The midterms are over, so expect President Trump to adjust accordingly: The “caravan” will now drop out of the news; the troops sent to the border will quietly pass their time drilling in the Texas sunshine. The conspiracy websites and QAnon groups that have been chattering about “the invasion” for weeks will shift their focus, because they aren’t needed anymore. It’s not an accident that Trump lost his temper precisely at the moment when Jim Acosta of CNN posed a direct question about the caravans. The president knows the story was a stunt, and he wants to move on.
The question, in retrospect, is why this particular stunt was deployed. To put it differently: Why did Trump decide to take a nonexistent threat from people a thousand miles away and turn it into the center of the Republican Party’s midterm election campaign? Instead, he could have focused on genuinely good economic news, such as low unemployment or high growth. The economic story might have united people; it might have won his party extra votes. It would certainly have had some impact in the wealthy suburbs that switched, during the election, from red to blue. By contrast, the caravan story, with its elements of fiction and fantasy, divided Americans and turned many against him.
We know a part of the answer. Of course, his aim was to “consolidate the base” in red states — a tactic that helped the Republican Party win, for example, in Missouri. Claire McCaskill, the state’s defeated Democratic senator, told the New York Times that every time she walked into a restaurant in rural Missouri, she saw Fox News showing footage of the caravan. Missouri voters bought into the myth, as well at the myth that Democrats were going to open the borders. But that same tactic was risky, because it also alienated suburban voters, giving the Democrats the edge in New Jersey, Virginia and elsewhere.
But the fiction of the caravan also had another function. Like Trump’s past advocacy of birtherism, this was a myth that bound together his supporters into a community of believers. Those who accepted it had to filter out all counter-evidence to accept the previously unacceptable use of the U.S. military to guard against an invisible foe, to accept the word “invasion.” And now that this community of believers has learned to accept one fantasy, it can easily be primed to accept those that follow. This is a trick that’s been used by autocrats throughout history, and now the U.S. president will use it as well.
Trump’s preplanned decision to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the midterms — by means of an undated resignation letter, clearly written to be used at the president’s will — was a hint of what is coming. At some point in the presumably not too distant future, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is going to submit his final report. Mueller may even indict some more people, maybe some close to Trump. In January, when the new Democratic House of Representatives takes over, further investigations will open, perhaps into Trump’s history of suspected tax fraud, perhaps into his business relationships with Russia. I don’t know which of these things bothers the president most, or what exactly he is hiding. Regardless of the details, he will need tools to deploy when they are revealed.
Unlike President Richard M. Nixon, Trump is not going to resign if the institutions of the state prove that he has broken the law. He can’t resign: To do so would bring down not only his administration but also his business and his reputation, the basis of which is his personal brand. He will try, instead, to break the institutions — and he will need the support of his community of believers to do it.
That’s why his campaign rhetoric wasn’t designed to help the Republican Party: It was designed to provide him with a claque of supporters who have bought into his message that the media are “enemies of the state,” that Democrats promote chaos and mob violence, that only he is protecting them from a nonexistent “invasion.” As he seeks to undermine the Justice Department, to denigrate law enforcement — and above all to stay in office — he will ask those loyalists to put pressure on Congress, to support him on social media, to provide counter-narratives, to back up the fictions he is going to conjure up. That’s how he will, in the words of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, “fight back.”