We tried to warn you. We sifted through the rhetoric, dissected the policy pronouncements, and took Donald Trump far more seriously than he took himself. Especially when it came to then-candidate Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric in support of immigration restrictionism and border security, we said the Manhattanite who only recently converted to the GOP was simply playing a role. On Thursday morning, the president confirmed his critics’ assumptions.
At the risk of reveling in this reveal or offending those who subordinated their better judgment and common sense to a man who finally promised them their unrealizable ideal, we are obliged today to take an inventory of those warnings.
“The WALL,” Trump tweeted with cryptic urgency, “which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built.”
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, serving in the military? Really!” the president added, addressing the children of illegal immigrants who benefit from Barack Obama’s deferred deportation program DACA. “They have been in our country for many years, through no fault of their own—brought in by parents at a young age. Plus BIG border security.”
To what was the president referring? On Wednesday night, Trump struck yet another “deal” with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, this time regarding immigration. “We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly and to work out a package of border security excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides,” read a joint statement from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that was released following their “productive meeting” with the president on Wednesday night.
A White House official told New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman that, while the statement fudges the details, Trump did not want border-wall funding tethered to DACA. “Trump veered toward Democrats on DACA after receiving tough coverage for backtracking on pledge to preserve it,” she revealed.
Anyone who was not so besotted with Trump’s gall and his willingness to reinforce their own hardline delusions on immigration saw this coming.
As early as August of 2015—just a few weeks after Trump descended the escalator—reporters were poking holes in Trump’s allegedly uncompromising stance on immigration. “You know, the truth is I have a lot of illegals working for me in Miami,” Trump told a group of young DREAMers during a Trump Tower meeting in 2013. “Can’t you just become a citizen if you want to?” he asked his petitioners repeatedly. When they said they could not, Trump confessed, “you’ve convinced me.”
That same month, the Trump campaign published a white paper outlining in broad strokes his immigration policy. It contained some laudable elements, like a nationwide E-Verify program, much of which had been boilerplate Republican immigration policy for years. But it also included nativist delights that were both irresponsible and unfeasible.
Trump’s plan would eliminate birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment and would enforce deportation mandates against all illegal immigrants, including the children of visa overstays and border crossers. “We have to keep the families together, but they have to go,” Trump told NBC News.
As former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin estimated, deporting the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in America over the space of just two years would cost approximately $300 billion. Moreover, the removing of millions of productive Americans from the country would result in substantially reduced economic activity and create a recession. The red-hat crowd dismissed these warnings as the craven dissimulations of those who covertly support “amnesty” for all illegal immigrants.
This policy paper was Trump’s answer to what he derisively referred to as the “Schumer-Rubio” immigration reform bill of 2013, also known as the “Gang of Eight.” For Trump’s biggest fans, the obviously performative denunciation of this comprehensive effort was enough to earn their undying support even if they knew, deep down, he was only using them.
Of course, that white paper also indulged his supporters’ most vivid fantasy: The Wall. This was the most shameless of canards. Invoking a towering barrier of ever-increasing height, it soon evolved from a policy prescription into an applause line. Anyone who dared question the logistics or cost of such a barrier was accused of evincing a lack of zeal for the #MAGA cause. As Linda Chavez wrote for COMMENTARY in the spring of 2016, The Wall was pure fancy. She noted that the materials costs alone for such a projected would run in excess of $17 billion, to say nothing of the years it would take to survey the construction sites, perform environmental-impact studies, impound the land, reimburse the displaced, pay attorneys, and hire union labor to build the thing.
At best, Trump’s critics contended, the president would manage to reinforce existing border security measures, the strongest of which were included in the 2013 immigration reform bill the president so callously disparaged on the stump. All these warnings were disregarded.
By mid-2016, even Trump’s own campaign surrogates—stalwart supporters like New York Rep. Chris Collins and his eventual Energy Secretary, Rick Perry—were dismissive of the catechisms of The Wall. “I have called it a virtual wall,” Collins averred while also dismissing Trump’s “deportation force” as a “rhetorical” exercise. “Maybe we will be building a wall over some aspects of it; I don’t know.”
“It’s a wall, but it’s a technological wall, it’s a digital wall,” Perry said after conceding that Mexico would not be paying for or reimbursing America for the costs of any kind of construction on the border. “There are some that hear this is going to be 1,200 miles from Brownsville to El Paso, 30-foot high, and listen, I know you can’t do that.”
The Republican Party made a tradeoff when it nominated Donald Trump; a more liberal outlook on issues like health care and tax code reform for an unconventionally hawkish approach to immigration. Those of us who saw the real Trump, not the confection whipped up by his apologists and image-makers, knew that so much of his border hawkishness was an act. The dropping of that veil is a bittersweet moment; it is a reminder of the opportunities that were lost.