On Wednesday night, the presidential nominee of a major American political party painted the most vulnerable minority group in the United States as innately criminal and unworthy of moral concern. The Republican standard-bearer argued that undocumented immigrants commit “countless” homicides, degrade the quality of our nation’s “ jobs, wages, housing, schools, tax bills and general living conditions,” “mock” and “abuse” our police, and still receive better treatment than our veterans — even though the “needs” of these people matter only to “out-of-touch media elites.”
The candidate also promised to extort billions of dollars from an American ally, and raised the possibility of exiling his chief political rival. He concluded his remarks by inviting a series of grieving mothers to decry the “illegals” who stole their children’s lives.
When this macabre spectacle was finished, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell turned to his panel for commentary.
“Gene, we listened carefully for the question everyone wanted the answer to,” O’Donnell began, addressing Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. “And that is the issue on which Donald Trump has been ‘softening.’ And that is the mass deportation. And, apparently, the ‘softening’ is now the official position.”
“That’s actually not the way I heard the speech,” a befuddled Robinson replied. “I heard him say, anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation … he seemed to me to be saying, anyone who gets stopped for jaywalking gets immediately detained and deported. So it seems to me he took a hard line.”
“Well, I think that’s what he wanted people to think he was saying, Gene,” O’Donnell explained. “When he said, ‘Everyone here is subject to deportation, that’s the current status. And what he then went into was a list of priorities. Now, you don’t have priorities if you’re deporting everyone.”
O’Donnell was not the only journalist to frame this shift in Trump’s deportation policy as the most important part of his remarks. The New York Times’ Patrick Healy opened his story on the speech with this lede:
(The Times revised the piece shortly after publication, giving greater emphasis to Trump’s “bullying tone,” while still leading with the “shelving” of his mass-deportation plan.)
It is rare for reporting to be this irrelevantly correct: When the Republican nominee scapegoats 11 million people for all of the crime and economic hardship afflicting real Americans, the main takeaway should not be that the vague, hypothetical policies he outlined would only result in the deportation of 60 percent of them.
But it isn’t a mystery why some well-intentioned reporters thought that it was. Donald Trump spent the past two weeks behaving as though he wanted to moderate his most extreme immigration policies — but was afraid of alienating his base. He had spoken of a “fair and humane” immigration policy, and push-polled a Fox News audience on whether law-abiding undocumented immigrants deserve a pathway to legalization. Later, his campaign claimed that his immigration platform hadn’t “softened” — while the candidate insisted that “people say it’s a hardening, actually.”
Trump promised to clarify his official position in Wednesday night’s speech. And so, with a normal candidate, the task for reporters would be to cut through that speech’s rhetoric and highlight the actual policy being put forward. After all, a politician in Trump’s position has an incentive to mislead his supporters, amping up the bluster of his words to camouflage a substantive flip-flop.
The problem is, with Donald Trump the bluster is the substance. To see why this is the case, just think about which of these things is more likely to impact people’s lives:
1. The fact that a long-shot presidential candidate — who constantly changes his positions — just implicitly swapped an implausible plan to deport 11 million people with an implausible plan to deport 6 million people.
2. The fact that the Republican nominee has apparently decided to spend the last two months of his campaign — when national attention is at its peak — running as an ultra-nationalist demagogue.
The first fact only matters, on a policy level, if we stipulate a series of unlikely hypotheticals: that Trump can mount one of the most improbable comebacks in American political history; that once he wins he’ll have the power to implement an exorbitantly expensive and unpopular plan to deport 11 million people; but that since he has now implicitly disavowed that plan, he will not change positions again, and thus, the future immigration policy of the United States has just been transformed.
On a political level, the GOP nominee’s shift only matters if we stipulate that voters who were previously alienated by Trump’s immigration stance weren’t put off by the tone of his rhetoric, but by the precise number of people he intended to deport — and that, despite the fact that Trump did everything he could to disguise his revision of that number, these voters nonetheless discerned the change.
The second fact does not rely on any hypothetical. Trump’s demagogic rhetoric is an immediate reality. It has already been linked to hate crimes, increased recruitment for white-supremacist groups, and heightened bullying of minority children in schools. It is already eroding the norms of tolerance and respect for basic democratic institutions, on which our liberal democracy depends. Even viewed through the narrow lens of horse-race analysis, the tenor of Trump’s speech matters more than policy nuances that shift back and forth by the day but ultimately never veer far from the draconian.
Focusing on the latter reveals little about the Republican nominee — and much about how the conventions of political journalism can undermine coverage of an unconventional campaign.