Surprising election indeed: Joe Scarborough has made an actual contribution to our national discourse. His “Amnesty Don” zinger Monday morning was great. He even aped Trump’s favored trope of assigning the appearance of this sobriquet not to himself, but to the same unspecified “people” Trump is always citing: “A lot of people are calling him Amnesty Don. People are saying it.”
It’s been a delicious spectacle these past few days, watching Trump try to say he didn’t really mean all that nasty stuff he said back when. It’s interesting too because arguably it’s a bit early for the pivot, or the “softening,” as he calls it—the move to the middle for the general election. Shouldn’t happen until after Labor Day. Mitt Romney waited until the first debate, which wasn’t until early October 2012, barely a month before the voting.
Do you remember? Boy, that was a shocking night. Romney had given absolutely zero indication up to that point that he had the remotest interest in pivoting. Zero. But he spent two hours doing exactly that, simply pretending that he’d never taken anything like those old, primary-era positions on immigration and taxes and the rest. He was amazingly smooth. And President Obama, of course, was disengaged and cranky that night, like he was pissed off that he was missing a game on TV or something.
It was a terrifying night for liberals, Democrats, and Obama supporters of all stripes. I remember being in the Beast’s offices that night. Andrew Sullivan was there. After it ended he stalked around the place like a man possessed by demons, caterwauling at the top of his lungs: “WHAT IS HE DOING? THAT WAS AWFUL! HE’S THROWING THE BLOODY ELECTION!”
Here’s what really made it scary, though, and why it’s relevant today: You had the feeling while watching it that Romney was finally saying what he believed. He was always a moderate-to-conservative man who wasn’t consumed with rage and who was obviously just saying that crap about “self deportation” and being a “severely conservative governor” to get on the good side of the red-hots. He seemed free. Finally, he seemed to be thinking, this is who I am, who I’ve wanted to be all along. I can say what I actually think, and it’s even good for me politically.
And it most certainly did work. It was the only moment in the race when he pulled ahead of Obama for a short period.
Now, with Trump, it’s just the opposite. He meant what he was saying then. Mexican rapists, deport them all, waterboard their asses...he quite obviously meant every coarse, sleazy, greasy, flatulent, and unconstitutional syllable. So now he’s lying, and now, unlike Romney, he looks miserable, not free. Just the way his face contorts when he’s forced to utter a word like “humane”…it’s obviously painful for him. And he’s fooling no one.
Except he is, perhaps, exasperating his base. Actually, you can read whatever you want to about that. Here’s one report on how his base voters are upset. Here’s another arguing that his base voters don’t seem to care.
Well, if they give Trump a pass on this stunning a flip-flop on the hard right’s core issue, these people are pathetic. My instinct is that they won’t, or enough of them won’t. None of these people will be Hillary voters, of course, but some may stay home, distraught that their hero caved into the very same dark forces he won their ardor by maligning. Illegal immigration is The Big Issue for the hard right. Has been for a decade. It was the No. 1 issue for Tea Partiers, despite much media misunderstanding about this; Tea Partiers viewed immigrants as a bunch of freeloaders.
If Trump drops deportation in his big speech Wednesday night, it’s hard for me to see how he doesn’t lose huge chunks of that base. Even if he speaks words something like “I’m not dropping deportation” but then proceeds to outline steps that smell like he’s dropping deportation, he’ll lose big portions of the base. And Clinton should be able to have great fun with it. This is a much grander flip-flop than anything John Kerry did in 2004, and it was the flip-flopper label that probably cost him that election.
During April and May, as it became clear that Trump was actually going to be the GOP nominee, I kept thinking to myself: Surely all these things he said that helped him in the primary have to hurt him in the general, right? Turns out I had no idea how much. Trump is getting pulverized among college-educated whites, who see him as the yahoo candidate.
Or let’s put the matter more bluntly: Every utterance and position that helped Trump win the primary is proving to be a complete and utter disaster for him in the general, because the voters who put Trump over the top in the primaries are a bunch of enraged white people with very deep suspicions and prejudices, while the bulk of Americans are fair-minded human beings who aren’t governed by fear and anger.
Romney almost convinced the latter group because, however conservative, he was fundamentally one of them. Trump is not.
Despite the fact that every word that comes out of his mouth is a lie, he nevertheless managed last year to tell us exactly who he is. We should believe him.