Donald Trump began his campaign by adopting the harshest possible stance on immigration: to build a “great, great wall on our southern border” and deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., among other draconian measures. With his speech Wednesday night in Arizona, there should no longer be any doubt that this is his position through the November election.
In recent weeks, the Trump campaign had dazzled some parts of the press with promises of a pivot to the center and a softening of the tone. These promises were always dubious, since on inspection it was clear that Trump hadn’t modified any parts of his actual policies, such as they were. Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson spoke accurately when she told CNN on August 27, “He hasn’t changed his position on immigration. He’s changed the words that he is saying.”
The change in words was itself a brief-lived transformation. It’s true that Trump started praising the Mexican people as “spectacular”—a word he used while standing beside President Enrique Peña Nieto during his brief jaunt to Mexico City earlier on Wednesday. And Trump’s surrogate Rudy Giuliani, warming up the audience, wore a hat which bore the baffling words “Make Mexico Great Again Also.”
These embarrassing examples of transparent pandering aside, the Trump we saw in Arizona was a return to form. His entire speech was a long nativist tirade about the dangers immigrants of all sorts (the undocumented, refugees, and those who come on legal work visas) pose to America. The themes were familiar to anyone who has paid attention to Trump over the last year, but the tone was, if anything, even more strident and desperate. To go by Trump’s words, immigrants were nothing less than an existential threat to America’s very integrity as a sovereign state.
The speech was a retread of Trump’s greatest hits; the revved-up audience was familiar with these tunes, but eager to re-hear them. When Trump got to the line about how he’ll build a wall and the Mexicans will pay for it (something the Mexican president adamantly denied he’d ever do), the Trumpkins reacted with the same intensity that greets Bruce Springsteen when he starts singing “Born to Run.” The speech also included a litany of stories of innocent Americans victimized by undocumented immigrants, criticism of Eisenhower’s draconian “Operation Wetback” (which devastated Latino communities in the 1950s and early 1960s with mass deportations in the millions) as being too weak, and a promise that immigrants would be subject to “ideological certification” to make sure that they subscribe to American values. At one point, Trump described America as the “big bully that keeps getting beat up.” The implication was that the country should become a bully that goes back to beating up other people.
The speech won plaudits from the far right. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke called it an “excellent speech,” and Ann Coulter said it was better than Winston Churchill’s speeches. “I hear Churchill had a nice turn of phrase, but Trump’s immigration speech is the most magnificent speech ever given,” she tweeted. But Trump already had Duke and Coulter’s votes. He needed to win over the wide swath of the American public that believes he’s too scary to be president. Wednesday’s speech will only confirm those beliefs.