a political win-win. Either he gets Obamacare thrown out, or judges rule against him, giving him another chance to rail against the judicial system, delegitimizing it and further undermining the rule of law.

None of these steps would make any sense if Trump’s goal was to improve health care, just as cutting aid to the Northern Triangle would make no sense if the president wanted to reduce immigration. But increasing turmoil is the point, since the worse things are, the better things are. For Donald Trump, at least.