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The President Is Now Making Policy By Meme

Releasing detained illegal immigrants into sanctuary cities isn't going to help Trump's immigration policy goals. But it sure will own the libs.
April 16, 2019
The President Is Now Making Policy By Meme
(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

In the age of Trump, an age full of little irritations, perhaps none has been so maddening as this: the constant, patronizing insistence of MAGAsphere taste-makers that nothing is really as it appears. It’s only to your deranged mind, they cluck, that the president seems erratic and spasmodic, yanked this way and that by his raging id and the yakkers on TV. The refined eye sees through such crudity to the hale and hearty policy vision beneath. So perhaps one can’t help but feel a stab of perverse pleasure when Trump does something so transcendently, ostentatiously stupid and short-sighted that his esoteric readers have no choice but to grit their teeth and look the other way.

The most recent example of came this past weekend, after the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration recently tossed around the idea of releasing detained illegal immigrants onto the streets of sanctuary cities as a way of punishing Democrats for opposing Trump’s border security proposals. That plan was scrapped, the Post reported, after pushback from Immigrations and Custom Enforcement officials, who objected that the plan—which, to reiterate, involved bussing illegal immigrants to Democratic cities to punish Democrats politically—was a potential logistical and PR nightmare. (When ICE is worried that your border security plan looks bad, it might be time to reconsider your life choices.)

In the initial aftermath of the report, many on the right scoffed about it as much ado about a dumb, quickly discarded idea. “This was just a suggestion that was floated and rejected, which ended any further discussion,” the White House said in a statement. The Federalist’s David Harsanyi offered a comparable gloss: “Someone brings up a stupid idea in a meeting. Someone else leeks stupid idea to media. Media breathlessly reports that stupid idea was being ‘contemplated,’ even though it was likely never taken seriously. Partisans spend a day hyperventilating about the story.” There goes that fake news media, making mountains out of molehills again!

Unfortunately, someone forgot to give this memo to the president. Because Trump has taken quite a shine to the idea. He tweeted several times over the weekend that he was indeed considering “placing illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities.” By Monday, his mind was made up:

And with that, a whole pile of familiar apparatus rattled into action: The White House press shop scrambled to walk back their former statements, with spokesman Hogan Gidley implausibly suggesting that the plan shouldn’t be considered “political retribution,” but rather “an olive branch” to Democratic cities.

And with a collective sigh, the media rolled up their sleeves to address the thing at the actual level of policy.

As policy, just for the record, the proposal is beyond asinine. Trump is saying, right out in the open, that he wants to use the levers of power to make things worse for his political enemies—the kind of thing that would be enough to end the careers of most politicians all by itself. Remember Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge?

And that isn’t even the dumbest thing about the proposal. Consider that not only does this masterplan not further the administration’s own stated immigration goals—it actively undermines them! Far from discouraging more Central Americans from making the long trek through Mexico to sue for asylum in the United States, the Trump White House is broadcasting that anyone who makes it will be stuck on a bus and dropped off in a jurisdiction where the local government is friendly and federal immigration enforcement will be at great pains to deport them should their asylum claims be denied.  

But of course, that’s only if you treat Trump’s announcement as an actual policy proposal. And it’s not.

For the president of the United States, this isn’t a policy. It’s a meme. It’s owning the libs. It’s the ne plus ultra of a Twitter dunk that was old even before Trump took office: “If you love illegal immigrants so much, why don’t you let them come hang out in YOUR neck of the woods?”

All this is happening in the immediate aftermath of Trump blowing up his entire immigration and border security team, from DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on down, and replacing officials he believed to be slow-walking his agenda. This, too, was grounds for celebration for a certain type of MAGAite: All those deep-staters were secretly trying to stymie the Trump immigration agenda, but no more! It’s pedal to the metal now!

It’s par for the course for the Trump White House, which has for years been busily dismantling its institutional guardrails in the interest of allowing more and more executive policy to be dictated by the president’s changing whims. In throwing his support behind a counterproductive policy with no aim other than lib-ownership, Trump is showing that this strategy has reached another high-water mark.

But don’t worry. The water will keep rising. There will always be more insufficiently-faithful staffers to purge, more awesomely subservient toadies to elevate. More grease can always be applied to the skids of Trumpism. 

On second thought, maybe it’s not so funny after all.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.