The Trump administration’s flurry of reversing the earlier flurry of Obama executive orders and the Left’s hysterical response is proving a sort of strategic Game of Thrones.
Trump’s opponents believe that they are bleeding him from a thousand nicks. Without the requisite political clout, their ultimate goal is to drive crazy uncomfortable Republican establishmentarians and force them into a fetal position where they beg for it all to just go away, turning on their own first rather than their adversaries. Or they wish to create such universal chaos that bend-with-the-wind federal judges go with the flow and start issuing endless injunctions in a way they rarely did with Obama’s executive orders.
The model is Watergate, Iran-Contra, or the summer of 2006, when the furious rhetoric almost made and in one case did make presidential governance impossible. Given the current role of a biased media (it acted quite differently during the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, the flagrant lying about its impact, and the imploding AFC website), they hope to so increase the temperature that everyone melts down, with the goal of the in-power people liquefying first. They assume their blanket obstructionism will not suffer the public-relations boomerang that damaged the Republicans during shutdowns of the Clinton administration and slowdowns to stop Obama, given the media megaphone broadcasting their cause.
In contrast, the Trump people may believe that the Left is becoming so unhinged that their inflated rhetoric has lost all credibility and eventually becomes counter-productive. In Napoleonic terms by attacking everything, the Left is attacking nothing.
Second, by raising the stakes, they bring out of the woodwork the true malevolence of the Left such as the adolescent boycott of the inauguration by many in the Congress, the unprofessionalism of the media typified by the Martin Luther King bust fiasco or Michael Cohen’s nonexistent Prague meetings, the unhinged behavior of the acting attorney general, the repulsive rhetoric of a Madonna or Ashley Judd, and the creepy talk of journalists abroad of assassination.
In that sense, the executive orders are pheromones that draw out and expose unattractive predators.
Where does this stand-off lead and how does it end?
Who knows, but the Trump people, in strategic terms, need in advance to configure the third- and fourth-order effects of their executive orders to ensure:
that they are seen as reactive to preexisting extremism (e.g., sanctuary-city policies are subversive and reactionary Confederate/states’-rights acts that lead to George Wallace–like nihilism),
that they are seen as refining prior presidential precedents (e.g., Obama gave them the example of temporary suspending visas to Middle Easterners and identifying particular countries that posed increased risks),
that they are anticipating criticism (e.g., they might have exempted green-card holders and helpers of the U.S. military abroad from their temporary halt in immigration from areas of the Middle East),
that they are putting the onus on their opponents (e.g., placing temporary and small — and therefore likely to be paid rather than circumvented — duties on remittances instead of a trade tariff-like fee would remind the American taxpayer that he should not, even indirectly, have to pay for building the wall, and reassure Mexico the U.S. is not leveling fees on those Mexican citizens who did not come into the United States illegally, given at present U.S. social services often subsidize the freeing-up of cash for remittances, a great majority of which come from those residing in the U.S. illegally),
And, finally, that their policies are understood as focused and sober (e.g., the travel ban affects a minuscule number of would-be entrants in an otherwise generous policy of accepting up to 50,000 newcomers; the wall is normal practice in much of the world (Israel, the Gulf States, increasingly in Europe), and we are trying not to react in kind to Mexico, given that Mexico’s own immigration practices, both in terms of punishment and questions of race and ethnicity, are in some sense racist and draconian).
The loser, as in all strategic collisions, is he who more slowly misreads constantly shifting public opinion and is more guided by ideological zeal rather than empiricism and so doubles down on rather than modifies a failing strategy.
The best indices of who seems to be getting the upper-hand are of course polls on particular issues and on Trump’s favorability — and the unity or lack of among congressional Republicans.