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It’s interesting how sometimes you have a political passing observation about something, consider it true but probably not that important, but that becomes incredibly important. Think of it like “Those tires are looking kind of thin” thirty minutes before they blow open on the Interstate. A few years ago I thought to myself, “You know, first past the post isn’t a good way to hold primary votes.” I was thinking more for things like senate races, but that actually became very important. In early 2015, I thought “I think people are overestimating the ease with which Jeb Bush will win the nomination. This might be the year the establishment loses” This struck me as potentially important, but I thought at the time it might mean that Scott Walker or, worst case, Ted Cruz. And here we are.

Perhaps the most important of these things was about immigration. After running some numbers, it became apparent that the “Campaign Autopsy” as it related to the Hispanic vote and Comprehensive Immigration Reform simply wasn’t true. There were a lot of things responsible for the GOP’s loss, but the Hispanic vote wasn’t really among them. They didn’t put that in there as an analysis of what the party needed to do in some irrefutable need, but what its leaders wanted to do. With that, it became obvious that even after the failure to pass anything in 2013, the party really was going to screw the immigration restrictionists as soon as it could. Since I am uncommitted on the issue, this realization made me neither elated nor angry. It was mostly just an observation. One that would become very important.

I’m not going to pretend that I know a lot of Trump supporters. But those I do know come overwhelmingly from one segment of his support: Border Hawks. Those drawn to him first and foremost over his (alleged) commitment to border security. They are a subsection of his support, but were very important in providing him an unwavering base of support early on, helping him establish credibility. Early on in Trump’s rise, I was baffled as to how they felt they could trust Donald J Trump on immigration. Could they not see that he was going to screw them? That he didn’t care? And that he was unreliable? Even someone like Ted Cruz or Scott Walker, who may be insincere, could probably be made to understand that it was critical to their self-interest not to deviate on that particular issue. I voiced this with my friend Trumper Dave, and he made what has since become the best way through which I have understood the alliance. And it all goes back to my observation about the GOP screwing them.

Maybe they could trust Trump or maybe not, but they knew that they couldn’t trust anybody else this side of Sessions or Tancredo. If the GOP was poised to screw them, he explained, then you in essence really did need somebody outside of the structure. Someone who owes nothing to the structure, and a lot more to border hawks. While Trump might not be ideal (and Dave admitted as much), he was the only person in the field who fit that bill. They do (or did) believe that Trump really cared about the issue (there’s an origin story involving him reading Ann Coulter’s book), but even if not they had what they felt was better insurance than their hopes and dreams: Trump was burning the bridge of respectability.

They believe that Republicans moderate on the issue of immigration not out of any conviction (or change thereof), but because of a desire to be on the good side of the powers that be. Big money, big media, and liberal society. It’s the cocktail party argument, basically. So they remain suspicious of anybody – anybody – that speaks in such a way that allows them to retain the respect of the people whose endearment they can later attain by selling out on immigration.

Consider prison gang tattoos. Getting one is more than a show of solidarity, but indicative that burning a bridge to where you cannot go easily back. If you want the protection of white supremacists in prison, it’s not enough that you call black people names and say things you can take back once you get out. You may be required to wear a tattoo that brands you for life. If you flinch at that, then you’re not committed and may just be using them for cover.

Trump’s vulgar rhetoric regarding immigration has served as a rhetorical tattoo in that regard. Which, in turn, made it an insurance policy. As Trump has perhaps turned on the issue this week, a lot of outside people are saying that it won’t do him much good because he’s already burned the fields. I am among the ones who have said that, and this was why they trusted him. This was why the verbal tattoos were so important. They turned what might have ordinarily been a good political move (moderating on a contentious issue, finding the abandoned middle ground) into a useless one.

So what happens if Trump flips anyway? What happens if Trump comes out with a plan that’s hard to distinguish from that of Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio? What then? Well, we’re finding out.

Border hawks are often a more nuanced group than people think. I don’t mean that they’re more sympathetic, but while I wouldn’t call their views “realistic” many have views that are less unrealistic than people suppose. So, for instance, almost none that I have talked to have put a lot of stock in the deportation force. They believe in The Wall, but they recognize how tricky it is to just go out and deport millions of people. They liked that he was saying it, but recognized he was just saying it. Indeed, many know that in the end there will be amnesty of some sort for those already here that do not leave.

