On Tuesday, President Trump convened his Cabinet in the White House. First to speak after a long, rambling, and inaccuracy-filled monologue by Trump himself was Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In a Cabinet where flowery praise of the President has become standard, Carson outdid himself. A celebrated brain surgeon whose odd asides had been one of the minor subplots of the 2016 Republican Presidential primaries, Carson has largely existed on the margins of the Trump show since joining the Administration, except for one brief scandal in which his spending of more than thirty thousand dollars on office furniture was revealed. He had an important role to play this week, however.
Carson is the lone African-American in Trump’s Cabinet, and Tuesday’s meeting took place forty-eight hours into a furor over the President’s Sunday-morning tweets attacking four left-wing Democratic members of Congress, all of them women of color. The Squad, as they are collectively known, should “go back” to the countries they came from, Trump tweeted, although three of the four are U.S.-born and all, of course, are American. The tweets were instantly condemned as racist, but the President, unrepentant, seemed to want to keep the fight going. First, Carson was sent to Fox News to provide cover for Trump. “I have an advantage of knowing the President very well, and he’s not a racist, and his comments are not racist,” Carson told viewers. At the Cabinet meeting, Carson offered more validation for the President. Here was his contribution to the national dialogue, as recorded by the White House’s own transcript:
secretary carson: Thank you, Mr. President. And just before I talk a little bit about what’s going on at hud, I just want to thank you for your incredible courage—
the president: Thank you.
secretary carson: —and stamina and resilience with unwithering criticism, unfair criticism, all the time. And I would just, sort of, sum it up by saying: Would you rather have a non-politician whose speech is unfiltered, who gets a lot of stuff done? Or somebody with a silver tongue who gets nothing done?
the president: But I thought I had a silver tongue. [Laughter.] I heard that so often. I always thought I had a silver tongue. [Laughter.] But I agree with you.
secretary carson: But, you know, as I told you before, I think God is using you.
Carson’s shameless sucking up to Trump, an act of self-abasement on live television, was hard to watch. But it wasn’t treated as news. Few accounts even remarked on it. His brief appearance as Trump’s human shield did nothing to halt the accusations that the President is an unreconstructed racist. Trump himself essentially ignored Carson’s defense, not only not retreating from his tweets about the four freshman Democratic congresswomen but going to a campaign rally in North Carolina, on Wednesday night, where he launched an extensive, pre-planned attack on them. One by one, he read their names from his teleprompter, stopping when he got to that of Representative Ilhan Omar, an immigrant from Somalia, and listening with apparent approval as thousands of red-shirted maga fans chanted, “Send her back! Send her back!”
The racism, it turns out, wasn’t a mistake, a slip of Trump’s otherwise silver tongue, as Carson would have it. It was a calculated political play, and the news of the last few days was that Trump had revealed it so clearly: this is how intends to run for reëlection, in 2020.
How do you write about a week like this in America? There have been many breaking points in the Trump Presidency; everybody has his or her own triggers. But here it is, 2019, and we are debating racist Presidential tweets, and who is a real American, and whether “concentration camps” is the right phrase for what is happening at the southern border. On Friday, Vice-President Mike Pence saw with his own eyes hundreds of men kept in inhuman and inhumane conditions in Texas, men forced to exist in such squalor that their armed guards wore masks to stave off the stench of so many unwashed bodies. It was terrible. And then Trump and Pence denied that it was any such thing at all. It couldn’t be a “concentration camp,” Trump even said at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, because it was very well run.
Republicans, meanwhile, are not only sticking with Trump as the country’s division and discord deepens, they approve of it. Many are even cheering him on. On Capitol Hill, just four Republican representatives joined with Democrats on a symbolic resolution condemning the tweets. Half of the country is appalled but not really sure how to combat him; the other half is cheering, or at least averting its gaze. This is what a political civil war looks like, with words, for now, as weapons. As if to underscore the point, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary account tweeted this during Trump’s rally: “Tonight’s top searches, in order: racism, socialism, fascism, concentration camp, xenophobia, bigot.” Whatever you call what is happening in America right now, Trump is convinced it is working for him, which is why we are in for many more such weeks, all the way through 2020. “I do think I’m winning the political fight. I think I’m winning it by a lot,” Trump told reporters before he boarded Marine One for the North Carolina rally, at which he would call the Squad “hate-filled extremists” intent on the “destruction of our country” all over again. “I’ll never change.”
