Donald Trump’s brand is bluster. It’s aggression. It’s an outsized show of dominance. And his pitch to voters depends on that brand. Vote for me, he argues, and I’ll bring my skills to the table for you. I’ll take the rigged game of corrupt elites and make it work for you. I’ll get deals, for you.
But on Wednesday afternoon, that bluster—the outsize boasts that define Trump’s public life—was gone. Flying to Mexico City, Trump joined Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto for a news conference. It was an odd move for the Republican presidential nominee, whose campaign is centered on Mexican perfidy, either sub rosa or officially sanctioned. (“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”) By standing onstage with the Mexican president, Trump opened the door to a disaster. If Peña Nieto had wanted to, he could’ve take action against a man despised by the vast majority of Mexicans.
But the president demurred. The news conference, which followed a private meeting of the two men, was a quiet moment. Far from denouncing the Republican presidential nominee, Peña Nieto used his time to politely disagree with Trump’s depiction of Mexico’s border with the United States. Trump was on the same page. Reading from a prepared statement, the real estate mogul gave a sedate restatement of his campaign platform. He promised to renegotiate trade deals, reduce illegal immigration, and asserted the right to build a wall on the Mexican border should he win the White House. At no point was Trump forceful or defiant. When a journalist asked about payment for the wall, he sidestepped the issue. “Who pays for the wall? We didn’t discuss,” Trump said. “We did discuss the wall. We didn’t discuss payment of the wall. That’ll be for a later date.”
Peña Nieto clarified the discussion on Twitter, telling his followers that the two had discussed the wall and that Mexico would not be paying for it. “At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump,” he said, “I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.”
By the time Trump returned to Arizona, where he would give his “major” speech on immigration, pundits and talking heads had formed a consensus around Trump’s visit. It was a success. Just standing onstage with Peña Nietro was enough to confer much-needed legitimacy on Trump, to make him look like a normal candidate with the experience and skill to perform at the highest levels of national politics. “If you believe Trump needed to pivot, moderate and look more Presidential, that event was a home run,” said Howard Wolfson on Twitter.
But this was an extraordinarily low bar. Trump hadn’t moderated. At most, he had lowered the volume, obscuring the extent to which he touted the aggressive anti-immigration and anti-immigrant policies that catapulted him to the Republican nomination. And with his speech in Phoenix, Trump emphasized the extent to which he hasn’t changed. Campaign spin aside, there is no “pivot” and Trump hasn’t softened. It’s deportation now, deportation tomorrow, and deportation forever.
“There will be no amnesty,” Trump said, shouting to a frenzied crowd of supporters. “Our message to the world will be this: You cannot obtain legal status or become a citizen of the United States by illegally entering our country.
“We will build a great wall along the border,” he continued. “And Mexico will pay for the wall.”
For the first time in the campaign, Trump was clear and forceful about his plans. “According to federal data, there are at least 2 million, 2 million, think of it, criminal aliens now inside of our country, 2 million people, criminal aliens. We will begin moving them out day one. As soon as I take office. Day one. In joint operation with local, state, and federal law enforcement.” He emphasized this point with an aside: “And you can call it deported if you want. The press doesn’t like that term. You can call it whatever the hell you want. They’re gone.”
Beyond those “criminal aliens,” Trump announced plans for immediate deportation (seemingly without due process) of any “illegal immigrant” who comes in contact with law enforcement, regardless of the degree of their offense or whether there’s an actual offense to begin with.
The severity of Trump’s policies fit the tenor and tone of his speech. Trump did not read from the teleprompter so much as bark, punctuating his steamroller delivery with slashing hand gestures and red-faced anger. It wasn’t just a contrast from his tranquilized performance in Mexico; it was a different Trump entirely, a more vicious Trump who seemed to have materialized for the sole purpose of repudiating his meek counterpart.
The earlier Trump seemed cowed, unwilling to take his full message to the Mexican capital. This Trump didn’t hesitate to tie the nation’s crime and violence to illegal immigration, telling story after story of Americans killed by people who came into the country without papers. It was pure demagoguery, an attempt to build a link between violent crime and illegal immigration that doesn’t exist. And it was racist. Trump’s chief concern is the border with Mexico. In his rhetoric, “illegal immigrant” is virtually synonymous with “Hispanic immigrant.” When he targets “illegal immigrants” for “abusing our welfare system”—citing estimates from a nativist think tank—he is playing on the association. When he approvingly cites “Operation Wetback”—a deportation program authorized under President Eisenhower—he’s all but shouting it.
When, at the beginning of his campaign, Trump slammed Mexico for sending “rapists” and “criminals,” he meant it. In his picture of America, illegal immigrants from Mexico—easily conflated with immigrants from Mexico, period—are a threat to American lives and national sovereignty. They murder and they steal and they abuse the system. They cannot assimilate.
For Trump, there are no distinctions. Regardless of who they are, or what they do, all illegal immigrants carry the same threat. That is, if they’re Hispanic. From Trump’s own behavior, we know this view doesn’t extend to European immigrants. For a time, his wife Melania Trump may have worked as an unauthorized immigrant. As a real estate developer, he used undocumented Eastern European workers. Likewise, his modeling agency violated immigration law by bringing European girls and women to the United States to work illegally.
Once again, with his Phoenix speech, we see the extent to which Trump’s is a vehicle for white nationalism. But more striking than his pandering to the worst elements of American society is the degree to which his style—angry and uncompromising—is all affect. Trump had a chance to show his mettle in the belly of the beast. And he dropped it, only to thunder anew against those same opponents once he was back on safe territory.
Trump is anything but the strongman he sells onstage. Far from being America’s savior, the real Donald Trump is its Nelson Muntz. Not that it matters for his supporters. Trump’s followers don’t care that he can’t even deliver on his bluster. All that matters is that he sneers at the right people.