However absurd and dishonest Donald Trump’s substance-less faux-pivot of the past several weeks was, it operated with a certain subconscious effectiveness on regular Trump-watchers. Maybe new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway really was making a difference. Maybe Trump really was changing his rhetoric, if not his heart. But after Wednesday night’s loud, angry, and hateful speech on immigration, it should be impossible to view him as anything but a demagogue.
Following his relatively subdued—if nevertheless contested—appearance with the Mexican president earlier in the day, Trump went all in during his David Duke–approved speech Wednesday night. This was a Trump Americans hadn’t seen for several weeks, which in a campaign feels like a lifetime. Trump yelled, he gesticulated, and although he appeared to be reading off of a teleprompter, he did not in any way seem rehearsed. Most importantly, he proved once again that he is most comfortable when he gets to behave in the most blatantly authoritarian manner.
Because of some confused messaging about Trump’s actual immigration stance over the past week or so—a mess that included various campaign surrogates and Trump children saying different things at different times, and the candidate himself resorting to evolving language and a bizarre attempt to poll Sean Hannity’s audience on the proper policy—Wednesday’s speech had been hyped as part of a possible move toward the center. But Trump didn’t tone down his rhetoric; no, he gleefully ramped it up. He hinted that the notorious Operation Wetback, which deported illegal immigrants (and even citizens) during Eisenhower’s presidency—sometimes brutally, via hellish cargo ships—was not extreme enough. He said that any illegal immigrants arrested would face immediate deportation whether or not they were convicted of a crime. He mocked Hillary Clinton in crude and personal terms, calling her a criminal and wondering aloud if “maybe they will deport her.”
Almost every line in the speech was similarly personal or extreme. He called for the creation of a “new special deportation task force.” He said everyone who comes here illegally will be “subject to deportation,” dashing the hopes of more liberal Republicans that he would offer some form of amnesty to people already here. (“Unlike this administration,” he stated, “no one will be immune or exempt from enforcement.”) He talked about ideological tests for immigrants, stoking fear with the mention of a “Trojan horse.” He trotted out relatives of people who had been killed “by illegal aliens” in a truly vile and exploitative display. Any journalist who speaks of a Trump pivot going forward without irony is destined to look as ridiculous as the Mexican president did Wednesday. (Actually, any journalist who spoke of a Trump pivot in the past month already does.)
Earlier in the day, after Trump’s bland Mexico press conference, Clinton supporter Paul Begala went on television and declared that Trump’s brand wasn’t reflected in what people had just seen. The tough guy had been replaced by a rather tepid politician. Begala clearly meant this as criticism, but it’s probably a net plus for Trump if he is knocked in this manner. It is almost surely not going to be enough to let him win the election, but anything Trump can do to appear normal—anything he can do to make this election feel generic—is probably the best strategy he has to attract new voters.
If nothing else, Wednesday night’s speech, then, clarified how the Clinton campaign can and should go after Trump. For a year, Donald Trump has been the candidate of chaos and uncertainty, and for a year he has been trailing Hillary Clinton. Painting Trump as a flip-flopper or a regular pol is another way of normalizing him. The best attack remains the correct one: As Wednesday night proved, there is nothing normal or safe or passable about Donald Trump.