These days, Donald Trump resembles a classic character from old cartoons: the bumbling do-it-yourselfer who has painted himself into a corner. After months on the stump, the GOP nominee now finds himself confined by his own rhetoric in a narrow Electoral College nook.
To put it in Trumpian terms, he’s built a wall — a wall that separates him from the voters he needs to win in November. And who’s paying for it? Republicans are about to. And not just in their third successive presidential election loss, but in the critical political currency of Senate and House seats as well.
Thus we’re currently watching Trump, like those clownish cartoon figures of old, trying to escape the box he’s built for himself. His big move comes on Wednesday, when he’ll apparently try to walk away from his round-them-all-up-and-send-them-back policy on illegal immigrants. Now, rational observers, be they some of Trump’s Republican rivals or knowledgeable policy types, have long said it was neither realistic nor humane to deport everyone who is living in the United States illegally.
When Trump was appealing to the hard-core nativists in the Republican primaries, he regularly waved away those objections. But it’s now obvious that that stand, which helped him win the GOP nomination, is a general-election liability. Although the response varies depending on how the question is asked, the idea of deporting every illegal immigrant is a clear loser. One of the narrowest splits came in May, when by a 50-44 percent margin, those surveyed by an ABC News/Washington Post poll said that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay here. In a July CBS News/New York Times poll, 61 percent said the United States should let that population remain and apply for citizenship, with another 12 percent saying yes to staying but no to citizenship. Only 23 percent thought they should be required to leave.
No wonder then that Trump wants to wiggle his way back to the center. Still, it’s stunning to see a candidate who for months called for deporting everyone living here illegally (and then letting “the good ones” return) now suggest that he would continue President Obama’s approach, though “perhaps with a lot more energy.” Yes, it’s a step toward recognizing reality, but it also underscores the thoroughgoing cynicism of Trump’s original “policy.”
Of course, it’s hardly the only ill-conceived plan Trump has modified, post-nomination, in the hope of making himself more electable. His proposed temporary ban on all Muslims, which was just as ridiculous and unworkable, seems to have morphed into a less overtly prejudicial ban on all immigration from countries that have a history of exporting terrorism.
He’s also walked back parts of his tax-cutting plan. During the primary campaign, Trump proposed cutting the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. Fiscal experts soon pointed out that his proposal, taken in its entirety, would blow a huge — as in $10 trillion over 10 years — hole in federal finances. In August, Trump overhauled his plan so the top rate would be 33 percent, not 25 percent. A new TV ad, however, boasts about the supposed benefits of his previous plan. Confused? Well, so are the experts — but they note that Trump’s revised plan would still add trillions to the national debt.
Which brings us to Trump’s signature pledge to build a wall on the US-Mexican border. It’s another idea unlikely ever to come to pass. And one that 61 percent of Americans oppose, with only 36 percent in favor, according to a new national poll.
But it’s one plan Trump simply can’t abandon. If he did, it would reveal to even his most gullible supporters that he’s been treating them like so many dupes and dopes. And that, at core, he’s little more than a loud mouth and an empty suit.