By Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Donald Trump’s tweets over the weekend blaming Democrats for “any deaths of children or others at the border” were as ugly as could be imagined, after a year in which Washington seemed to lose its capacity for shock. And yet, they may only be the beginning. As the president faces a new year of scandals, subpoenas, a divided Congress and a shuttered federal government, he appears to be homing in on a newly uninhibited and cynical strategy, designed to stimulate the most reactionary elements of his base.
Holed up in the White House, having traded his planned two-week vacation at Mar-a-Lago for a dead-end battle over the border wall, Trump has been on a tear on Twitter, furiously raging against the world. In the past several days, there have been dozens of tweets, employing the president’s trademark Germanic capitalization, with topics ranging from Robert Mueller to Nancy Pelosi, outgoing Senator Bob Corker, a long defense of his decision to withdraw from Syria, and of course, endless paeans to The Wall. Taken as a whole, they seem to indicate the emergence of a new, unreconstructed Trump.
Trump, after all, is more unconstrained than ever—and feels, perhaps, that he has less to lose. In the past year alone, he has parted on unwelcome terms with Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and former economic adviser Gary Cohn, not to mention the beleaguered ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But ditching the chaperones who were running adult day-care in the West Wing, while freeing for Trump, has also unnerved moderate Republicans. Kelly’s candid, and at times cringeworthy exit interview with the Los Angeles Times, in which he confirmed much of the reporting regarding the chaos in the administration, will not help matters.
Yet as Trump has gleaned, restraint and compromise do not play well with the far right—a fact he rediscovered to his chagrin earlier this month, when he signaled that he was prepared to accept a wall-less budget deal with the Democrats. The Ann Coulter wing of the party rebelled, and Trump reversed course, effectively shutting down the government. His subsequent attempts to present his base with an alternative to the concrete wall he campaigned on—an “artistically designed” fence made of see-through steel slats–drew scorn from his supporters and hardline allies, who viewed it as capitulation. “I guess those awe-inspiring wall prototypes we saw photographed in San Diego back in March were simply placed in some dump, right next to Trump’s regard for his supporters,” columnist Eddie Scarry wrote in the Washington Examiner, while Coulter excoriated Trump for breaking a key campaign promise. (“The chant wasn’t ‘SIGN A BILL WITH B.S. PROMISES ABOUT ‘BORDER SECURITY’ AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE, GUARANTEED TO FAIL!’ It was ‘BUILD A WALL!’” she tweeted.) Trump unfollowed her shortly afterwards, but the message and warning resonated: over the holidays, he dedicated roughly half of his holiday tweets to defending the border wall and blaming the Democrats for its non-completion.
The about-face comes at a time when Trump faces several existential threats: the Mueller probe is unearthing more ties between him and the Russian government, the Democrats are about to acquire subpoena powers in the House, and a growing number of Democratic candidates are clamoring to kick him out of the White House in 2020. Although Trump surely relishes the opportunity to turn the national focus toward the Democratic primary, and to unite the Republican Party once again behind him, the polling suggests his position is as weak as ever. The latest survey from Morning Consult, in the middle of the government shutdown, found that only 39 percent of Americans approved of his performance and 56 percent disapproved—the worst numbers since Charlottesville. Even Rasmussen, the typically conservative-friendly polling service, continues to find his net approval ratings underwater.
Will a metric ton of Twitter red meat be enough to satiate the base? And will the base be enough, plus wary moderates who can’t bring themselves to vote blue, be enough to secure another term in 2020? From the state of his Twitter feed this week, it appears Trump is betting voters want more, not less, of his unadulterated id. If 2019 looks anything like how Trump is winding down 2018, the new year presages more unhinged recriminations, social-media rambling, and dead kids as political props.
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