If Donald Trump is elected President of the United States, the country will: form a deportation task force to round up millions of undocumented immigrants; test people on their ideology before awarding visas; use a biometric tracking system to follow visa-holders around the US; refuse immigrants who cannot demonstrate adequate “skill and proficiency;” and, lest we forget, build “an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.”
And that’s not even half of the 10-point plan for immigration Trump laid out in his highly anticipated immigration speech last night. It’s as hard-line as he’s been from the very first day of his primary run. But please, by all means, go back to talking about how he’s pivoting.
Throughout the last week, the Trump campaign has been strategically dropping little crumbs about possible shifts in Trump’s immigration policy, knowing that the new media masses, hungry for the new, new spin would pick them apart before gobbling them up. And they did. After Trump’s new campaign manager KellyAnne Conway said that her boss’s plan to employ a mass deportation force was still “to be determined,” some dubbed it “the softening.” Trump further stoked those “softening” rumors during a town hall hosted by Fox News’ Sean Hannity, when he polled the audience about whether undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed crimes should stay in the country. By yesterday afternoon, on a surprise trip to Mexico, Trump was standing with President Pena Nieto talking about the “humanitarian disaster” at the border–language that starkly contrasted with his regular talk of the national security threat of illegal immigration.
But look past those postures, and there was never really any substantive policy change. All that really changed were the Tweets, breathlessly wondering if Trump had changed his mind about forcing illegal immigrants to leave before they could reenter legally, or building an actual physical wall at the border. And because social media now drives the news cycle, the narrative about Trump changed across the country.
By the time Trump stood behind the podium last night delivering his “policy speech,” the Twitterati were primed to expect details of a pivot. What they got was his same old stump speech, yelled louder–the kind of speech ultra-conservative commentator Ann Coulter could love.
Wow. This doesn’t sound like “softening.” GO, TRUMP!!!
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) September 1, 2016
The second-by-second news cycle and the social media spin room have made this silly season of politics even sillier, and dangerous, also. Each time Trump uses ambiguous language when before he’s been blunt, or rolls out a teleprompter to appear more “presidential,” he gets a week of publicity about his rush to the middle, when as Wednesday night’s speech showed, he hasn’t actually budged at all. That matters because it sends a muddled message to middle of the road Republicans, who wish more than anything that their party’s candidate would temper his policies. He hasn’t, and he probably won’t, so it’s time to stop engaging in this national game of made-you-look.
Trump’s talk Wednesday night was as full of anti-immigrant rage as any he’s given this election cycle. He led with the stories of Americans who have been killed by undocumented immigrants and later, brought the parents of some of those people on stage to voice their support for him. He doubled down on the idea of undocumented immigrants being uneducated, low-skilled people who at best steal American jobs and at worst murder its people.
“The media and my opponent discuss one thing and only one thing: the needs of people living here illegally. In many cases by the way, they’re treated better than our vets,” he said. “Not going to happen anymore, folks.”
There’s a clever trick in this rhetoric for Trump: In focusing on undocumented people who commit crimes, he can unleash all the vitriol and anger his base loves, without having to talk about deporting 11 million people, a policy that polls show an increasing majority of Americans loathe. According to a Fox News poll released this week, the percentage of people who support deporting as many immigrants as possible has dropped from 30 percent last June to 19 percent in August, while the share of people who support some kind of legal status has grown from 64 percent to 77 percent.
“Clearly they’re stuck in the polls,” says Todd Schulte, president of the Mark Zuckerberg-backed immigration advocacy group FWD.us, “and people are saying to him you can’t run around saying you’re going to deport 11 million people.”
Avoiding that topic also allows Trump to skip explaining what a mass deportation plan would actually cost. One estimate from a conservative think tank found that if the country expelled every undocumented immigrant within two years, as Trump originally proposed, the US would lose 4 million workers and at least $381.5 billion in productivity right away. And that’s before factoring in the cost of Trump’s deportation force and expanded ICE army.
But today’s news cycle won’t be about any of that. Instead, it will be about how Trump is pivoting back, from hard to soft to hard again. Never mind that the softening never happened.