That Donald Trump, a man who has shown skepticism about immigration in general and extreme hostility to illegal immigration in particular, either didn't know or didn't care that his own wife initially came to the United States and worked illegally without a proper visa should be, on one level, shocking.
Trump, after all, has trumpeted an anti-immigration stance throughout his campaign and expressed extreme outrage in particular at illegal immigration. But not only is he married to an immigrant, his wife also appears to have violated the terms of her visa. Trump either didn’t know or simply didn’t care enough to even bother to find out. Because for him, the immigration issue has never been about the fine points of visa status or the particulars of immigration law.
From the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” to his fantastical border wall (that Mexico will pay for, of course) to the notion that drugs, murderers, and rapists are streaming unimpeded across the border, Trump’s immigration pitch has always been about threats to national identity, not compliance with immigration law. It’s about who comes, not how or when.
The wall, after all, is a self-evidently absurd idea. And while there are many policy areas Trump is ignorant about, large-scale construction projects are something he’s actually very familiar with. But the wall isn’t a public works project; it’s a potent symbol of determination to draw a firm line between us and them — between white America and brown Mexico.
If Trump’s appeal were based on mass concern about compliance with immigration law, the Melania revelation would demoralize his supporters and crush his campaign. But nobody thinks that will happen. His supporters understood exactly what he’s been saying this whole time, and nothing about marrying a white model who worked here illegally for a bit undercuts his real message.
Trump's fiercest critics and detractors have also understood perfectly well what he's been saying this whole time, which is why we’ve had many indications of a surge in Latino engagement with the election.
Last but by no means least, the journalists who've been covering this campaign understood perfectly well what he's been saying. When Trump attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel as "Mexican," he wasn't speaking out of ignorance of the fact that Curiel was born in Indiana. And when he learned the truth, he didn't retract the claim or apologize. House Speaker Paul Ryan even said at the time that Trump's position on this matter was the "textbook definition" of racism. He’s supporting Trump anyway, but he’s never retracted that.
Indeed, going back to when the Nixon administration sued Trump for discriminating against black and Latino tenants, Trump's long record of racism isn’t really disputable.
So there's really nothing so surprising about the Melania story. Trump doesn't like immigrants who change the American cultural and ethnic mix in a way he finds threatening, and neither do his fans. Europeans like Melania (or, before her, Ivana) are fine. I get it, David Duke gets it, the frog meme people get it, everyone gets it.
But it does raise the question of why mainstream press coverage has spent so much time pretending not to get it. Why have we been treated to so many lectures about the "populist appeal" of a man running on regressive tax cuts and financial deregulation and the "economic anxiety" of his fans?
If we all knew what this was about from the beginning — and I think we pretty clearly did — why has there been so much reluctance to say it clearly?