Ever since he kicked off his presidential campaign in June 2015, Donald Trump has been pissing people off. He's pissed people off by being xenophobic, by being mean, and by just not making sense. Traditionally, his list of political adversaries has included most women, Muslims, Latinos, and a surprisingly large contingent of his own political party. But through it all, the American far right has largely been on his side—particularly members of the far right who agreed with the hawkish immigration policies Trump has placed at the center of his campaign.
That is, perhaps, until now.
"He had a stated immigration policy position," said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and former communications director for Senator Ted Cruz's presidential campaign. "Now he's changing it." According to Tyler, Trump has become another in a long line of Republicans who "say all these things that sound terrific, then get to Washington, get assimilated by leadership, and drink the Kool-Aid, and nothing happens."
That's because all of a sudden, after months of campaigning on his plans to deport undocumented immigrants and limit migration to the United States, the Republican presidential candidate has started to suggest that he wants to be nicer to undocumented immigrants.
In an interview on Fox News Tuesday, Trump claimed he was "working with a lot of people in the Hispanic community," on a solution to the problem of illegal immigration in the US. "We want to come up with a really fair but firm answer. It has to be very firm," Trump said. "But we want to come up with something fair."
Over on Twitter, where Trump turns to read and retweet supportive statements and memes, often from fringe right-wing sources, the statements—and the subsequent speeches Trump has made echoing those lines—have sparked a predicable backlash.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, tweeted Wednesday that Trump has "pissed away what chance he had by flipping on immigration." He compared Trump's news statements to Jeb Bush's immigration policy, which was derided by many on right as amnesty. "I guess Jeb's amnesty plan was too low energy," Krikorian joked. "Trump's amnesty is totally high energy!" Even Ann Coulter, a staunch Trump supporter who's been promoting her new book In Trump We Trust, said Tuesday that the Republican candidate was making "a mistake" by softening his position on immigration.
"I've thought he's made other mistakes," she told MSNBC hopefully. "And I've given him constructive criticism when I think he makes a mistake."
The outrage is predictable. From the inception of his campaign—and his now infamous declaration that Mexicans living in the US are "rapists" and "criminals"—Trump has made immigration the defining issue of his White House bid. Since then, at his rallies and on social media, the Republican nominee has repeatedly told his supporters that "illegal immigration is going to stop," explicitly making deportations part of his plan to curb the problem of undocumented immigrants in the US.
Asked how he would round up said immigrants, the candidate has proposed something called a "deportation force," and during a debate in November, he referenced the 1950s deportation effort known as "Operation Wetback" as evidence that removing millions of immigrants from the US is actually a feasible idea. In his apocalyptic speech to the Republican National Convention last month, Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for proposing "mass amnesty."
But when asked earlier this week if mass deportations were still on the table, Trump's new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told CNN that the candidate's stance on the issue is still "to be determined."
This apparent flip-flop is a serious breach of trust, according to Tyler, who says he can only conclude that "every utterance on the campaign trail was utterly meaningless from Donald Trump."
"He is now pro amnesty," Tyler said.
In his Tuesday Fox News appearance, Trump defended himself, saying "I'm not flip-flopping." Oddly enough, some analysts agree. As the Washington Post has pointed out, Trump's formal policy proposals never technically included mass deportation, per se. It appears that by dodging the specifics in his tough-on-immigration speeches so far, Trump technically has built himself an escape hatch from accusations of flip-flopping on this particular area of the immigration debate.
Yes, his campaign's official immigration platform promises that President Trump will coerce Mexico into constructing a Trump Wall, triple the number of immigration officers, and amend the US Constitution to end birthright citizenship. But unless you're in a gang, that policy page doesn't promise to deport you.
That argument gets a little shaky, however, when you look at some of the press Trump has republished on his own website. An article link from CNN touts a poll showing widespread support of Trump and notes that "among Republicans, a narrow majority (53 percent) think the government should try to deport all of the estimated 11 million immigrants currently living in the US illegally." Yet another CNN article about a poll notes that "84 percent of those who favor mass deportation say immigration is the most important issue in the 2016 election." So if you got your information about the Trump campaign from the Trump website, you would certainly be puzzled to find out that Trump actually doesn't want to deport people en masse.
The Republican Establishment, meanwhile, has quietly welcomed Trump's softer tone. Since the real estate mogul became the GOP frontrunner—and then the nominee—party strategists and leaders have been eagerly waiting for their candidate to make a "pivot"—a shift in tone, and perhaps policy, that would make him more palatable to voters beyond the conservative base. On the heels of a jarring staff shakeup earlier this month, Conway has made it clear that she would like Trump to be nicer to people. She may have a point: The most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Trump trailing Clinton by 12 points, with just 33 percent support nationwide.
Of course, Trump has a well-developed habit for rewording, walking back, or completely changing his positions. Just weeks ago, he called President Barack Obama the "founder of ISIS," only to explain later that he was being "sarcastic." He has talked a big game about opposing gun control, but later seemed to espouse support for certain gun-control reforms. And perhaps most notably, over his lifetime, Trump has "evolved," as he put it, from super pro-choice to super pro-life.
According to Tyler, conservatives should expect Trump to make more disappointing policy shifts soon. "Trade is next," he warned. "We haven't heard much about trade."
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