President Trump poses a unique challenge for political analysts and journalists. Few, if any, have been able to predict the actions he will take. Nearly every aspect of his decision-making can seem bewildering, from his unconventional cabinet appointments to his sporadic outbursts on Twitter regarding domestic and foreign policy.
Democrats have developed a canonical interpretation of Trump’s behavior. The theory was detailed in Michael Wolff’s tabloid-style book, Fire and Fury, which was recently read aloud by Hillary Clinton during a skit at the Grammy Awards. Wolff depicts Trump being led around by incoherent passions, reacting to whomever happens to be standing next to him, while frantic Republican operatives scramble to clean up the messes he leaves in his wake. This view of Trump was echoed by Chuck Schumer during the Democrats’ filibuster of a Continuing Resolution to fund the government. He said, “negotiating with this White House is like negotiating with Jell-O.”
Many Republicans share the Democrats’ view of Trump. However, there are friendlier interpretations of Trump’s behavior that exist on the Right. These fall broadly into two categories:
- Trump is like a skilled running back. He has a distinct goal in mind, and is running vaguely toward it. As he confronts unforeseen obstacles and opponents, he darts back and forth unpredictably, with twists and turns that expertly dodge his opponents’ tackles.
- Trump is like a skilled chess player. He has a strategic goal in mind, and has been masterfully manipulating political events toward that end. His seemingly random moves fit coherently into a tactical plan of action that he has been advancing all along.
On Thursday, January 25th, Donald Trump made what is probably the most bewildering move of his presidency to date. In a policy memo from the White House, Trump proposed what can be described as amnesty for 1.8 million illegal aliens in exchange for border wall funding and minor changes to the legal immigration system. 1.8 million is more than double what Democrats have asked for, so far, during negotiations.
Trump’s amnesty move is difficult to fit into any of the explanatory categories mentioned so far. If Trump is simply reacting to whatever is in front of him, as Democrats claim, is Donald Trump a worse negotiator than Peter Griffin? If Trump is a skilled running back, as some conservative pundits claim, has he been turned around toward his own end-zone? And if Trump is a chess player, what sort of strategy involves abandoning one’s own base?
That final question deserves to be explored in more depth.
Setting Up the Chessboard
Political struggles on Capitol Hill are often described in militaristic language. Disputes about policy are political battles. Ideological enemies level attacks against one another. Electoral campaigns have headquarters, often referred to as a war room, where tactical maneuvers and strategies are devised. Regular members of political parties become rank-and-file, which may be deployed intentionally by their leadership as boots on the ground.
The chessboard is, like Congress, a battlefield. And, much like the struggle between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, chess is a zero-sum game. An advantage for one player is a weakness for the other; a decisive victory on one side means unmitigated defeat for the opponent. For the purposes of extending this metaphor, victory on the political chessboard (i.e., checkmate) can be said to occur when one party so thoroughly wins a rhetorical and political battle that policy shifts irrevocably in their direction. FDR and his New Deal decisively checkmated the previous era’s Republicans. Ronald Reagan’s small-government rhetoric so thoroughly defeated his opponents that even future Democrats were declaring that “the era of big government is over”.
Until recently, politics in Washington felt something like a stalemate situation. Both sides adopted such a defensive posture against the other that little to no movement seemed possible. But Donald Trump brought a powerful weapon to the Republican side of the chessboard. Throughout his campaign and his first year as president, Donald Trump maintained unwavering support from his political base. During the election, Trump hyperbolically quipped, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
This loyalty is Trump’s queen, if you will.
Those who have played chess know that the queen is a versatile weapon on the chessboard, which can wreak havoc on the opponent’s pieces. The queen is able to maneuver in and out of many difficult situations that could trap other, lesser pieces. However, while the queen is certainly the most powerful piece on the board, it is the king which is most important. Neophyte chess players often forget this fact, and leave themselves open to undetected threats of checkmate by focusing too much attention on their queen.
Trump spent much of his first year performing base-pleasing maneuvers (appointing Gorsuch, repealing DACA, achieving Tax Reform, etc.), gobbling up pieces all over the right side of the political chessboard. This series of small-but-substantial victories has gone a long way toward convincing even Trump-skeptical Republicans that his presidency has been largely successful, thus far.
