Donald Trump’s apparent embrace of Jeb Bush’s immigration plan will have real and serious consequences, even while — as we expect — his staff tries to mop up the mess and insist that Trump has been entirely consistent.
Asked what he would do with illegal immigrants who had not committed crimes, Trump had this to say to Sean Hannity on Wednesday night:
No citizenship. Let me go a step further — they’ll pay back-taxes, they have to pay taxes, there’s no amnesty, as such, there’s no amnesty, but we work with them.
Now, everybody agrees we get the bad ones out. But when I go through and I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject, and I’ve had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me, and they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who’s been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump.’ I have it all the time! It’s a very, very hard thing.
This is virtually indistinguishable from the position taken by Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the GOP presidential primary. (Sen. Marco Rubio would go further and grant citizenship.) Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell commented, “It’s unsurprising that Donald Trump is finally faced with reconciling his immigration policy with reality, something Gov. Bush predicted last year.” Trump and his alt-right cheerleaders (including Breitbart News, whose executive chairman is now heading Trump’s campaign) berated them and the Gang of Eight for entertaining the thought that anyone here illegally could stay. That was all “amnesty,” they pronounced. This has been the obsession in the right-wing echo chamber for far too long.
There are short- and long-term consequences flowing from Trump’s comments.
First, Trump’s recognition that you cannot throw out longtime residents completely swamps the Associated Press story accusing Hillary Clinton of setting up a disproportionate number of meetings as secretary of state with Clinton Foundation donors. Trump seems utterly incapable of making Clinton, rather than himself, the subject of scrutiny, eye-rolling and rotten news coverage. (Clinton was already beating back the story, and on CNN argued “there’s a lot of smoke but no fire,” while denying that donations influenced her duties as secretary of state.) Trump’s reversal, trial balloon, gaffe or whatever you call it is a newer and more damning story line for the media to follow. Trump once again proves to be the one Republican who manages to erase every advantage a minimally competent Republican would enjoy over Clinton.
Second, Trump risks enraging and demoralizing supporters who took him seriously. Ann Coulter, who wrote in her book that nothing but a change on his immigration stance would alienate supporters, is already mocking him. They now look foolish for having believed him on his deportation scheme. It will now become the media’s full-time job tracking down anti-immigration advocates, contrasting his recent remarks to his previous attacks on his primary opponents and badgering his staff to admit that he has shifted positions. None of this shape-shifting, of course, buys him credibility with pro-immigration voters; they’ve already decided that he’s duplicitous and dangerous.
Third, Trump entirely undermines earnest but gullible Republicans arguing that he should be elected because of the Supreme Court. After all, if he’d betray his base on immigration, what makes them believe that he’d stick to some list of judges thrust under his nose by well-meaning conservative scholars?
Fourth, Trump doubles down on his con-man reputation. He’ll say anything to anyone at any time to get what he wants. He has no concern for the truth nor respect for his audience, whom he imagines is as greedy and desperate as he. The analogy between Trump U students and naive Republican supporters is hard to avoid. Nothing Trump says can be relied upon, it seems, even for the duration of a single day.
And in the longer term, Trump cuts the legs out from under anti-immigration reform right-wingers. Not even Trump would stick to the deportation line, these immigration opponents (not all of whom back Trump) have already begun to complain. He has shown that the Gang of Eight plan — border security with a path to legalization for those law-abiding people who have been here for a significant time and pay back taxes — is utterly reasonable. Aside from the merits of the argument, his willingness to dump deportation bolsters the (accurate) claim from pro-immigration reformers that there is no majority in favor of deportation. It would be as if Clinton denounced Obamacare as unworkable. By the same token, Trump gives cover to scores of GOP lawmakers who do support reasonable immigration reform. (Hey, even Trump knows that deportation is a fantasy.)
Beyond immigration, Trump’s betrayal of anti-immigration reformers may help discredit his angry brand of populism. If there ever was such a thing as “Trumpism” — a nasty brew of nativism and xenophobia — Trump proved it to have been mostly a scam. There is no principled movement other than promotion of Trump and some vague sympathy for white resentment. The alt-right, without a credible standard-bearer, may have to slink back into the shadows.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) once again can claim to have been right about Trump, who he predicted would “betray” the base. However, his own hard-line immigration stance (which envisions gradual self-deportation and stepped-up enforcement) may be quickly out of fashion if the party makes peace with the Trump/Kasich/Bush legalization formula. Cruz can hold out, trying to stay to Trump’s right on this, but Trump may have destroyed the market for pols pushing deportation over some form of legalization.
Trump’s reversal may be a small consolation to Rubio and Bush, who got whacked by the anti-immigration right wing during the campaign. If, however, one result of this election is to show that deportation schemes are unworkable and politically unsustainable, then their personal political losses may be seen in a different light. They will be seen to have been principled — and farsighted.
Stepping back from the illegal immigration plan particulars, there is an opportunity here for market-oriented, intellectually honest conservatives (along with pro-reform Democrats) to blow the whistle on the non-factual arguments against immigration. Immigrants do not “steal jobs”; they contribute to the economy as entrepreneurs, taxpayers and consumers. Properly structured, legal immigration relying on skills-based criteria is a boon to the economy. The self-styled “respectable” conservatives who championed intellectually defective arguments (e.g. the “lump of labor” fallacy) should rethink their stance, consult actual economists (who overwhelmingly favor immigration) and start relying on facts rather than propaganda from wacko anti-immigration/zero population growth groups. They may find that good policy is also good politics.