Donald Trump Is Talking Tough On Immigration, Flip-Flopping (Again) From His Previous 'Softening' Tone

It's starting to look like the Donald J. Trump presidential campaign doesn't know what to do on immigration. For months and months, Trump's position was clear. In fact, it was the only thing you could really consider the policy bedrock of his campaign: his insistence that all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States would be kicked out, perhaps by way of a "deportation force." Then, under the glare of the general election, he flipped. And now, he's breathing fire again — Trump is talking tough on immigration again, trying to tamp down any discord among his base about his previous "softening" rhetoric.

He's not actually doing another policy reversal here, though, to be clear — based on what Trump said at a rally with Iowa senator Joni Ernst on Saturday, he's still drawing a distinction between long-term law-abiding undocumented immigrants and "criminal" undocumented immigrants, saying he wants to deport the latter. That's still lightyears softer than virtually anything he'd ever said about immigration prior to about a week ago. But in Saturday he leaned into some of his typical bluster and bravado in saying so — in short, he seemed to be trying to cover for the initial, softening reversal in policy with a hardened rhetorical tone. Here's what he told the assembled crowd, about just how fast he'd start the deportations.

I know so many of the top police, and the people in the rank-and-file, they know these people. So it's not like oh gee, we're gonna — they know all of 'em. They know the good ones, the bad ones, they know all of 'em. We are gonna get rid of the criminals, and it's gonna happen within one hour after I take office we start, ok? Gonna bring 'em back where they came from.

Now, needless to say, you really can't actually start mass deportations within an hour of taking office. Maybe you could try to set the gears in motion, sure, but any circumstance under which Trump tries to haul people out of the country a mere hour after becoming president is a situation in which due process and decency are being trampled, regardless of how confident he is that "so many of the top police" would be ready to pounce. This is a strident promise, and it's one that makes little if any logical sense — is this happening via executive order? It's not as though Trump's going to get that deportation force authorized by Congress in a 45 minutes. It's a government, not a pizzeria with a free-if-it's-late guarantee.

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But more to the point, the strategy here is basically sitting right on the surface. Over the past week, Trump has wedged himself between two very awkward positions. On the one hand, he risks looking like a typical, twisting-in-the-wind politician who betrayed some of his most ardent (and often most vociferously racist and xenophobic) supporters, after hypocritically assailing the rest of the GOP primary field as weaklings and cowards on immigration for months. And on the other hand, his previous position alienated all those would-be voters out there who realized that deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants is both unfeasible, and grossly inhumane.

So this is the middle-ground he seems to have landed on — yes to promising implausible speed and efficiency, yes to using racially charged phrases like "gonna bring 'em back where they came from," and yes to keeping the tone cranked up to 11 whenever these issues are raised. But no to actually holding true to the draconian, no-exceptions policy he championed for more than a year, and at least partially rose to the top of the GOP on the strength of. The only real question is whether this playing-both-sides pseudo-pivot plays off, but judging by how Trump's been sounding lately when he tries to moderate himself, that might not be a safe bet.