The big question this week among Trumpologists — practitioners of the new science of trying to decipher Donald Trump’s sequences of half-sentences that pass for speeches — is whether he has softened his rhetoric on immigration. I say he has, although his reasons have nothing to do with efforts to win the Latino vote.
Granted, Trump told Fox News on Monday that “I’m not flip-flopping” on immigration. And hours earlier, his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway had denied media reports that Trump was considering abandoning his proposal to create a “deportation force” to expel the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, after she herself had conceded a day earlier that such changes were “to be determined.”
But the fact is, Trump has made a big shift in his immigration rhetoric, which had been the pillar of his presidential campaign. He no longer talks about a “deportation force” or “mass deportations,” and instead stresses that his policy will be “firm,” “fair” and “humane.”
Asked at another Fox News show — yes, it’s looking more and more like “Trump News Network” — on Tuesday whether immigration laws should be made flexible to accommodate undocumented people who contribute to society, Trump responded: “There certainly can be a softening, because we’re not looking to hurt people.”
That was a major departure from his previous calls for mass deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants. It was a sign that Trump — who is trailing badly in the polls — may be willing to accept a path to legalization for some, even as he continues stirring up his audiences with vows to build a wall with Mexico.
Many pundits speculated that Trump’s changing rhetoric on immigration was a desperate move to increase his dismal support among Latinos. According to a recent Latino Decision poll, Trump has only 16 percent of the Latino vote, the lowest in recent history for Republican presidential candidates. (George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 elections, John McCain won 31 percent in 2008, and Mitt Romney won 27 percent in 2012.)
But that’s not the main reason why Trump is softening his immigration rhetoric — because he surely knows that he has near zero chance of significantly raising his support among Hispanics.
Latinos won’t forget that Trump started his campaign with a June 16, 2015, speech in which he claimed that most Mexican undocumented immigrants are criminals and rapists.
Latinos won’t forget that Trump has forcefully called for a “deportation force” to expel the 11 million undocumented immigrants, even if that means separating parents from their young children.
Latinos won’t forget that Trump has disqualified U.S. Judge Gonzalo Curiel because “he’s Mexican,” despite the fact that Curiel was born in Indiana.
Latinos won’t forget that Trump has derided those who speak Spanish. In a tweet on Aug. 24, 2015, Trump wrote that Republican hopeful Jeb Bush “speaks Mexican, this is America, English!!”
Latinos won’t forget that the climax of Trump’s campaign speeches is when he vows to build a wall along the border, and the crowd chants, “Build that wall!”
And if some Latino voters forget about Trump’s previous statements about Latinos, the Hillary Clinton campaign will surely keep them fresh in the final weeks of the race by beaming Trump’s own offensive remarks in her TV ads.
My opinion: Yes, Trump is carrying out a slow-motion reversal of his rhetoric on illegal immigration. But, no, he’s not doing it because he has any hope of increasing his dismal polling numbers among Latino voters.
He’s doing it because he desperately needs to increase his support among those white Anglo voters who are not racist, nor xenophobic, nor sexist, who don’t laugh at people with physical disabilities, and who — while being Republicans — are afraid of voting for somebody who comes across as a soulless egomaniac autocrat.
The changes in Trump’s rhetoric on immigration are cosmetic, and aimed at making him look more “humane” among some anxious white Anglo voters.