Meanwhile, however, Democrats have been building a mate threat on the opposite side of the board. If no immigration deal is reached by March 5th, Trump’s temporary extension of the DACA executive order will expire, and 700,000 illegal immigrants will become subject to deportation. Fear and uncertainty regarding possible deportation could inspire voters in the Latino community to turn out in large numbers for Democrats in the 2018 elections. Media coverage of deportations during this tense period would reinvigorate the #resistance movement by putting a face to the racist evil that the Democrats are trying to resist.
And, of course, if Democrats pick up enough seats in the midterm elections, impeachment could be back on the table. Checkmate.
This situation explains the solidarity among Senate Democrats, who have made it clear that they will filibuster any Republican proposals on immigration. Democrats are hoping to force Trump into an unwinnable situation, where his only chance to avoid checkmate involves reinstating Barack Obama’s DACA policy. Bringing back DACA in the months leading up to the 2018 elections would not only give Democrats a political victory, it would demoralize Trump’s loyal Republican base. In other words, he’d lose his queen.
The Queen Sacrifice
Trump’s amnesty offer, last Thursday, was a game changer. In chess terminology, it is called a sacrifice.
In chess, a sacrifice occurs when a player deliberately puts one of his pieces in jeopardy. Advanced players often do this to tempt their opponents into making a move that will advance their own strategic or tactical goals. In order to avoid falling into this type of trap, developing chess players learn a rule-of-thumb, which says, “to take is a mistake”. The assumption is, if an opponent deliberately places a piece in danger, they probably have a greater goal in mind that this apparent loss helps them to achieve.
What if Democrats accept Trump’s sacrifice?
It is possible that some Democrats might abandon the Schumer resistance and accept Trump’s amnesty offer. There is a strong incentive to do so, since Democrats have long wanted to pass immigration reform and yet were unable to do so, in 2009, when they controlled of both houses of Congress and the presidency. But accepting the offer also means that President Trump will sign the most significant bipartisan immigration bill in over three decades.
Trump would likely lose support from a substantial portion of his base were he to sign such a bill. His queen would be taken off the chessboard. However, in exchange for this setback, Trump would get some significant compensation. Trump’s image as an impressive deal-maker would be solidified in the public perception after having successfully pressured Congress to do the seemingly impossible. This kind of change in public perception could win back support from moderates across the country. Moreover, giving amnesty to illegal immigrants would cut off the #resistance at the knees, since that movement relies on the perception of Trump as being hateful toward minority communities. And finally, because Latino voters would owe the newfound legal status of friends and family to a Republican-controlled government, Democrats would likely lose momentum heading into the 2018 election season.
And finally, just to make the metaphor fit all the way through, Trump knows he has several pawns ready to promote, which can restore his queen. Ronald Reagan lost his conservative base with an amnesty bill as well, but quickly regained conservative support. Wall funding and reforms to the legal immigration process could go a long way toward restoring right-wing support for Trump, too. Besides, the Right has nowhere else to go.
What if Democrats decline Trump’s sacrifice?
At the State of the Union Address, Donald Trump is likely to argue forcefully for his new immigration proposal. Democrats and Republicans will have no choice but to stand and applaud as Trump voices support for both Dreamers and border security. If, after this, Democrats still refuse Trump’s immigration proposal, Trump’s next move will be to extend the DACA policy by means of executive order until after the 2018 elections.
As the election cycle approaches, Trump will blame the current crop of Democrats for denying DACA recipients the legal status they deserve, while simultaneously blaming them for opposing border security. These criticisms will have real purchase on both sides of the aisle. Trump will also rebrand the #resistance movement as resisting the American Dream for millions of illegal immigrants. And, through all of this, Trump will retain the support of his base by explaining that he knew that obstructionist Democrats would never vote for his bill.
Amazing. One brilliant chess-move transformed what appeared to be a lose/lose situation into a win/win for Trump. Could this really be a lucky accident? Or is Trump really the stable genius he claims to be?