Trump’s unwavering belief that race-baiting and immigrant-hating work to his electoral benefit is already the subject of raging debate in political circles. Many Democrats spent the five days and counting of this tweet controversy worrying that they were both required to call out Trump’s words and also doomed to see their condemnation of his racism play right into his hands. The Party is divided about how to counter Trump, and it shows: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has remained firmly against impeachment as the numbers inside her caucus favoring it grow. (Wednesday’s vote on an impeachment resolution by a defiant Democratic backbencher got ninety-five votes, including those of two key committee chairmen.)
A number of Republicans on Capitol Hill, for their part, showed how ridiculous they are willing to make themselves look by condemning the racist chanting of Trump’s North Carolina rally fans while steadfastly refusing to condemn the racist tweets of the President those fans were echoing. “Send her back” is “nativist, terrible” and “also electoral suicide,” the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt tweeted, pointing out that there are more than four hundred thousand naturalized residents in Pennsylvania and two hundred thousand in Michigan, two key states without which Trump would not have won the Presidency in 2016. By midday Thursday, Trump himself was taking this position, when it became clear that the “Send her back” chant had even Republicans worried. “I was not happy with it,” the President claimed. “I disagreed with it.” He did not, however, disavow his own words that led to the chant in the first place.
Nor will he. Congressional Republicans’ refusal to criticize Trump, just like the President’s own steadfast determination to stick with racism as a campaign strategy, appears to be what a strikingly high percentage of their party members want. A USA Today/Ipsos survey found that nearly sixty per cent of Republicans agreed with the President’s tweets, while a strong and clear majority, sixty-eight per cent of Americans over all, condemned them. Trump is the President of an angry minority; he both feeds its rage and depends upon it.
Besides, from Trump’s perspective, it is undoubtedly much, much better to be debating who is an American than it is to be focussing on the stories that would otherwise be in the news this week. Stories like the arrest of his old friend and partying buddy, the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Toxic identity politics has forced the horrible pictures from inside the border holding cells, at least temporarily, off the front page. Next Wednesday, the former special counsel Robert Mueller will testify in public on Capitol Hill about his report on the 2016 Russian intervention in the U.S. election on Trump’s behalf. Under oath, Mueller will presumably recount the detailed evidence of Trump’s obstruction of justice, evidence that Congress must now decide what to do with because it is outside the mandate of anyone but Congress to hold the President accountable for such acts. But Mueller might as well not exist this week. Trump has the extraordinary ability to get Americans to talk about what he wants them to talk about.
The President remains a firm believer in the old New York tabloid school of publicity—that as long as they spell your name right, there is no such thing as a bad story. That’s really the only way to explain why Trump would even be having a televised Cabinet meeting at all this week, given that this should be one of the most embarrassing and revealing ongoing crises of the many in his Administration.
On Friday, Trump cashiered Alex Acosta, his Labor Secretary, and will now begin the search for a third choice to occupy the job in less than three years. The turnover in his Cabinet, as Politico noted, is so epic that, after two and a half years, it has exceeded that of his five predecessors’ after their entire first term.” As of Friday, when Acosta officially leaves, the U.S. will have an acting Labor Secretary, an acting Homeland Security Secretary, and an acting Defense Secretary (the department’s third in the more than six months since Jim Mattis quit in protest over the President’s abrupt decision to pull troops out of Syria). There is also an acting White House chief of staff (the third chief of staff of the Trump Presidency and, if the latest rumors are to be believed, not the last), an acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, an acting icedirector, an acting F.D.A. commissioner, an acting O.M.B. director, an acting Secretary of the Air Force, an acting Ambassador to the United Nations, and, just in time for hurricane season, an acting fema director. Many other senior positions are simply empty, with no one acting or otherwise. More turnover is possible, and soon, with both the national-security adviser, John Bolton, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross widely seen as high on Trump’s target list.
This is a portrait of dysfunction, of a government in a meltdown so extreme it’s as if Trump had chosen to blow up the executive branch and not even bother to start over again. In any other Presidency, that would very likely be the scandal of the week. But this is not any other Presidency, and here we are in 2019. Trump’s attack on the Americanness of his critics has distracted from his assault on the American system of government itself.
- Susan B. Glasser is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington