How seriously should you take a policy proposal from Donald Trump?
What do you do when he sends a two-page memo to the Washington Post (as he did on Tuesday) detailing how he'd make good on his often-repeated promise to make the government of Mexico pay for the infamous border wall he wants to build?
Do you put the memo through its paces — examining the legality of what Trump is proposing and whether it would be likely to achieve its aims? That's the tack several media outlets took; the article by the Post's own Greg Sargent is the one to read.
Or do you acknowledge the obvious: that Trump's steady deluge of off-the-cuff (or just undercooked) comments seem to confirm the theory that he doesn't actually care about any of the policies he's proposing?
The problem is that taking a policy proposal from Trump seriously can seem like an academic exercise if you don't believe Trump himself takes it seriously. And no one just yet seems quite sure how seriously he takes his own proposals. The result is a weird media quantum state, toggling between "Trump doesn't have any idea what he's saying" and "Trump is saying seriously dangerous things."
The reality is that Trump and his campaign aren't as hard to figure out as they look.
There are plenty of policy issues (like abortion) on which candidate and campaign alike are clearly out of their depth. But when it comes to immigration, their policy and strategy is an order of magnitude more detailed than it is on anything else.
For all intents and purposes, Trump's campaign is taking his immigration policy seriously. So you should too.
How we know Trump is serious on immigration
Moving ahead to primary states where Trump could again do well, the campaign plans to shore up the candidate's policy bona fides with a series of serious speeches on education reform, the military, and the Supreme Court. Tuesday's memo on the border wall, according to campaign advisers, was just the opening move in that strategy.
This isn't the first time the Trump campaign has announced a "turn to policy." It did the same thing last summer, with an announcement at the end of July that Trump would be releasing a few white papers. The first of those, which came out in early August, was about immigration. (The second, on taxes, followed six weeks later.)
In other words, whenever Trump and company want to signal that they actually have ideas about how to run America, they start with immigration. And while Trump's immigration proposals are often impractical and almost always extreme, they're relatively concrete.
Trump's initial immigration policy paper laid out several fees he would raise and other policy changes he would make to generate revenue to pay for his border wall if the Mexican government were unwilling to pay. His memo this week filled in the gaps by explaining exactly how he planned to negotiate with Mexico, laying out not only what he would do — stopping remittances from unauthorized immigrants to the country — but what his legal authority would be to do it.
For a candidate who's very rarely acknowledged that there needs to be any legal justification for presidential power, Trump's Mexico memo operated on a totally different level of complexity.
No presidential candidate writes his or her own white papers, of course. And in Trump's case, he's casually contradicted his own immigration stance often enough that people have sometimes wondered if he's even read it. In particular, Trump has often been caught in the gap between his written policy on high-skilled immigration (reducing it) and the logical conclusion of his pro-business, pro-winning rhetoric (if smart people live in other countries, that's bad for America).
But whenever Trump's been caught going off script on immigration, he or his campaign has ultimately self-corrected to align with the written policy. Trump has even acknowledged that he shouldn't have used high-skilled visas as a businessman. That indicates an interest in consistency of thinking that runs totally counter to everything people tend to think about the Trump campaign.
Trump has built alliances with people who have an interest in holding him to his promises
One of the most important assumptions underlying how the political establishment looks at the Trump campaign is this: Trump can afford to be unpredictable because he has fewer allies to piss off.
On the campaign trail, he puts this in terms of his financial independence: He's too rich to need to ask for donations from anyone he might owe a favor to later. It's also a simple matter of personnel.
Trump himself plays an enormous role in his campaign, and the rest of his inner circle of staffers are Trump loyalists with little experience in politics. They are more committed to him than they are to any particular policy or idea, and therefore they have no interest in "holding him accountable" to conservative principles.
There is exactly one exception to that. As Gabriel Sherman wrote in a New York magazine feature on Trump's campaign, "A conservative source close to the campaign told me that Trump only truly consults one person, Alabama Republican senator Jeff Sessions: 'When Jeff Sessions calls, Trump listens.'"
And when Sessions talks, he talks about immigration. He's currently the head of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, and he was attacking legal and unauthorized immigration back when most of his party was looking for ways to support comprehensive immigration reform.
Sessions has definitely had a hand in Trump's immigration policy; at the beginning of this year, a staffer left the senator's office to join Trump's campaign. Sessions is certainly the only Washington insider Trump trusts. And Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that his loyalty to people can get in the way of making what other people might consider the best deal.
Let in Sessions, and you let in an established network of people and interests who have been pushing for years for greater border enforcement and a tougher approach to unauthorized immigrants who are already here. Last week, Trump received the endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council‚ the union representing Border Patrol agents.
The NBPC had never endorsed a candidate before (and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which is hardly a Republican interest group). But the union has been vocally opposed to the Obama administration's immigration policy, which it feels ties agents' hands and keeps them from enforcing the law against unauthorized immigrants. Trump's promises to restore their authority were enough to get NBPC to throw in with him before he'd even won the nomination.
As anyone who's ever made a campaign promise — starting with President Barack Obama — can tell you, though, it can take on a life of its own. Once a group is invested in your candidacy because of what you've promised them, they're going to do everything they can to hold you to it once in office. That's how politics works.
Donald Trump hasn't made many promises that have ready-made interest groups holding receipts. But on immigration, he has.
Trump stumbled into a movement
It is easy to wave aside any indication that Donald Trump is actually making promises with the idea that once he's in office, he'll do an about-face. He's promised to, after all, be so presidential "you'll fall asleep" with boredom. Because his immigration policies seem so extreme, it's easy to assume those are the first things he might jettison.
This is why his loyalty pact with Sessions is important — it's an indication that immigration isn't just like any other issue to Trump. You can go back even further, to the birth of his campaign, when he said some outrageous things about Mexicans in the course of saying outrageous things about plenty of other countries, then sat back and watched as the Mexican comments caught fire and set the tone of his campaign for him.
At times, Trump has seemed genuinely surprised that people responded so well to his anti-Mexican rhetoric. "It’s a different movement than I think you’ve ever seen before," he told Robert Costa over the summer. "Angry, sad, disappointed, devastated by what’s happened to the country. Mourning. Some of these people who've lost their kids to [unauthorized immigrants], it's mourning."
When Trump says that no one was talking about immigration on the campaign trail before him, he's totally wrong as a matter of fact. But it's true that he has tapped into a well of feeling about immigrants that wasn't being directly tapped by Republicans before. That's created loyalty toward Trump. And Trump, to all appearances, is loyal to those who are loyal to him.