The most cursory evaluation of Donald J. Trump as a candidate revealed to us that he felt no need for small-minded consistency between his words and his actions. If it later proved convenient to back out of his promises, he’d do it in a New Jersey minute.
Well, Trump seems to have decided now might be a good time to break faith with the immigration hard-liners who formed the passionate core of his base: He had dinner with congressional Democratic leaders to discuss a path to legal status for some people who arrived in the U.S. as children and are now here illegally. These seem to have been preliminary talks, so it’s not exactly fair to say that he is selling out his base. But he has put his base on the market. Priced to sell.
We shouldn’t be surprised. The first year of a presidency is the year for bold action, but the man whose core credo is “I deal, therefore I am” has achieved … one Supreme Court confirmation, a handful of executive orders, and a reputation as perhaps the most incompetent manager ever to hold the presidency.
Of course, on his spectacular failure to pass health-care reform, it's worth noting that Trump didn’t really care about health-care policy, certainly not enough to acquire advisers who did. But things don’t look much more promising for his signature issues: tax reform, immigration, infrastructure.
One can only imagine that he is, by now, rather desperate for a deal, any deal, to show that he actually is the man he sold to voters: an outsider who can Make Things Happen in Washington where others have failed. And since his prior adventures have rather frosted his relationship with congressional Republicans, why not see if there’s a deal to be made on the other side of the aisle?
Turns out there is a deal to be made on the other side of the aisle: Offer amnesty to some number of immigrants now, in return for promises of tougher enforcement later. Democrats are well aware that the amnesty will be permanent, while the tougher enforcement can always be stalled in any number of creative ways -- or, in the event of a Democratic presidency, undone entirely with the stroke of a pen.
To secure an irreversible amnesty, Democrats may even be willing to agree to build “the wall,” knowing as they do that a 2,000-mile wall isn’t much of a barrier unless you have a whole lot of Border Patrol agents to keep people from climbing over, tunneling under or cutting through it.
Which is to say, Democrats will offer a “heads I win, tails you lose” deal: a substantive easing of immigration restrictions, covered by some tough-sounding fig leaf that Republicans can point to when angry voters quiz them about it. Exactly the sort of deal, Trump voters solemnly informed me, that a President Rubio, Kasich or Cruz was sure to press for. The sort of deal that made it imperative to vote for Donald Trump.
I disputed their analysis at the time, and still would. Politicians are generally constrained in their actions by a number of things, including their ideology, their desire to appear consistent, their fear of the voters (remember the "Gang of Eight" failure?), and their loyalties to their political party, which makes them reluctant to do things that will hurt their allies in the next round of elections.
Trump may be afraid of voters, but as for the rest: He has neither ideology nor principle, neither desire to appear consistent nor shame about failing to, neither allies nor any sense of personal loyalty. If he thinks he can get away with selling out his base, he will. (Perhaps most disconcertingly, you cannot even trust him to accurately gauge whether he can safely sell out his base.)
Naturally he took to Twitter to defend his thinking, and what he said did not exactly project the air of a leader with his fingers firmly on the pulse of his voters. His empathetic defense of people who were brought here as children and now have no legal status could have been lifted from a Clinton/Sanders debate. And he seemed to think that this would be enough to offset any voter outrage: “The WALL, which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built.”
One almost admires a salesman who's too brazen to craft a believable lie, the kind who simply utters obvious falsehoods and hopes you’re too polite to call them on it. It has a sort of roguish grandeur to it. On the other hand, most people will not purchase anything from such a salesman.
Those who appreciate the brazenness of the lies will lose their appreciation when he stops lying to you and starts making a deal with your enemies. As Ryan Lizza noted this morning: “MAGA twitter is absolutely on fire right now. His hardcore supporters seem shocked that Trump is a lousy deal maker who breaks his promises.”
That groundswell of outrage may be the death of any incipient deal he has with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. But it may not. Single-issue immigration voters are in an unenviable position with Trump: If he betrays them, who else are they going to vote for? Some Republican they denigrated as an out-of-touch elite? Or a Democrat?
But even if he does back down this time, his base should still be deeply worried. The fact that he even considered making a deal on immigration, and that he did so openly, indicates just how little leverage they have over the man they propelled into office. Not quite nine months into his administration, he’s already looking to sell them out. And if Democrats retake Congress in the midterms, they may well name his price.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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