Trump Hits A Bump

For the first time since he became president, Trump has had to make a very visible retreat from a position he had been ardently defending.

He once declared that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue in New York and not lose any votes. Apparently, wrenching children away from their families is a more serious offence.

The chorus of disapproval was remarkable in its diversity. National and international media were united in their criticism. They did not buy into Trump’s contention that it was somehow the fault of the Democrats for not supporting his proposal for a massively expensive wall on the southern border.

Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau in Canada and Theresa May in the United Kingdom were among world leaders saying that the policy was wrong. Pope Francis called it immoral.

Closer to home, two major business groups condemned the practice of separating children from their parents. The Business Roundtable called it “cruel and contrary to American values.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that “this is not who we are, and it must end now.”

CEOs at Google and Facebook condemned immigrant child detention centres. American Airlines and others asked the government to not use their planes to transport children away from their families.

New England governors, including two Republicans, withdrew their National Guard contingents from border service. The U.S. Conference of Mayors resolved unanimously its opposition to separating children from their families.

Former first ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama appeared together on television to express opposition. Hilary Clinton likewise expressed disagreement. Both Melania and Ivanka Trump leaned on the president to back off.

Bill O’Reilly, a friend of Trump and former Fox TV host, tweeted his concerns about the policy.

Republican members of Congress, who have been remarkably spineless during primary season, for fear that Trump would endorse a competitor, are now speaking up. Orrin Hatch led a group of thirteen Republican Senators in a letter which explicitly rejected Trump’s claim that legislation was needed to solve the problem, saying “…we cannot support implementation of a policy that results in the categorical forced separation of minor children from their parents.”

Evangelical church leaders, who have been generally supportive of Trump and are influential with his base, were explicit in saying that the policy was not compatible with Christian teaching. The Economist rejected the absurd proposition by Attorney-General Jeff Sessions that the policy was biblically supported. Using the shortest verse in the Bible, its headline was “Jesus Wept.”

On Wednesday, Trump signed an order that will at least temporarily suspend the policy. Breitbart News, which has both promoted and echoed Trump’s anti-immigrant views, headlined: “Trump buckles, caves to left-wing hate with Exec Order.”

When Trump hears criticism, he often strikes back with ad hominem attacks on the critics. Not so this time, perhaps because the critics were so numerous and diverse. On Thursday, Trump tried to change the subject, calling the media’s disparagement of his negotiations with North Korea “almost treasonous.”

Will further tweet barrages cause this episode to be forgotten in the coming weeks, or will there be a lasting impact? For the majority of Americans who already disapprove of Trump, this will just cement their convictions.

Doubts may increase among those who have been neutral. Trump’s loyal base will be told that it is all the fault of the “swamp,” Trump’s term for what happens in Washington. Most will buy that—some followers choose to believe that the pictures of distraught children were photoshopped. But some followers may become less ardent, and less willfully blind.

He has another problem coming at him because of his trade war with allies and others. Manufacturers who use steel or aluminum inputs will become less competitive. Some will have to reduce shifts or even close. Exporters targeted by countervailing duties (think motorcycles in Wisconsin, bourbon distillers in Kentucky) will lose sales and cut staff.

Consumers will find prices at Walmart for some Chinese goods will be sharply higher. And in the absence of a legislative fix, the problem of separated children may repeat itself.

Trump’s approval ratings have been inching upwards in recent months. If the recent incident is a one-off, he is unlikely to lose much of his base. But recurrent self-inflicted crises may cause his support to dwindle to a small hard core.


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