Well, August is over and that’s a relief. Donald Trump closed out the month with a couple of faux pivots designed to persuade independent and moderate voters that he is really not such an an unreasonable fellow after all. While the maneuvers received ample attention from the media, neither appears likely to have gained much traction and, in the case of immigration policy, appears to have cost him at least some support.
Trump and African-Americans
For most of his campaign, Trump had steadfastly ignored African-Americans, but it eventually dawned on his campaign that, if he could not do better than a microscopic one or two percent of support from that community, it would be a significant problem. Equally important was a realization that he had alienated many white voters by comments that were widely viewed as racist or bigoted. In an attempt to address these problems. Trump visited Dimondale, Michigan (a virtually all-white community) to deliver a lecture to African-Americans as to why they should vote for him:
To those hurting, I say: What do you have to lose by trying something new? I say it again, what do you have to lose? Look, what do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs. 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?
African-Americans reacted with indignation at Trump’s condescending stereotype of their community. Conservative Jennifer Rubin pointed out the errors in Trump’s statistics, including the “58 percent” unemployment (the actual rate is also too high, but less than half Trump’s figure). She also pointed out that Trump “is a lightning rod for racial animus and tension, falsely accusing cities with large African American populations to be crime havens. “With Trump,” she added, “we’d lack a president who had any conception that there is a problem with policing in minority communities or any desire to bring communities and police together.”
Stung by criticism of his failure to speak directly to an African-American audience, Trump scheduled an appearance before a black church in Detroit. The road to Detroit, however, was not a smooth one. On August 31, the Detroit Free Press reported that:
Trump won’t be speaking to the black congregation at Great Faith Ministries International during the 11 a.m. service. And his Saturday interview with [Bishop Wayne T.] Jackson on the church’s Impact Network — which will not be open to the public or the news media — won’t air for at least a week after the event.
Then the New York Times published a leaked script for Trump’s “interview” with the pastor, consisting of a string of carefully drafted platitudes to serve as Trump’s answers to the questions previously furnished to the campaign. After the story was published, the Trump campaign hastily announced that that Trump would speak to the congregation after all, for five or ten minutes, and then meet casually with individual members after the service. The session with the pastor would proceed as scripted.
In the end, Trump was allowed to speak to the congregation for longer than the one minute that the pastor had in mind. Given the opportunity, Trump responded with ten minutes of remarks delivered obediently from a teleprompter. The remarks were uncharacteristically soft-spoken and even humble, remarks that, if delivered by any other political figure, would have seemed routine and would likely gone unreported. In Trump’s case, however, they were duly observed to have presented a different image of the candidate than the one with which we have become all too familiar. Whether Trump’s awkward efforts of outreach will be effective with either African-Americans or with moderate or independent white voters remains to be be seen, but we are skeptical. If Trump convinced any of either group, even a little, they have not so far stepped forward to say so and their identities have not been uncovered by enterprising journalists.
Trump and Immigration From Mexico
Despite media coverage, Trump’s attempts to woo, or appear to woo, the African-American community may have been below the radar of much of the electorate. But few could have missed his frantic gyrations on the immigration front. They began with Trump’s suddenly announced trip to Mexico City for a meeting with the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto. Their joint appearance after the meeting was notable primarily for the fact that, in a stolid but courteous performance, Trump did not embarrass himself as many of us might have expected. Trump reverted to form only in asserting that the question of whether Mexico would pay for the Trump Wall had not been discussed. The Mexican President did not dispute Trump from the podium, but as soon as the event was over, sought to correct the record: “At the start of my conversation with Donald Trump I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” Peña Nieto tweeted in Spanish from his official account afterwards. “After that, the conversation moved on to other topics and unfolded in a respectful manner.” The Trump campaign did not attempt to rebut or deny Peña Nieto’s account.
From the meeting with Peña Nieto, Trump flew directly to Phoenix to deliver the major immigration speech that had been promised for several weeks. It was a curious juxtaposition of appearances that was made more curious by the contrasting images offered by Trump in each location. If Trump had assumed the role of Dr. Jekyll in Mexico City, in Phoenix he gave us his more familiar Mr. Hyde. In the period leading up to the Phoenix speech, the Trump campaign and the candidate himself had given numerous hints that Trump’s position on immigration, and mass deportation in particular, might be “softening” or “evolving.” The Phoenix speech, however, was widely viewed by both supporters and critics of Trump as abandoning any such shift. Indeed, several observers commented that Trump had “doubled down” or even “tripled down” on his crusade to rid the country of illegal immigrants.
