For a few weeks after Donald J. Trump reshuffled his campaign team, it looked like he was going to try to run a more traditional campaign. Although some thought that the ascension of Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon would give Trump licence to be Trump, he seemed to be more under the sway of veteran Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway.
All the talk was that the hard-charging start-up that is the Trump campaign had pivoted, even potentially on his signature red meat rage issue, immigration.
On 20 August, he met with a newly formed Hispanic advisory council, and the buzz was that he was open to discussing legalisation for undocumented immigrants.
Trump sceptics said that the real estate tycoon wasn’t really softening his position but rather trying to shore up his support with white women, a demographic that he was underperforming with.
“His best hope is not attracting Hispanic or Asian voters but projecting to independents and Republican women that he’s not as bombastic as the guy they heard about in the primaries,” said Gromer Jeffers Jr., political writer for the Dallas Morning News.
After an attempt to present himself as an international statesman with a last-minute visit to Mexico, it seemed like a good time to press reset. That didn’t happen.
Instead, Trump gave a greatest hits version of his fiery anti-immigration speech.
After a couple of quiet, gaffe-free weeks, teleprompter Trump once again reverted to the id surfing arena rockstar Trump feeding off the crowd and whipping them up about promises to build a massive wall on the Mexican border, which experts have estimated would cost from $15 bn to $25 bn.
“The press was given word of an expected pivot on immigration over the last 10 days,” New York Times Presidential campaign correspondent Maggie Haberman wrote during live analysis of the speech. Instead she said: “This isn’t really a policy speech is it? It’s red meat wrapped around some expansions.”
The New York Times live coverage described the speech as a throwback to the first speech he made on immigration a year ago in June.
In the hours after his visit to Mexico, controversy was already dogging Trump again. He had said that he didn’t discuss who would pay for the wall with President Enrique Peña Nieto, but the Mexican leader quickly disputed that in a tweet saying he started their discussions with a refusal to pay for any wall.
If Trump was downplaying the issue in the meeting with Peña Nieto, he didn’t in his speech. “We will build a great wall along the southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall —100 percent. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for the wall.”
If the Republican Hispanic advisory council thought Trump was softening on his position about providing a path for legalisation for some undocumented immigrants, Trump made it clear that he was against any path to legal citizenship for them.
As for what he would do with the estimated 11 m undocumented immigrants in the US, it was difficult to know exactly what he would do based on the speech apart from deportation. He talked about creating a deportation task force.
Talk of a pivot now seems more like the latest round of wishful thinking from mainstream Republicans who desperately want him to expand his base of support so that his unpopularity doesn’t endanger down ballot members of the party, especially those running for the Senate.
“That speech was unlikely to comfort Hispanics, and unlikely to soothe white suburbanites who are concerned about the racist label that has stuck to Trump,” Habermas said.
The irony is that teleprompter Trump was working. The polls had tightened a bit in the last two weeks after Clinton’s convention bounce and Trump’s post-convention meltdown. It will take time to see how the speech and the controversy over who is paying for his signature border wall will play out with voters.
But the speech made one thing clear, Trump will not be moderating his message on immigration to reach out to Latino voters. He has been trying to reach out to African-American voters by asking them what they had to lose by trying something new and “trying Trump”, but with polls in some areas showing him with zero percent support amongst African-Americans, he has nothing to lose.
But this was the last chance to press reset with one of the fastest growing groups in the US. On the issue of immigration, Trump has decided to be Trump.