WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s diatribe on immigration Wednesday night dispelled any conceivable doubt: He is a dangerous demagogue who rejects the values of openness and inclusion that made this country great. Rarely has an American politician given such an un-American speech.
Foreigners who come here seeking a better life are the scapegoats he blames for problems real and imagined. Never mind that Trump’s mother was an immigrant, or that two of his three wives came from overseas. Ronald Reagan saw this country as a shining city on a hill; Trump wants us to cower in fear behind a Berlin-style wall. Reagan invited millions of undocumented immigrants to stay and contribute to their adopted land; Trump wants to round them up, all 11 million, and ship them home.
That’s what he wants his loyal followers to believe, at least. Like any effective demagogue, Trump is fluent in doublespeak.
At one point, to thunderous applause, he said this: “For those here illegally today, who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and one route only: To return home and apply for re-entry like everybody else, under the rules of the new legal immigration system that I have outlined.”
A few sentences later, though, he appeared to take it back. Only after he has built the Great Wall of Trump on the Southern border, which isn’t going to happen, and convinced Congress to approve a whole new immigration system, which also isn’t going to happen – only then, he said, “will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those individuals who remain.”
See what he’s trying to do? He allows listeners to believe whatever they want about his true intentions. Xenophobes can dream of mobs wielding pitchforks and torches; while apologists can assure moderate voters that Trump doesn’t really propose a vast pogrom of ethnic cleansing.
I choose to believe the first version – that Trump is saying all 11 million have to go – because the whole point of the speech was to convince his most fervent supporters that he is “hardening,” not “softening,” his position on immigration. Fear and loathing of the “other” is his core appeal.
Trump also told us who would go first: up to two million undocumented “criminals” and another 4.5 million individuals who are here because they overstayed their visas. Also, any undocumented person stopped by law enforcement for any reason would be detained pending deportation. It is not alarmist to note that actually trying to do all of this would require the creation of a police state.
Of course, that’s not what he intends – unless you happen to like the idea of a police state, in which case it’s exactly what he intends. Policy positions are just words to Trump, and words are just paving stones on the road to power.
Trump’s support base is mostly white and working-class, and he skillfully exploits these voters’ fears of demographic change. We must “be honest about the fact that not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just not going to work out. It’s our right, as a sovereign nation, to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us.” He warned ominously that “immigration as a share of national population is set to break all historical records.”
Translation: Doesn’t it tick you off to hear so many so-called Americans speaking Spanish?
Trump’s antipathy toward Hispanic immigrants, however, is nothing compared to what he thinks about Muslims. He has changed his proposed Muslim ban into a country-specific ban – that happens to cover only Muslim countries. And he wants screening to include “an ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people.”
Ideological certification? Approved by whom, the thought police?
Earlier in the day, Trump tried his best to sound sober and statesmanlike in his meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. By evening, though, he was back to insisting that Mexico would pay for the border wall, although “they don’t know it yet.” And on Thursday morning, Trump was again touting a “softening” in his immigration views.
But you can’t soften bigotry. You can’t soften jingoism. You can’t soften Trump’s naked appeal to anger and resentment. You can’t soften the fact that he rejects American exceptionalism, which is based on creed, in favor of tribalism based on ethnic purity.
He can’t be George Wallace one day and Thomas Jefferson the next.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.