Donald Trump is supposed to be the anti-immigration candidate—the first major-party nominee to seriously break with the pro-immigration, pro-amnesty consensus in a generation. The third Presidential debate was supposed to focus heavily on the topic, allotting 15 minutes, or one-sixth of the overall time, to this theme. And yet on his signature issue, Trump came up small. Even the headlines that were not stolen by his declaration that he would not necessarily accept the validity of the election—”I’ll look at it at the time”—were eaten up by other issues such as guns and corruption. When headlines did mention immigration, it was to say things like “Immigration issue largely ignored” (USA Today) or “Debate Was Short On Immigration” (NBC).
It’s not like he didn’t have material to work with. Hillary Clinton in both tone and substance embodied the complacent center-left consensus that has left a candidate like Trump such a big political opening to exploit. Clinton embraced a modified repeat of the 1986 amnesty-for-reform deal, with no acknowledgement that it had failed last time, no reckoning with why this time would be any different, and no real sign of sympathy toward those who feel the laws have been serially disrespected even as their economic interests have been materially harmed. The former Secretary of State delivered warmed-over line after warmed-over line: boilerplate that could have been uttered at any of the last four or five Presidential debates. (See transcript here.) Self-satisfied staleness is common when a party has been in charge for two terms; it’s even more pronounced when a policy has been held across parties in the executive for five or six.
Trump had some good lines. “We have no country if we have no border,” for instance, is the sort of idea that will strike most Americans as obvious, that was until recently conventional wisdom, and yet that the left and the media increasingly treat unsayable. Generally, smashing this kind of faux-taboo been a recipe for Trump’s success. But on the other hand, Trump, as he’s wont to do, flirted with some real taboos—few listeners would doubt what ethnicity he thought the “bad hombres” belonged to. And as has been his style through the last debates, he rambled and riffed at times in a commentary-like fashion that assumed the listener was already familiar with the underlying subject and predisposed to agree with him. Trump’s sudden praise of President Obama’s deportation record, which arose in this context, was particularly bizarre. In short, though Trump had started out in a relatively coherent fashion, he was unable to dominate control of the debate on his signature issue.
Then came Hillary Clinton’s pivot: asked about comments in her Wall Street speeches that concerned the energy economy but seemed also to imply an aspiration to open borders, Clinton instead focused on how those emails came to light—via the Russian-backed Wikileaks—and challenged Trump to disown Putin. It was a well-drilled, well-scripted request. But it was inartfully transparent—as Trump noted, saying “That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders, OK? How did we get on to Putin?”
And then he took the bait anyway.
Trump spent the next five minutes—the remainder of the immigration time and one-third of all the time devoted to the subject overall—defending his man-crush on Vladimir Putin. He postured defensively, traded kindergarten insults (“You’re the puppet!”), argued that seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies were wrong about the origins of Wikileaks, questioned the wisdom of continuing the NATO alliance, debated whether or not he’d previously suggested that Japan and South Korea go nuclear—and never got back to immigration.
These days, when immigration issues come up in Trump’s rallies, it feels more like he’s reprising and relishing his greatest hits from the primaries than like he is prosecuting the case for a grave shift in national policy. And at a critical moment on Wednesday night, it looked like Trump cared less about his signature issue than he did about the implication he was soft on Putin, which slighted his ego. Precisely because of this kind of equation of the personal and the political, the range of possibilities in a Trump presidency (though that looks less and less likely) could be wider than with any president in living memory.
Donald Trump was supposed to be the candidate who would “change the conversation” on immigration. For nationalist superfans like Ann “In Trump We Trust” Coulter, this was Trump’s first and biggest selling point; for mainstream figures like Mickey Kaus, who were more aware of the candidate’s flaws, the prospect of breaking with the status quo immigration consensus was what made putting up with the rest of it worthwhile. And millions of Americans who fell somewhere between the two agreed. You have to wonder how they feel about his failure to stick to the subject when the spotlight was brightest.