Trump’s census surrender: Even a loss can look like a win

Attorney General William Barr, left, and President Donald Trump turn to leave after speaking about the 2020 census in the Rose Garden of the White House, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Attorney General William Barr, left, and President Donald Trump turn to leave after speaking about the 2020 census in the Rose Garden of the White House, Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

The good news is that Donald Trump has finally shelved his MAGA quest to weaponize the census for partisan Republican gain. In the Rose Garden yesterday, he waved the white flag of surrender.

The bad news is that his loyal purblind supporters will likely love him even more for having fought and lost.

Trump complained yesterday that his bid to radically change the 2020 census (so that it would count only citizens, not the total population) has been foiled by “unfriendly” judges and “left-wing” opponents — never mind the fact that, since 1960, census officials have sought to count every person residing in America, regardless of  status. Trump and his servile attorney general, William Barr, said that they will continue their fight to undercount non-citizens, that they will “study” the issue further and collect more “data.” Trump, therefore, insisted he was “not backing down,” despite the fact that, by surrendering on the 2020 census, that’s precisely what he has done.

One is tempted to believe that his latest failure is further evidence of his weakness and ineptitude. Which it certainly is. But his base will remain convinced that his heart is in the right place, that he’s fighting against an establishment that’s rigged against him — and them.

The census is supposed to count everyone in America. But Trump wanted everyone to answer a new question  — “Are you a citizen of the United States?” — which would have likely spooked non-citizens (who are disproportionately people of color) and thus would have prompted lower participation in the survey. If that had happened, the states with the largest concentrations of non-citizens would have been undercounted. As a result, those states (mostly Democratic) would have gotten less representation in Congress in the 2020 reapportionment of House seats, and more seats — and power — would have shifted to Republican states. And states with fewer House seats get fewer Electoral College votes in presidential races.

Trump himself gave away the game recently when he told reporters that the citizenship question was necessary because “you need it for Congress for districting.” Which is exactly what Republican operative Thomas Hofeller argued shortly before he died last year. According to his files — which his daughter discovered and publicized after his death — he told Republicans that adding a census citizenship question would “be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.” Indeed, a federal judge wrote last month that Hofeller’s racist argument “potentially connects the dots between a discriminatory purpose — diluting Hispanics’ political power — and (Trump’s) decision” to add a citizenship question.

As you probably know, Trump’s waste-of-time battle dragged on for two years. Multiple lawsuits were filed, contending (accurately) that his true purpose was to supercharge the GOP’s ongoing efforts to gerrymander congressional districts and augment white political power. Trump’s Commerce Department (which oversees the census) concocted the Orwellian claim that a citizenship question would help the regime enforce the Voting Rights Act — an argument so preposterous that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts ultimately joined the four Democratic appointees to shut it down.

In their majority ruling last month, Roberts said that the regime’s argument for adding the citizenship question “seems to have been contrived,” that federal agencies are required to provide “genuine justifications for important decisions.” Translating that into English, Roberts basically said that the regime was lying and needed to stop. On July 2, the Commerce and Justice departments said they were giving up, and that the census forms would be printed without the citizenship question. On July 3, Trump tweeted the opposite, claiming that the accurate reporting of the Commerce and Justice surrender was, in his word, “FAKE!” and that “we are absolutely moving forward.”

Then came another week of incompetent confusion, with the regime tasking a new team of lawyers to find a nonracist rationale that might satisfy the courts, to no avail. Which brought us to yesterday’s Rose Garden surrender, with Barr vowing that “we will be studying this issue” and unctuously saying “congratulations” to Trump for his “effective action,” which was ultimately no action at all. He caved, period. Again.

We can wearily shake our heads at this latest spectacle of shame — “So much winning,” we scoff — but what Trump said one week ago is probably most important: “We’re fighting very hard against the system, that’s a very difficult system.”

His diehard fans, who will flood the ballot box in 2020, truly believe it. In that sense, he wins even when he loses.

As Doug Heye, a former Republican Party spokesman, told the press last week, “For a big part of the base, activity is achievement … more important than having a cohesive strategy to win. If you’re in Trump’s base, everything that he does reinforces his central argument that the system is rigged … If the court rules against him, Trump can say, ‘This is how rigged the system is against you.’ Win or lose, he can still move that argument forward.”

So defenders of a full and accurate census can celebrate today, knowing that the 2020 survey will not be sabotaged. But the unswerving unity of Trump’s base — which portends another tight Electoral College tilt — makes it imperative that Democrats perform next year at the top of their game. We’ll see about that. Squabbling about busing, and toying with the abolition of private health insurance, will likely gift us four more years of wasteful spectacles.

But meanwhile, speaking of spectacles: Say goodbye to Alex Acosta, the Jeffrey Epstein enabler who landed in Trump’s Cabinet. Acosta fell on his sword today. He’ll be temporarily replaced by a guy who has advocated for low-wage sweatshops – quite a credential for an “acting” Labor secretary. That means Trump will now have four “acting” Cabinet secretaries, which has to be some kind of record.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.