PoliticsDonald Trump Is Rocking Out Too Hard To Soften on Immigration
The roar of a crowd buoyed by xenophobic rhetoric is a hell of a drug.
Even by the standards of Donald Trump, his final day of August on the campaign trail was a wild, whiplash-inducing ride. In the afternoon, Trump appeared in Mexico City. There, standing in a hushed room next to Mexico’s president and underneath the Mexican flag, he struck a quiet, conciliatory, diplomatic tone—singing the praises of the country, its citizens, and its leaders, all of whom he’s spent the last year demonizing. Mexican-Americans, he added, were “beyond reproach.” But in the evening, now back on American soil, Trump flashed a more familiar look, returning to his old demonizing ways for a raucous, seemingly blood-thirsty crowd at a convention hall in Phoenix, Arizona. He painted an ugly picture of dangerous, law-breaking immigrants and doubled down on his solutions including his signature plan. “We will build a great wall along the Southern border,” Trump pledged. “And Mexico will pay for the wall. 100 percent.”
The two performances were beyond puzzling, especially since Trump had spent last two weeks signaling a “softening” of his hardline immigration stance as he sought to broaden his appeal beyond the white nationalist base that propelled to him the Republican nomination. In Mexico City, it seemed like that softening was finally at hand; a few hours later, in Phoenix, it became abundantly clear that there’d be no softening at all.
Imposing the rules of political logic on Trump’s campaign can be a frustrating, damn-near futile exercise. Nonetheless, the popular interpretation of his performance yesterday seems to be that he did actually make some small shifts in his immigration plan—and then used his familiar, hardline rhetoric to cover them up. No longer does Trump pledge to create, on his first day in the White House, a “deportation force” to round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants and send them back to their home countries; instead, Trump will now form a “deportation task force” that will focus on expelling the estimated 2 million illegal immigrants who’ve committed crimes beyond the act of entering the country illegally. But as Byron York, the conservative columnist who’s been an invaluable chronicler and decipherer of Trump’s rise, argues the “hard-to-spot” change likely won’t matter to Trump’s supporters, since “the overwhelming message of the Phoenix speech was that Trump will be strong on immigration, stronger than any president in a very long time.”
But there’s an even simpler explanation for Trump’s whirlwind Wednesday: he plays to whatever room he’s in. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has long made it clear his country isn’t going to pay for a border wall, so, in their meeting, Trump didn’t make that claim (and if you believe the president Trump apparently didn’t object when Nieto volunteered yesterday that his country wouldn’t be financing a wall project).
But in Arizona, faced with a rowdy crowd like something out of Borat, Trump repeated his border-wall promise. The key to understanding Trump’s message, in this respect, is understanding where he’s delivering it.
That in mind, it’s kind of amusing to imagine the civil war apparently raging inside the Trump campaign—between the forces of moderation like campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and the revanchists like campaign CEO Steve Bannon—boiling down to a fight over Trump’s campaign schedule. Conway lards the itinerary with trips to various Latin American capitals—or, at the very least, country clubs in New England; Bannon books convention halls and high school football stadiums in Alabama and Texas. But that, of course, wouldn’t be a fair fight, since Trump clearly prefers the latter to the former.
Indeed, Trump’s political foray is less a presidential campaign than an arena rock tour—an excuse for him to appear before adoring crowds that he can whip into a frenzy with well-worn applause lines about making American great again and horror stories about marauding immigrants. Yes, Trump managed to strike a somewhat convincing diplomatic posture in Mexico City yesterday, but he looked downright miserable doing it. And in Phoenix, by contrast, he looked as happy as ever. The Trump pivot we keep waiting for—on immigration or anything else—is never going to come, if only because, for Trump, the pivot would be no fun.
Jason Zengerle is GQ’s political correspondent.