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Trump's Immigration Policy Is a Feature, Not a Bug

While the president has floundered on issues like health care and gun rights, he's been consistent on his belief in the need for an immigration crackdown.
President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, on June 23rd, 2018.

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, on June 23rd, 2018.

Recent news about the Trump administration separating migrant children from their parents was apparently enough to puncture the protective bubble provided by Republican voters. Only a slender majority of self-identified Republicans—a group that tends to overwhelmingly and enthusiastically support President Donald Trump's actions—approved of the practice. The rest joined independents and Democrats in resounding opposition.

But to describe Trump's immigration practices as a "fundamental miscalculation," as CNN's Chris Cillizza did last week, is to miss the point entirely. This is exactly why Trump was selected for office in the first place.

There was, after all, a sizable anti-immigrant faction of the Republican Party that sought to make him president. Much of the establishment GOP was, around the time of the election, striving to repudiate its tough-on-immigration reputation.

But not everyone was on board with this plan. A small group of conservative political consultants, including Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon, bought into the theory that going the other direction was a better choice. John McCain and Mitt Romney had lost the presidency, they argued, due to "missing whites"—white people who held staunch anti-immigrant views but felt no party was championing their cause. A boldly nativist message, Conway and Bannon argued, could help turn those voters out in 2016. And Trump seemed to be the right vessel for that message.

It's worth noting that, on the vast majority of conservative issues, Trump has displayed little consistency or even interest. He advocated punishments for women who have abortions and then walked that back, apparently unfamiliar with the rhetoric of the modern pro-life movement. He called for the confiscation of guns from dangerous people and then walked that back, apparently unfamiliar with the rhetoric of the gun rights community. He has had wildly inconsistent stances on tax policy, foreign affairs, health care, and much of the social safety net.

But on immigration he's been entirely consistent. If there was one defining issue of Trump's 2016 campaign, it was his insistence on building a wall along the United States' southern border with Mexico. He's promised since early in his campaign to stem immigration by Mexicans and Muslims, to deport undocumented immigrants en masse, to bolster the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The idea of an immigration crackdown has always been central to his policymaking.

Even the most vapid politician tends to have some key conviction on some set of issues. That's often what draws them a set of backers in the first place. And this conviction is not necessarily something that polls well. The party factions that back a candidate often want some set of policy changes that are actually unpopular, or ideally issues that the public mostly doesn't pay attention to. And they're looking for a candidate who will push for those issues even if the political tides change.

Trump remains an ideal carrier for the message of zero tolerance toward immigrants of color. He has proven time and again that he'll push that message even if it hurts his standings in the polls or invites pushback from the media or his fellow Republicans. His tactical retreat on the issue last week appears not to have much substance behind it, or it at least to be so contradictory that no one knows how to implement it. And regardless, more than 2,000 children remain in cages without access to their parents, with no clear plan to remedy that situation.

This was not a miscalculation. This is Trump doing the job he was selected to do.