Behind the flailing lies a potential disaster for immigration hawks.
Across the decade that preceded Donald Trump’s election, American politicians of both parties consistently tried to pass big, sweeping immigration bills that would legalize most of the country’s illegal population and increase immigration overall. These bills failed because of populist opposition, at first bipartisan (the resistance of a certain socialist senator from Vermont helped doom the 2007 effort) but increasingly simply conservative, and over time the conservative opposition developed a well-founded suspicion of Republican elites, whose plans on immigration always seemed to require ignoring their own base.
This sense of betrayal was fertile ground for Trump, who used bigotry and bluster to sell himself to immigration hawks as a Republican who wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t, sell them out. You could trust him more than the Bushes and Rubios because he was willing to be disreputable, willing to give the finger to elite opinion, willing to play not only the tough guy but the bad guy. And you had to trust him, some hawks argued, because the Democrats had been radicalized on the issue and the hour was late; it was either Trump or a Californian future, in which waves of immigration transformed the entire United States into a one-party, Democratic-governed state.
But the irony was that the populist resistance had already itself been reasonably effective in achieving some of the goals that Trump promised to pursue. Over the years when bipartisan elites were seeking the grail of “comprehensive” reform, they tried to appease skeptics with various forms of border-security spending, and this spending really did gradually harden the United States-Mexico border and make it much more difficult to simply slip across. Combine this with economic and demographic change in Latin America, and by the time Trump took office, border crossings had fallen by two-thirds since the presidency of George W. Bush.
In this sense Trump was a lagging, not a leading, indicator. He represented the political triumph of an attitude that had already changed policy, albeit in piecemeal and only half-intentionally, and partially sealed the porous borders of 15 years before. And his chief proposal, the famous wall, would have been a (literal) extension of the existing border-security project rather than a radical addition.
This reality created an interesting opening, especially in Trump’s first year, for a different kind of comprehensive deal, between restrictionists feeling a little more secure in their position and immigration advocates feeling chastened by populist backlash. And there was even some evidence that the White House might be groping in this direction — toward reforms that would seek stability more than radical change, tilting the entire system away from low-skilled immigration and toward recruitment, and compromising between restrictionists and enthusiasts by trying to keep the overall immigration rate about the same.
But that possibility has evaporated because of the second irony of immigration in the Trump era. Having inherited a border situation that was somewhat better than his rhetoric of crisis suggested, Trump has now been handed an actual crisis — a wave of Central American families claiming asylum, which has returned monthly crossings to their highest levels in a decade and overwhelmed the system for handling new arrivals.
There is a sense in which this crisis vindicates immigration hawks, who warned from the late-Obama era onward that the immigration decline wasn’t necessarily permanent, that there could easily be another wave, that United States policy — particularly the Obama precedent of a tacit amnesty for child migrants — created specific incentives for families and children to come north.
But those same hawks ended up electing a president whose signature immigration policy, more walls to deter border-crossers, has proved largely ineffective in dealing with an immigration crisis created by people surrendering to Border Patrol officers and asking for asylum.
The flailing also absolves the Democratic Party, currently torn between radicalism and evasion on immigration, from actually having to propose a coherent alternative to the White House’s approach.
If this sort of crisis were happening on President Hillary Clinton’s watch, it would create all kinds of political problems for the Democrats; as it stands, they can point at the man who once boasted of Washington that “I alone can fix it” and say, well, why don’t you?
There is still some political peril here for liberals, who may be inclined to confuse the public’s distaste for Trump with a consensus for an open door (though that Vermont socialist is still willing to swat down calls for open borders). But the greater peril by far is for conservative immigration skeptics, for whom the Trump presidency is at risk of turning into a policy disaster.
