Stop wasting your time trying to figure out why Donald Trump has changed his position on immigration. Stop trying to convince his supporters that he has changed his position on immigration. The most important thing about Trump’s position on immigration – whatever it is today – is that his supporters don’t give a fuck about policy specifics; heck, they barely care about policy generalities. What Trump’s core base wants from Trump is the one position he’s maintained all along: white supremacy.
Trump advocates are telling reporters he’s still going to build the wall. He’s just “starting with the dangerous folks.” It’s “just American politics” to say something different after the primaries – Trump loyalists know what he “really” means. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the country’s most infamous jailer of immigrants, explained Trump's apparent reversal as a mere business tactic: “He’s a great negotiator.” Arpaio later said he would continue to support Trump regardless, because what really matters is Trump’s “character.” He’s not wrong.
For Trumpkins like Arpaio, what matters more than actual, stated policy is the overarching theme of bigotry behind nearly everything Trump proposes. Supporters can divorce policy and underlying motives pretty easily because Trump’s argument for mass deportation stemmed from a sense of grievance, not facts or the real experiences of his supporters. Trump’s supporters are actually less likely than Clinton's to have experienced the negative effects of free trade or immigration. They are less likely to live in areas with immigrant populations. If mass deportations were to take place, Trump supporters would have to happen upon them on YouTube to even know they happened. (I have no doubt that a market for such videos would exist.)
Accusations of immigrants “taking our jobs” and “raping our women” were always just excuses to engage in increasingly blatant racism. If those were real problems that mass deportations might have actually solved, well, then Trump voters might be upset by his recent statements. Instead, Trump – as human traffic pylon Katrina Pierson has put it – simply “changed the words he’s saying.” His supporters know exactly what he means anyway: what he has always meant.
When policy plays no part in political decision-making, a demagogue can do anything and justify it as the will of the people. This kind of policy nihilism, combined with power worship, is how fascism happens.
For those who still believe that words mean things and that policy proposals matter, watching Trump spin his audience in real time is eye-poppingly surreal. In his prime-time fluff session with Sean Hannity, Trump told the audience that allowing some undocumented immigrants to stay in the country is what his supporters themselves have wanted all along. He harkened back to the “thousands of people” who approached him on the campaign trail to say, “Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who’s been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump.” (No word on whether all of these supplicants were also named “John Barron.”)
It’s a clumsy rhetorical sleight-of-hand that would make the saddest traveling magician scoff, and yet it appears to be working: Professional journalists are giving him credit for “moving to the center” and his supporters haven’t fled. The Great Trumpini may play the Gothic Castle yet.
These outlets don’t see through the illusion because they're focused on the election horserace, and his fans swallow the line because the most salient point made in Trump’s announcement speech, back in 2015, was never the part about Mexicans crossing the border – it was the part calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. His candidacy was never about a wall or deportations, it is based on demonizing brown people and allowing his audiences to engage in the fantasy of a resurgent (white) America. Trump hasn’t “softened” on either of those planks.
His deportation walk-back is helpful to those of us who oppose what he stands for, but not because it brings him in line with more moderate views. It's important in part because he’s exposed just how unworkable his idea was in the first place – and because the disappearing policy forces us to grapple with the ugliness behind the fantasy that underpins most of his ideas, including “ideological tests” and 45-foot walls.
I don’t worry about Trump’s policies being implemented, because they’re impractical and because he probably won’t win. What I worry about – and I’m not kidding here – is license to commit violence on people of color. I worry about “making racism OK again.” I worry that even though Trump will likely lose in November, Trumpism — Trump's rage, minus his policies — will linger.