That perception was based on both the harsh rhetoric Trump employed (“Countless Americans who have died in recent years would be alive today if not for the open border policies of this administration and the administration that causes this horrible, horrible thought process, called Hillary Clinton.”) but on ten specific proposals that he made. Foremost among the latter, of course is the promise to build the Trump Wall and the promise that Mexico will pay for it. Reportedly nettled by the Mexican President’s correction of his misstatement on the subject, Trump added to his prepared remarks a parenthetical “They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for it.” Trump also reiterated his position that legal status could be obtained only by first returning (for an indefinite period, perhaps years) to the immigrant’s country of origin.
Nevertheless, for those who looked for it, and were willing to set aside harsh rhetoric, there was something that could be taken as a softening:
This declaration alone will help stop the crisis of illegal crossings and illegal overstays, very importantly. People will know that you can’t just smuggle in, hunker down and wait to be legalized. It’s not going to work that way. Those days are over.
Importantly, in several years when we have accomplished all of our enforcement and deportation goals and truly ended illegal immigration for good, including the construction of a great wall, which we will have built in record time. And at a reasonable cost, which you never hear from the government. And the establishment of our new lawful immigration system then and only then will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those individuals who remain.
That discussion can take place only in an atmosphere in which illegal immigration is a memory of the past, no longer with us, allowing us to weigh the different options available based on the new circumstances at the time.
That sounded like a shift from earlier Trump pronouncements in which he had appeared to call for a more or less immediate deportation of all 11 or 12 million immigrants. And in separate appearances on television, senior Trump advisers Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie have argued that Trump’s position had changed. As Christie put it “Listen, we want candidates and leaders to listen and if they hear new information or different information that leads them to conclude different things than their positions we want them to do that.”
But what did Trump really mean? How many did of the illegal immigrants did he expect to find in the category of “individuals who remain”? While Giuliani and Christie had emphasized the the deportation of criminals, Trump also indicated that he would give priority to deporting aliens who had overstayed their visas. That might involve as many as four to five million individuals and the Washington Post, among others, wondered about the basis for that priority:
Just why Mr. Trump would prioritize visa-overstayers for deportation, and not those who entered the country illegally in the first place, is unexplained.
It is possible that Trump intended only to prioritize individuals who overstay their visas in the future, but neither he nor his campaign have attempted to clarify the point. Nor have they attempted to clarify what “options” Trump had in mind for the millions who remained.
Overall, Senator Flake of Arizona spoke for many when he said on NBC on Sunday, “Some people said it was hardening, some said softening, I say it was just confusing.” Given the confusion, Trump’s softening, if any, is unlikely win him any support from those who have found his hardline positions difficult to accept. Indeed, it was reported in Politico and elsewhere that the Phoenix speech had prompted the resignation of several members of Trump’s Hispanic Leadership Council. On the other hand, the Phoenix speech is unlikely to cost him support from immigration hawks who will find Trump’s position, however softened, to be vastly preferable to that of Hillary Clinton.
The New York Times has produced an amusing but telling video on the subject of Trump’s flip-flops on a variety of subjects. The video notes that such gymnastics are not unique to Trump and it includes several historical and contemporary precedents. Yet, it concludes convincingly, Trump has taken the art of the flip-flop to a new level, “Donald Trump, Changing His Mind.” What will be next? Will we see Trump strolling down Fifth Avenue in the company of Melania and Ivanka who are wearing burkas? Perhaps not, but we wouldn’t rule it out.
Is it unfair to refer to Trump’s recent flips as flops? Our own intuition is that their net effect has indeed been more negative than positive. Clinton’s lead in the polls has narrowed perceptibly, but we do not attribute Trump’s improved position to anything he has said or done. Rather, we believe that it stems primarily from Clinton’s struggles with her email and Clinton Foundation controversies and her stubborn refusal to have a press conference. The strongest argument of both candidates continues to be the unpopularity of their opponent, and it is not a happy situation for the American voter. We are inclined to sympathize with the recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal:
We’ve sometimes thought that the best thing about this election is that one of them will lose. But that still means that one of them will take power for four years. Perhaps we need to open ourselves to new possibilities. If “neither” could make it onto the November ballot, maybe we’d reconsider our longstanding editorial policy of not endorsing candidates.