What they want, though, is for any talk of amnesty to come last. Otherwise, what they believe is going to happen is that you will get a comprehensive reform package where everybody gets carrots and the stick never gets funded. (They believe this is what is going to happen because, in all likelihood, it is.) So unauthorized immigrants get residency, they get citizenship, they never pay the “back taxes”, the wall never gets built, employers are never cracked down upon, and the process starts all over again at some point in the future. So before anybody gets any carrots, there must be sticks. It’s the non-negotiable point. The enforcement enhancements cannot come later, or concurrently, but must come up front. Then, and only then, can we talk what to do with the ones already here. And if we never get to that point, and they live the rest of their lives in the shadows but here, they’re okay with that.

The Republican candidates picked up on this, and released their plans accordingly. So what was the problem? The problem was that they were entirely untrusted. They refused to get the tattoo. They didn’t demonstrate sufficient commitment. Which creates an utterly unworkable dilemma for the GOP. Whatever their willingness to hold the line on immigration, most ambitious ones are rather uncomfortable demonstrating their willingness by alienating everybody else. I don’t believe that the GOP needs to sign on to a generous immigration reform package to improve their standing among minorities and educated whites. But what they can’t do, is call Mexicans rapists in blanket statements. The arguments have to be very tight, and very careful. This is hard enough when you’re dealing with hundreds of political operators with political ambitions that require getting attention. More importantly, though, it’s exactly the opposite of what is being demanded here . Ann Coulter more or less said as much to a reporter after Trump turned:

My worship for him is like the people of North Korea worship their Dear Leader – blind loyalty. Once he gave that Mexican rapist speech, I’ll walk across glass for him. That’s basically it. Unlike the crazy Cruz supporters, I’ll criticize him, and I have, but it’s all minor stylistic stuff. We all want to shoot him at various times.

When Trump tentatively announced a reversal on amnesty, Coulter started cussing up a storm. Mickey Kaus fell into line pretty quickly. Mark Krikorian, who is very policy-centric, is the only one who is not on board. Most of the anti-immigration Trumpers I know are still going to vote for him regardless of what he said, for the same reason they voted for Romney and even McCain. The alternative is the Democrat, and despite some bloated primary rhetoric, they know who is worse than whom from their perspective. And Trump still promises the wall.

In the meantime, the anti-immigration movement is as far as it ever was from a semblance of respectability. I don’t know what the future holds for the Republican Party and their position in it, but half of them are now on the record accepting forms of amnesty they rejected a few months ago. Unless they can firmly win Trump back (and maybe they will on Tuesdays and Thursdays and alternating weekends), that’s going to be the new starting point for all future negotiations. Hillary Clinton is going to win an election she might otherwise have lost, and there is a non-trivial chance that she will have the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court.

The side of me that views them as the enemy would like to be able to say that it’s their own fault for being so intransigent, and so unwilling to compromise, but I am not sure how much it mattered in the end. They tried cooperating, and it didn’t work. They tried rebelling, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work when the polling numbers on immigration were favorable to them, and it won’t work now that they are as unfavorable as they have ever been. They poisoned their own well with the rhetoric they demanded. With the fall of Trumptown (on this issue), there are no paths to victory and there probably never were. Even if they hadn’t lost public opinion. Reasonable faces aren’t trustworthy. Unreasonable faces aren’t popular. All that’s left is to hold the line until the inevitable fall. All they can do is keep burning the fields and admiring their work.


Category: Statehouse

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8 Responses to The Collapse of the Wall

  1. Michael Drew says:

    I’m unclear why politicians allow themselves to be forced either into pro-amnesty or pro-mass-deportation positions. The status quo is the shadows. If you let them make you choose one of those, you’ve lost all leverage: either you’ve bought in and have to play the game as it’s being played, or you get marginalized as a fascist. The fact of the matter is that the one status quo that’s proved sustainable is lengthy periods of legal limbo. A politician can go on record saying that reform is desirable so long as it meets X criteria, but that the status quo of making people live in shadows is tolerable. But they never seem to do that. They either say they want walls and deportation and to make no other concessions, or that they want reform along the lines that are understood as the basic approach that will eventually happen.

    Of course, this observation applies most to restrictionists, because the shape of the bsdic reform plan is good enough for most reform advocates. They don’t really need leverage to try to get what’s in it changed; they just want it passed.

    • trumwill says:

      I do think that is something missing from the debates, and the discussion Over There. The talk focuses on how much the border hawks could get if they were to compromise. They’re much more bullish than I am on what the BH’s could get, but even that aside… it’s only worth it to the BH if they believe the proposal is better than the status quo. Which when it comes to what Bush and Obama proposed and were likely willing to do, it simply wasn’t. This could backfire come 2017 (I think there’s a good chance it will) but that was not an unreasonable gamble.

