As a candidate, Donald Trump is much like the Barack Obama of 2008. He has never held office, and thus has no record. He is free to spin out opinions and policies without the constraint of ever having had to make decisions. At the same time, like Obama, Trump is prone to airy generalizations and confusing formulations. To put it more bluntly, half the time it is a struggle to figure out what he is trying to say. This allows viewers to project upon Trump whatever views they themselves hold, just as they did with Obama.
There is, however, one topic on which Trump’s fans were convinced that he held firm views: immigration. This was always an illusion. Few Trump supporters ever read the section on immigration on Trump’s web site and noted that he was actually quite squishy. He wanted to deport millions of Mexican citizens, and then let almost all of them back in. Huh? And, while Trump loved to talk about illegal immigration, he rarely said much about the far larger problems associated with our system of legal immigration.
Given all of that, it shouldn’t have been a shock when Trump flip-flopped on what was supposedly his signature issue. But to many, it was. Byron York charts Trump’s whiplash-inducing 180 on H-1B visas:
[P]eople who follow immigration closely were stunned Thursday night when Trump, at the Fox News debate here in Detroit, announced that he has changed his position on one key element of the immigration debate — the use of H-1B visas to bring skilled foreign workers into the United States.
In the distant past — say, yesterday — Trump focused on abuses in the system, in which some big companies have been caught using H-1Bs to bring in foreign workers, force American employees to train their own replacements, and then pay the foreign worker less than the American had made — all to do mostly routine jobs in the tech industry. …
In Detroit, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly pointed out that Trump’s campaign website has a strong statement against increasing the number of H-1Bs, saying it would “decimate American workers,” and yet in one debate Trump spoke favorably of the program. “So, which is it?” Kelly asked.
“I’m changing,” Trump said. “I’m changing. We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in. But, and we do need in Silicon Valley, we absolutely have to have.”
“So you are abandoning the position on your website?” asked Kelly.
“I’m changing it,” Trump said, “and I’m softening the position because we have to have talented people in this country.”
If Donald Trump doesn’t stand for opposition to unchecked immigration, legal and illegal, does he stand for anything? I don’t think so. I think it has become clear, if it hasn’t been all along, that his appeal is of the same mindless sort that we associate with Latin American dictators: “He’s tough, dammit!” Yeah, well, those guys may be tough–on their political opponents, anyway–but that sort of toughness doesn’t avail when the inflation rate gets to around 700%.
I am not suggesting that Trump would try to seize dictatorial power if he were elected. He wouldn’t. At worst, he would issue unconstitutional orders, like Obama. (The difference is that Obama knows when he is acting illegally, while Trump, who thinks judges sign “bills,” would more likely do it out of ignorance.) The point is that the impulse known as Trumpism is essentially the same as that which has given rise to long cycles of failed dictators in much of Latin America. It is a sign, in other words, of a democracy that is much degraded from what the United States has traditionally enjoyed.