By Tim Stanley
1 SEPTEMBER 2016 • 1:44PM
US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto give a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City, Mexico CREDIT: HENRY ROMERO/REUTERS
Wednesday was a good day for Donald Trump, a reminder of why we shouldn’t underestimate him. It’s not that he did or said anything particularly different – he just did his old thing in a more effective way.
By hammering home a tough message on immigration, he gets back to the basics and reminds us why he won the primaries.
First, Trump flew down Mexico way to discuss his plans for a wall with President Enrique Pena Nieto. The statement he gave afterwards was measured and well delivered, full of praise for the “amazing” and “spectacular” people of Mexico (Trump’s efforts at diplomacy read like a TripAdviser review) and he avoided the subject of who would pay for the gargantuan structure.
So, win #1 was standing side-by-side with a foreign leader and looking like a man who can actually get things done. Critical pundits complained that the bar is set too low for Trump – that just because he didn’t strike President Nieto on the nose doesn’t mean he’s the new Henry Kissinger.
But they’re missing the point. Trump’s poll slide is less to do with his issues than the perception that he’s unfit for the presidency. Show him doing the job and not doing it too badly and, like Reagan in 1980, he hopes to allay fears and convince people it’s worth taking a gamble on him.
Second, Trump returned to Arizona to deliver an electric speech – his second best since the convention – that contradicted much of what he just said in Mexico. Mexico will pay for the wall. A wall that will be “beautiful” (how? Will it have gold fittings?). He also pledged the creation of a special deportation force to kick criminal illegal aliens back across the border.
All of which might sound like red meat but in fact reflects a slight softening of his position. He did not call for all 11 million estimated illegal immigrants to be deported, and some of his lieutenants have said that he understands this to be a near-impossible task.
Again, critical pundits will focus on the tone of his remarks while failing to notice that the more time Trump has had to think his immigration position through, the closer it has come to the position not only of the GOP but of the Obama administration.
Under Obama, millions have been deported: he booted 400,000 people out of the country in 2012 alone. Republicans and Democrats deport because a) it’s what the people want and b) it’s their job to uphold the law.
So win #2 was re-establishing Trump’s tough stance on immigration while adding some necessary context: he will talk like an adult to the Mexicans and he probably won’t erect a police state to enforce his policy.
The clever optics and subtle messaging might reflect the influence of new campaign managers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. That the campaign has become a little more sophisticated since Breitbart’s Bannon came aboard strengthens my view that the influence of the so-called Alt Right is overblown.
Whether or not this can make any difference is a tough call for a columnist to make. But the Clinton campaign should be wary of allowing Trump to set the agenda again. Hillary, it seems to many people, has gone into hiding and is relying upon negative campaigning.
Trump, by contrast, is flying down to Mexico and laying out a concrete vision for the country. That vision is a fantasy: the wall would be so absurdly costly and politically difficult that its construction would class it as one of the wonders of the postmodern world.
But that’s not the point. The point is that pay is low, jobs are difficult to get in many rustbelt areas, Americans are concerned about immigration, and Trump has some sort of plan to deal with it. And he re-emphasised an argument on Wednesday that is entirely historically accurate: there have been moments in US history when the country has closed its borders to select groups.
The world is undergoing a Great Migration from south to north. Lots of developed countries are saying: “No!” Love it or loathe it, Trump’s plan is not without practical precedent.
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