      The same applies the other way, of course, that for those who want immigration reform, whatever is on the table has to be better than the status quo. Which means that a plan which included legal residency in ten years but had enforcement now would likely be rejected on the grounds that it’s not better than the status quo.

      But anyway, the status quo (more or less, see below when I respond to Cain) is an option. And I think a lot of pro-immigration folks don’t believe it is. Half of the rationale of Obama’s executive action was that he had to because “Congress isn’t doing its job.” Which does a lot of heavy lifting, because it assumes that anything but amnesty is not doing its job. As opposed to doing what the border hawks want, which is find ways to enforce immigration law.

      Which makes it sound like I am coming down on the BH side, which I’m really not. I don’t favor giving them what they want (see below again), or certainly not all of it. But I think everybody brings assumptions to the table about what the government has to do here.

  2. Michael Cain says:

    There’s a limit to how many and for how long the politicians can leave them in the shadows. Here in my state, the tipping point seems to be how many bright kids reach the point where they want to go to college, but need the in-state tuition to make it work. To clean up a comment from an Hispanic acquaintance who started a small Hispanic-focused bank, “Dammit, they’ve lived here since they were three, been outstanding students, broken out of our stupid cultural bias against higher ed, and will be the accountants and engineers and lawyers and such that the Hispanic community desperately needs! And the Republicans say we can’t have them? And then claim to not understand why we vote for the Democrats?!?”

    • trumwill says:

      If I’m advising the border hawks, the #1 I am advising them is that they really need to give ground on the DREAMers issue. The optics are terrible. Nobody but the most fanatical agree with them.

      As I say in the OP, I am pretty uncommitted on the issue. I favor a pathway to legalization but not a pathway to citizenship. At least, not in the initial law. Basically, here are the enforcement measures we’re going to implement, and in return there is an amnesty. Then, ten years or whatever down the road, if the enforcement measures have been implemented, then a pathway to citizenship is established.

      I don’t think Krikorian and company will take my deal.

      I also don’t think the Democrats will.

      Which kind of goes back to my comment to Drew above, where the rhetoric is that this is simply an issue of governance and a moral issue and not a political issue… but actually approaching it like a political issue with a negotiation that they’re willing to walk away from.

  3. SFG says:

    Preying on the hopeless is a Trump specialty (see: Trump University). My problem is, historically an expanding America has had space for the next wave of immigrants. Now we’ve stopped expanding geographically (a long time ago) and expanding economically (more recently). Global climate change is likely to product limits to economic growth, and a general warming means a shift in agricultural productivity north to Canada. It’s no longer morning in America. Seems to me any additional immigrants, unless you are picking carefully for Steve Jobs types, are just going to provide additional competition for food and resources with the locals, and are going to aggravate our current interethnic conflicts due to the ideology of multiculturalism that says assimilation is bad (and frequently conflicts with the natural inclination of immigrants to accommodate themselves to their new home). What then?

    • trumwill says:

      The ebb and flow of immigration tends to match the level of economic opportunity here. There’s a reason that there was a natural abatement in illegal immigration. It might kick up for one reason (turmoil abroad) or another (changes in immigration law and enforcement) but that’s all on the margins. But the biggest reason we might see another surge is if things start getting better here… in which case we can take them in.

      I myself started getting antsy about illegal immigration right about the time the recession hit. I almost became an immigration-skeptic. But then they responded as they did. So… by and large I’m not seeing the issue that Lion and Dave and others are.

      My main fear with amnesty is that it will disrupt the equilibrium we have.

  4. Φ says:

    Good essay, but there is one element you have neglected: LEGAL immigration levels.

    It may be true that most candidates had some variant of a no-amnesty + border security position, but most had coupled it with a promise to increase legal immigration. A momentary exception was Scott Walker, who in (I think) April of 2015 said words to the effect that legal immigration should be managed for the benefit of American workers. He was roundly denounced for this, promptly backtracked, and disappeared without a trace in the primaries.

    Trump, in contrast, promised (on his website and some of his public statements) to reduce immigration levels, most conspicuously in the H1B program and from terrorist producing sources. By the time Cruz had gotten around to making similar noises, it was too late and too opportunist.

    So it it’s not that Trump got a prison tattoo. It’s that he at least promised substantive reforms that no one else would.

    • SFG says:

      True, and ironically I never saw why there was anything disreputable about saying immigration policy should be managed for the benefit of Americans. You don’t even have to think immigration is bad to think you need different amounts at different times.

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