Because it’s still early in this presidential campaign at least in some respects (though not in the crucial “money primary”), it’s legitimate to take heart from new evidence that Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump is making progress toward sharpening – and expanding the appeal – of some of his main messages.
Of course, since Trump is the front-runner at this point, offering him advice can understandably seem presumptuous. (I.e., what are my poll ratings?) Nonetheless, since however thoroughly he’s thrashed most expectations, Trump still only enjoys plurality support among a huge Republican field, and still suffers from high negative ratings. Therefore, he’s still a long way from the GOP race’s commanding heights, much less from victory in the general election.
That’s why I’ve been convinced for months that he needs to tweak some of his rhetoric in ways that preserve his outsider, cut-through-the-you-know-what, can-do image, but that also reach out to new audiences. It’s also why I’ve been convinced that these modifications would be pieces of cake. And in an interview with Fox News last night, Trump took some major steps in that direction.
The first came in response to a by-now-formulaic question by Fox anchor Bret Baier about Trump’s position on deporting America’s current illegal immigrant population. “The economics of deporting 11 million immigrants,” Baier observed, “it just doesn’t seem to add up for a lot of people.”
But Trump gave a decidedly non-formulaic answer. He didn’t simply repeat standard, evasive abstractions like “They have to go…we either have a country, or we don’t have a country.” He didn’t double down by insisting that the key to success was “really good management.” And he didn’t try to soften the blow by promising “If we bring them out and they’re wonderful people, which I’m sure they will be, we’ll bring them back in an expedited fashion.”
Instead, Trump made a point referred to in his immigration plan, and that I’ve argued he should have been making all along, but one that he hadn’t directly connected to his deportation goal: “A lot of them — you’re going to make it so tough — look, you’re going to make it so tough that they’re going to leave. Many of them are going to leave. We’re going to make it so tough many of them are going to leave.”
In other words, for the first time during a media interview, and for the first time plainly in the context of deportation, Trump suggested that much of his policy towards illegals would center on what might be called a policy of attrition – removing all of the employment and government benefits incentives that both attract illegal immigrants and make it easy and appealing for them to stay despite all the legal uncertainties they face. Actually, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made much the same proposal, but characteristically called it “self-deportation,” a term that all but invited ridicule.
There’s no panacea for America’s illegal immigrant problem, but the best evidence available indicates that when jobs in illegals-heavy sectors of the economy dried up during the housing bust and ensuing recession, the illegal population began shrinking. Enforcing current laws against hiring illegals, denying them protections like sanctuary city status and conveniences like driver’s licenses, and cracking down on their welfare use seems likely to achieve even more dramatic results.
The second example of a New, Improved version of Trump-ism came in his answer to Baier’s question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. The candidate’s standard trade policy rhetoric slams “stupid,” and “incompetent” American negotiators for agreements that have slowed U.S. growth, and destroyed jobs and wages for the nation’s workers, as well as diabolically clever foreign governments. Trump made these same points in response to Baier, but also suggested (albeit fuzzily) that the results be blamed on “the lobbyists. It’s done by the special interests for certain companies that want it.”
I’ve recommended that Trump focus on corporate offshoring interests’ support for wrong-headed trade policy both because they dominate trade policymaking in Washington by dint of their campaign contributions, and because fingering domestic fat cats enables Trump to strike a populist and even nationalist stance without courting charges of xenophobia. And these Fox comments show that he’s getting this message – from somewhere.
Obviously Trump continues to alienate potential backers with childish personal insults of his political rivals and of allegedly biased media figures. In the process, he casts doubt on his temperament and fitness for office. He could argue that he’s also maintained his lead and thrown other candidates off stride. But if he really wants to drive the establishment crazy, he’ll drop the schoolyard stuff in favor of making his populist case with ever greater – and therefore more devastating – precision.