Trump spent last week trying inartfully to pull off one of the biggest pivots in recent political history: a “softening” of his signature hard-line immigration stance. It started with the leak of a conversation with a Latino advocacy group in which many participants thought that Trump had floated the possibility of amnesty, then continued with two nights of Trump publicly mulling over a change of position, including by polling the audience on Sean Hannity’s program. Trump praised the Obama and Bush Administrations’ approaches to the immigration question, and then suggested that his approach would be much the same. At the same time, he appeared to want have it both ways, talking at rallies of deporting the “bad dudes.”
Who knows how this will all end on Wednesday, when Trump is reportedly going to give a major speech outlining his policy. But for right now, he seems to have found a sour spot. A slew of pro-Trump immigration skeptics, ranging from respectable figures such as Mickey Kaus to race-baiters like Ann Coulter, have suddenly discovered what it feels like to be investors in, or vendors to, a Trump company. Meanwhile, liberals such as Greg Sargent are unconvinced that anything has changed. And #NeverTrump and Trump-skeptic conservatives remain wary.
If Trump continues to try to pivot and fails, expect triumphant rhetoric from the Left claiming that this proves that anti-immigration politics is a dead-end in national politics. Brian Beutler at The New Republic has already gotten things started:
Republicans are on the losing end of a decades-old demographic gamble, and Trump embodies their resulting bind. Reflecting the passions of their base makes Republicans toxic to the electorate at large and even to one another; appealing to minorities on the basis of humane policy makes Republicans toxic to many of their own supporters. It’s a bit like trying to stretch a carpet across all corners of a floor when the problem is that the carpet is too small.
On the narrow issue of legalizing illegal immigrants, Beutler may well be right—or perhaps a more talented, more disciplined demagogue than Trump could have pulled it off. But it’s also possible that Trump’s very public electoral dysfunction on this issue moves the immigration debate to somewhere it’s been headed for a long time: a debate over legal immigration.
The immigration-skeptic Right predates Trump’s conversion to the Republican Party by decades; politicians like Jeff Sessions and activists like Mark Krikorian (who runs the “low-immigration, pro-immigrant” think tank CIS, and who publicly repudiated Trump this week) are not going to give up the ghost if the Donald goes down in November. And they have long argued that the inflow of approximately one million legal immigrants to the United States per year needs to be reduced significantly.
There’s an old pattern in U.S. history: even when anti-immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment have reached a fever pitch, we’ve never conducted mass deportations—but we have shut down immigration almost entirely, from China in 1882 and from Europe in 1924. After this year, when economic anxieties have fused with immigration ones, it’s hard to think that a permanent inflow of a million mostly lower-skilled workers per year will be sustainable forever even as the lower-middle class continues to take a tumble. Someone will see this, and make hay of it.
That doesn’t mean a shutdown is imminent; feelings are still considerably below the boiling point they reached in 1924, as the Donald’s clumsy pivot attempt shows. But it does mean that the Left and the pro-immigration Right needs to be doing more than enjoy a steaming helping of schadenfreude at Trump’s troubles right now; they need to be thinking of ways to make the immigration system sustainable long term. That includes significant changes to a legal immigration system that was designed for a pre-tech economy, revamping it to protect economically vulnerable Americans of all races and creeds while keeping it open to (nuclear) families and the skilled workers that the upper reaches of the economy needs, as well as figuring out how to accommodate long-time if illegal members of the American community. Indeed, these may be the elements of a political synergy more powerful than the old, 1986-style trade of amnesty for enforcement that focused only on the illegal side of the equation. But to simply crow about Trump’s confusion, rather than to take stock of what enabled him to get as far as he has on this issue, would be an even graver mistake than those that led to his nomination.