Don’t bother trying to figure out Donald Trump’s new position on immigration. It doesn’t matter.
Over the past few days, Trump, who smoothed his path to the Republican presidential nomination by taking a xenophobic and unforgiving stance on illegal immigration, has seemingly softened his position. Where once he talked regularly about deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants and building a wall that Mexico would pay for, he is now talking about showing mercy to people who have been in the United States for years.
He hinted at only deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes (a position similar to that of President Obama) and allowing the “good ones” to stay. He suggested they might be able to remain in the United States as long as they pay back taxes (which sounds a lot like positions taken by former rivals Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush). He even appeared to be endorsing “amnesty,” which to hardcore Republicans is akin to trashing a portrait of Ronald Reagan.
Caught up in a furious backlash from his strongest supporters, Trump has tried to walk back some of these comments and reiterate the harsh earlier tone of his comments on illegal immigration.
Trump’s flailing should not come as a surprise. After all, he has, at best, a tangential relationship to truth and an even more distant relationship with consistency. He changes his positions, lies about what he’s previously said, and creates his own personal reality on a seemingly day-to-day and even hour-by-hour basis. Trump’s positions are so malleable that this week, at a town hall session with Fox News Trump cheerleader Sean Hannity, he actually polled his audience over whether the United States should “throw out” illegal immigrants or “work with them.”
Could it be any more evident that Trump is simply making this stuff up as he goes along?
Perhaps he’s trying to soften his stance on undocumented immigrants in an effort to appeal to less xenophobic GOP voters. Maybe he realizes that his earlier rhetoric has gone too far and is now trying to dial it back. Or possibly he doesn’t even understand why the things he’s now suggesting are contradictory or controversial. Who knows and who cares?
For 15 months, Trump has willingly and consciously fanned the flames of cultural and racial fears over immigration. He called undocumented immigrants from Mexico “rapists” and “criminals.” He fashioned appeals to nativist sentiment by leading his political rallies in chants of “build the wall.” And he took isolated examples of violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants to make the racist assertion that all of them were a threat to Americans. This was a dishonest, insidious, and quite purposeful strategy.
He can’t simply act now like those things didn’t happen. Short of a full-throated mea culpa, any effort to suggest moderation on immigration is nothing more than a con job — a transparent effort to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible voters. It’s as persuasive as his speech last week announcing regret over statements he’s made that caused personal pain — none of which he was willing to identify.
The one thing we know well about Trump is that his most effective business strategy has been to rip people off — whether it’s the unfortunate students who signed up for Trump University or the foolish banks that loaned him and his casinos money. His presidential campaign is just one more confidence scheme and this week’s contortions on illegal immigration are yet another scam.
Thankfully, after 15 months of listening to Trump cascade of exaggerations, lies, and insults there’s little reason to believe that many Americans are going to act like suckers.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.