Even on His Signature Issue, Donald Trump Can't Figure Out What He Believes

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Thursday, August 25, 2016. 

This Wednesday, Donald Trump will be giving what he describes as a "major speech" on immigration. Presumably, this will be one of the ones he reads off a teleprompter, which allows his staff to make sure he says just what they want him to. Of course, that won't stop him from saying something completely different the next time he speaks off the cuff, which usually happens within 48 hours of one of these "clarifying" speeches wherein he attempts to bring some coherence to all his contradictory statements.

But is anyone's mind going to be changed by anything Trump has to say at this point on immigration?

That's another way of asking whether anything at all will change in this race between now and November. After all, this is Donald Trump's signature issue, the one with which he bludgeoned his primary opponents as soft-hearted supporters of "amnesty," and the one with which he began his campaign, saying in his announcement speech last year, "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. ... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." He had to assume the last part, because you never know with these people.

One might have thought that if there were anything Trump could take a consistent position on, it was the horror of immigration. But that turns out not to be the case. Last week, he first moved away from his previous assertion that he'd create a "deportation force" rounding up 11 million people, saying, "There certainly can be a softening, because we're not looking to hurt people." Then he denied that he had said any such thing. "I don't think it's a softening," he told Anderson Cooper. "I've had people say it's a hardening, actually." It's a big, manly, turgid hardening, I tell you!

But now he was saying only that criminal aliens would be deported, while the rest ... well, it's impossible to know what he actually thinks, because the story seems to change every time he opens his mouth. Meanwhile, his surrogates insist that nothing in his proposed policy has changed, unless there's some element of it people don't like, in which case he never said what he said in the first place. Or something like that—it's a little hard to tell. RNC Chair Reince Priebus said on Meet the Press that the confusion would soon be cleared up, because "now he's reflecting on it and his position is going to be known." I picture Trump gazing out the window of his penthouse apartment, deep in reflection.

For the moment, what we're left with is that if Donald Trump were president, there might or might not be a deportation force to round up the 11 million undocumented immigrants, who might or might not be deported, and for whom there might or might not be a path to citizenship. He also might or might not still believe that we should amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship, the principle that anyone born in America is an American citizen no matter who their parents are. The only thing we know for sure is that he'd build a wall on our Southern border.

One unsurprising thing these gyrations make clear is that Trump hasn't given much thought to the details of immigration policy, despite the fact that it's the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. It's as if he never contemplated that anyone might ask him specific questions about what would happen in a Trump presidency, and now that they're doing so, he's casting about in confusion. I'm guessing his advisers can't quite come to a consensus either; Trump has the distinctive sound of someone who's having contradictory things whispered in his ear.

But here's something that Trump himself would probably be surprised to hear: His own voters are far less hardline on immigration than he seems to assume. Take a look at this recent poll from the Pew Research Center, which makes clear that not only do most Americans not share his view of undocumented immigrants as being criminals and miscreants, even most Republicans disagree with him. Sixty-three percent of Republicans said that undocumented immigrants mostly fill jobs Americans don't want to do. Sixty-five percent of Republicans said the undocumented are as honest and hard-working as American citizens. And 52 percent said they're no more likely to commit crimes than citizens are. All those figures are even higher among Democrats, but what's so remarkable is how majorities of Republicans reject the picture Trump paints.

That last finding in particular might shock Trump, who has a particular bit of theatricality he sometimes uses at rallies, where he calls relatives of people killed by undocumented immigrants (some in crimes, some in traffic accidents) up to the stage. The message is clear: Immigrants are killing people, and should be hated and feared. But most Republicans seem to have grasped the actual fact, which is that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens.

How is it that Republicans as a group have these views, when Trump won the GOP nomination in large part because of this issue? It's because what he won in the primaries was a plurality of a minority of Republicans, who in turn represent a minority of all voters.

Here's how the math works. Trump won 13 million votes in the primaries, out of nearly 30 million that were cast. But most people who call themselves Republicans didn't vote in their primaries. As a point of comparison, in 2012 Mitt Romney got over 60 million votes. And primary voters tend to be more committed partisans and farther from the center ideologically—the ones most likely get worked into a froth by talk of amnesty and criminal aliens.

Even if Trump succeeded in part by bringing in new voters besotted by his bombastic rhetoric on issues like immigration (as he has often claimed), it would only skew the views of his primary supporters even further. That's not to mention that Trump seems to get most of his information about the state of American opinion from his rallies; he's currently convinced, like many candidates before him, that the polls showing him trailing must be wrong since so many people show up to cheer him on. And as we've seen so often, there are few things that excite a Trump crowd like a promise to keep out foreigners.

Let's give Trump the benefit of the doubt for a moment and imagine that once he and his staff figure out what he actually believes, Trump will have an immigration plan that he'll stick to from this point forward. What would really change? Would his passionate supporters decide that he's a squish on immigration after all and decide to stay home? I doubt it—for them it was never about the details, it was about the feeling he gave them. And they know he's the same xenophobe they fell in love with, no matter what he might say.

And what about those who rejected him for the same reason? Will the Latinos who heard him say that the judge in his fraud case couldn't be impartial because "He's a Mexican" (the judge is actually an American; he's no more "a Mexican" than Trump is "a German") suddenly say, "Hey, now that I've heard that the 'deportation force' might not happen, maybe Trump isn't such a bad guy after all"?

If you think that's going to happen, I've got a wall to sell you. A big, beautiful wall.

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