Donald Trump has been running for president for 14 months. The signature issue of his campaign is immigration. And yet, trying to discern his position on that issue remains an analytical exercise akin to interpreting the Talmud.
This past week, the GOP nominee disavowed the policy of mass deportation that he campaigned on for more than a year. But instead of laying out a clear counter-proposal for dealing with the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, Trump has chosen to describe his new policy solely through a series of contradictory adjectives.
Over the weekend, Trump told his Hispanic advisory council that he would adopt a “humane and efficient” solution to the crisis of the undocumented. He stipulated on Monday that this policy would also be “very firm,” and “really fair.” On Tuesday, Trump added further nuance to his proposal, explaining that his immigration standards will be “very, very tough,” and yet, they could also, potentially, allow for “a softening.”
“Is there any part of the law that you might be able to change that would accommodate those people that contribute to society, have been law-abiding, have kids here?” Sean Hannity asked Trump at a town hall event Tuesday night.
“There certainly can be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people,” Trump told Hannity. “We want people — we have some great people in this country. We have some great, great people in this country.”
One might reasonably interpret this statement as meaning, “Yes, we certainly can adjust existing laws to accommodate the great undocumented immigrants who contribute to our society.”
And yet the very next words out of Trump’s mouth were: “But, so, we’re going to follow the laws of this country. What people don’t realize, we have very, very strong laws.”
If we’re going to follow existing laws then those great people have no legal right to reside in the United States.
Trump did little to clarify matters in an interview that aired on Fox and Friends Wednesday morning, saying, “We’re going to have very, very tough standards. You come into the country, it’s tough.”
To explicate the subtext of Trump’s remarks, CNN solicited the expertise of GOP congressmen — and master of Trumpian semiotics — Steve King.
“When you balance [all] that together, I think what it says is that if people are anticipating that there would be a deportation corps that would be deployed across this country, that softening means that’s less likely,” King explained. “His answer then was there could be some softening, which I didn’t quite hear as he’d be willing to change the law … If asked further on this, I think he would come back to this point: we have to restore the respect for the rule of law in America. And part of that is to enforce the laws that we have.”
Asked whether, in his exegesis of Trump’s teachings, enforcing the law requires denying all undocumented immigrants legal status, King replied, “I would say yes. And the reason is they’re not law abiding in the first place. By crossing the border illegally, they’re by definition criminals. And he has said he wants to remove the criminals in this country.”
All right, enough subtlety. Here’s my subtextual analysis: The fact that a Republican congressman must meditate on the connotations of softening to deduce the GOP nominee’s position on immigration — which, again, is the central issue of the nominee’s campaign — is a humiliation for our democracy.
Trump has been campaigning on a Dada platform of ludicrous, ever-changing policies for so long now, it’s easy to forget just how offensive to the concept of self-government his shtick is. Trump’s “flip-flops” are so frequent and extreme, they don’t merely betray his supporters, but rather, the idea of public-policy debate itself. The Clinton campaign has given up trying to hold Trump accountable for his contortions, because by the time one drafts an attack, he’s often flopped back to the position he began with.
But the press needs to hold Trump accountable. At this point, it doesn’t really matter what Trump decides to say his immigration position is. The fact that the GOP nominee thinks it’s acceptable, this far into his campaign, to say he is working “to come up with an answer” concerning the fate of 11 million people should be a scandal.
There can’t be any softening. We need to have very, very tough standards for those who want to come into the Oval Office.