Donald Trump made a seemingly momentous announcement on Monday, jettisoning a presidential campaign’s worth of assertions that he would deport millions of undocumented immigrants and close what he has repeatedly called an “open” border.
Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, who interviewed Trump, was obviously stunned. After telling Trump that the news media is “running wild with this,” he asked Trump point blank: “Are you really rethinking your mass deportation strategy?”
Trump’s response ought to be devastating to a candidate who made deportation and a border wall the centerpiece of his candidacy. “I just want to follow the law,” he said. “What I’m doing is following the law.”
The law, of course, has no funding for mass deportation. And the Obama administration’s interpretation of that law enables millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. while authorities focus enforcement resources on apprehending and deporting criminal aliens.
Last November, Trump told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” (before he stopped appearing on the show and began attacking it on Twitter), “You are going to have a deportation force and you’re going to do it humanely.”
As recently as April, as NBC’s First Read reported, Trump was still discussing illegal immigration as an existential threat. “Look, we’re either going to have a country or we’re not going to have a country,” he said. What kind of country sits back and lets “rapists” and who knows who pour over the border?
If this were anything like a normal campaign, with a candidate, message and strategy coordinated and directed toward the goal of winning more votes than Trump’s opponent, you might call this a “pivot” or a “retreat” or whatever language suits you. But this is not that kind of campaign.
While Trump was telling O’Reilly that Obama has deported a lot of people, and that he personally doesn’t like the notion of “detention centers,” which he apparently doesn’t realize already exist and already house undocumented immigrants, his campaign was running its first general-election television ad with a very different message.
After opening with a blunt suggestion that Hillary Clinton will steal the election, the ad states that, under Clinton: “Illegal immigrants convicted of committing crimes get to stay. Collecting Social Security benefits, skipping the line. Our border open. It’s more of the same, but worse.”
It’s hard to square the ad — “more of the same” — with Trump’s interview with O’Reilly — “What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country.”
Naturally, some have concluded that Trump is now desperately backtracking in an effort to make his campaign less toxic to Hispanic voters. That may well be the impetus behind the shift in rhetoric, which followed a Trump meeting last weekend with Hispanic leaders.
But what makes it possible is not a change of heart or even a change of strategy. What enables Trump to shift policies on a dime is that he has no genuine policies to begin with. His previous statements on immigration were junk. Politically, financially, legally, socially there is no way to deport 11 million people, many of whom have strong ties to American family members, American jobs, American culture, American communities.
Trump offered a powerful attitude, and aggressive language, but never a viable position. Even some of his supporters recognized that. The essence of the Trump enterprise is that is has no fixed values, let alone positions, beyond the dodgy situational ethics of the principal.
Trump’s history of trade skepticism goes back years. There’s probably some intellectual basis for it lodged somewhere in his brain. But his “policies” — raging against the Chinese or the Japanese, promising massive retaliation, global dominance and huge tariffs on imports, are mostly nonsense.
Likewise, Trump’s instincts are nativist, racist and misogynistic, with decades of boorish behavior to underscore the points. But his attitudes are not policies. He has never given as much thought to racism, for example, as his fans on the alt-right have, or developed a theory of sexual relations more sophisticated than crude banter with Howard Stern.
Trump hasn’t changed his policy on immigration because he never had a real policy on immigration. He doesn’t have a real policy on anything. He has postures, attitudes, opportunities, affinities — along with a bunch of notions that carom round his head like a pinball. Tilt him hard and you get a new game.