Donald Trump’s big immigration speech on Wednesday was aimed not at undecided voters, but those who already supported him. As former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said on CNN, “this speech is clearly geared” to white men, Trump’s most secure demographic group. But among conservative white men, there is one particular group that Trump hasn’t won over: the #NeverTrump brigade of right-wingers who have spent the last year decrying his political success. And this week, they couldn’t help praising Trump’s speech.
Trump’s hardline stance on immigration puts him at odds with two-thirds of Americans, but still squarely within the conservative mainstream. By continuing to make immigration restriction the cornerstone of his campaign, he has created a dilemma for the #NeverTrump faction. They may hate Trump with an undying ardor, but he’s offering policies that many of them regard as essential.
From an immigration hawk point of view, it is almost certainly the soundest speech ever given by a major-party presidential candidate. He implicitly backed off from mass deportation, which was never going to happen. The rest of it disappointed the (exaggerated) expectations of a “softening.” Trump outlined a comprehensive and coherent enforcement-first agenda.
Lowry went on to write a column in Politico contending that “Trump’s speech was rock solid on policy. The core of it represents what, more or less, any realistic regime of immigration enforcement would look like.”
The Atlantic’s David Frum, who has also never stinted in his condemnation of Trump, claimed that far from being shocking—as many in the media and Clinton campaign argued—Trump’s speech merely articulated the commonsense rule that immigration policy ought to be guided by “the interests first and foremost of Americans themselves.” (Frum’s defense rested on ignoring the manifest dishonesty, fear-mongering and xenophobia in Trump’s speech.)
Two other conservative anti-Trumpers (National Review’s David French and Slate’s Reihan Salam) took a more nuanced approach: praising the general thrust of Trump’s message, but noting that his abrasive rhetoric undermines the policies being sold. In French’s words, “Donald Trump outlined the core of a sensible, responsible immigration policy ... and then promptly obscured that policy in an avalanche of over-the-top rhetoric, inane flourishes, and extravagant promises.” Salam wrote, “I’m even more convinced that his candidacy will be the downfall of the cause he claims to champion.” That is, Trump is destroying any chance of enacting immigration restriction in America.
The fact that these anti-Trump conservative luminaries approve of his immigration policies shows that #NeverTrump is a sometimes shallow stance, and that Trumpism as an ideology is likely to outlast Trump’s political career. Much of #NeverTrump seems to boil down to objections (admittedly well-grounded ones) to Trump’s personality: his temperamental instability, his boorishness, his egoism, his lack of grounding in policy or the basic rules of governance. Beyond that, #NeverTrump was fueled by a perfectly reasonable belief, since vindicated by events, that Trump would be a poor general election candidate.
But opposing Trump as a flawed candidate isn’t quite the same thing as opposing Trumpist policies. There are aspects of Trumpism that might be hard for old-fashioned Republicans like Lowry to swallow, such as protectionism and friendlier relations with Russia. But a wide swath of conventional conservatives, these intellectuals among them, share Trump’s very extreme positions on immigration, including the logic that underlies those positions that the current immigration regime threatens American identity.
In the conservative reaction to Trump’s speech, we see the outlines of how Trumpism could continue as a political force even if Trump exits the political stage. He has given conservatives, including the pundit class, a taste of what a serious right-wing nationalist politics would look like. A Trumpism without Trump would continue to appeal to longstanding conservative anxieties about America’s changing demographics, but it would be more selective about which groups it targets. #NeverTrump might find Trump an offensive waiter, but they like what he’s serving. Expect a nativist immigration policy to remain on the Republican menu for years to come.