The attempts to increase deportation have been real enough, but they will be evanescent should Trump lose in 2020. The attempt to legislate sustained legal-immigration cuts has conspicuously failed. Someone in the administration is making deals behind the scenes to increase visas for low-skilled guest workers — one of the policies that hawks resisted for years in “comprehensive” bills. And the longer the current border crisis goes on, the more this White House’s most important legacy may be offering evidence that even Donald Trump, even Donald Trump, can’t really stop illegal immigration when enough people get the idea to bring their kids and come.
should Trump lose in 2020. The attempt to legislate sustained legal-immigration cuts has conspicuously failed. Someone in the administration is making deals behind the scenes to increase visas for low-skilled guest workers — one of the policies that hawks resisted for years in “comprehensive” bills. And the longer the current border crisis goes on, the more this White House’s most important legacy may be offering evidence that even Donald Trump, even Donald Trump, can’t really stop illegal immigration when enough people get the idea to bring their kids and come.
For every conservative faction, supporting Trump was a gamble — do you reach for short-term victory, even though his incompetence and unfitness might cost you in the long run?
The danger for immigration hawks is that the long run has already arrived.
Robert Reich explains how the modern economy really works and what we can do expand economic opportunity.
For Trump defenders, it requires incredible effort to keep yourself convinced that he’s the man you want him to be rather than the man he actually is. Orwell was right when he said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” But the opposite is often true as well. It is incandescently obvious that Donald Trump is not the world’s best negotiator or an honest person, among other glaring truths. But for people either emotionally or professionally invested in Trump, any admission that the Trumpian eminence front is a put-on is a threat of one kind or another. Maintaining the fiction that the emperor’s new clothes are glorious and resplendent takes a lot of effort, too. (For instance, imagine the energy it takes even to attempt to argue that Trump’s accidental “covfefe” tweet was a “genius move that is a very powerful demonstration of his ability to persuade”).
I’m convinced that one of the things that causes Trump disciples to get so angry at conservative Trump critics is that we make it so much harder to sustain the fiction. Of course, Trump makes it much harder than we do, but Trump gets a pass because he is the object of the adulation, while we’re supposed to be in the pews yelling, “Amen.”
.. George Will, William F. Buckley, and numerous writers at National Review were personally fond of, or close to, Reagan, and usually supported him. But when the situation required it, they could be quite blistering in their criticisms. And yet, no one — or no one serious — claimed that Will and Buckley weren’t conservatives.
What changed? Well, lots of things. But one of them has been the populist takeover of the conservative movement. (I have an essay on this in the latest issue of NR.) Populist movements can vary in ideological content but they all share the same psychological passions. Independent thought, naysaying, and insufficient ardor are seen as a kind of disloyalty. Better and earlier than most, Matt Continetti recognized the crisis of the conservative intellectual this takeover represents.
But an important group of NeverTrumpers identified with the right on a very specific set of issues — support for the 1990s-era free trade consensus, Wilsonian hawkishness, democracy promotion — that are unlikely to animate conservatism again any time soon no matter how the Trump presidency ends. These intellectuals and strategists aren’t particularly culturally conservative, they’re allergic to populism, they don’t have any reason to identify with a conservatism that’s wary of nation-building and globalization — and soon enough, they won’t.
.. Along with Rubin I’m thinking here of Max Boot, her fellow Post columnist and the author of a new book denouncing the Trump-era right, who self-defined as a conservative mostly because he favored a democratic imperialism of the kind that George W. Bush unsuccessfully promoted. I’m thinking of Evan McMullin, the third-party presidential candidate turned full-time anti-Trump activist, and certain Republican strategists from the Bush-McCain-Romney party, whose Twitter feeds suggest that they never much cared for the voters who supported their candidates anyway.
.. But observers trying to imagine what a decent right might look like after Trump should look elsewhere — to thinkers and writers who basically accept the populist turn, and whose goal is to supply coherence and intellectual ballast, to purge populism of its bigotries and inject good policy instead.
For an account of policy people working toward this goal, read Sam Tanenhaus in the latest Time Magazine, talking to conservatives on Capitol Hill who are trying to forge a Trumpism-after-Trump that genuinely serves working-class families instead of just starting racially charged feuds.
.. I don’t know if any of these efforts can pull the post-Trump right away from anti-intellectualism and chauvinism. But their project is the one that matters to what conservatism is right now, not what it might have been had John McCain been elected president, or had the Iraq War been something other than a misbegotten mess, or had the 2000-era opening to China gone the way free traders hoped.