Inside Donald Trump’s world of contradictions
Late last year, as the primaries were just heating up, pundits were busy trying to make sense of the Donald Trump phenomenon. His stump speeches were more akin to the rantings of an out-of-control kid than a serious presidential candidate. He frequently contradicted himself and, more often than not, told lies. He insulted groups and individuals, making his party's leaders squirm. And yet his crowds were huge and passionate and his poll numbers were high and getting higher. The political class was baffled.
One Sunday morning, the Washington Post and New York Times both ran what purported to be “analysis” pieces arguing that Mr Trump might not be as right-wing as some feared. Their methodology was questionable, at best. Both authors argued that maybe the best way to discern the candidate's real policy positions would be to take his contradictory pronouncements on any number of issues and attempt to reconcile them. Both concluded that the real Donald Trump was neither a true conservative nor a liberal, but a moderate, at heart.
The entire exercise was as amusing as it was wrong-headed. What they didn't understand then, and what apparently many pundits still don't get, is that policies, or even words themselves, don't matter to Donald Trump. It's the performance and the reaction it gets that counts.
This game of misdirection was on full display during the past few weeks leading up to Mr Trump's big immigration performance on Wednesday. The speech had been scheduled and then cancelled a few weeks back. And so, while Hillary Clinton was raising money, delivering serious policy addresses and staving off more bad news related to her never-ending email saga and issues related to the Clinton Foundation, Mr Trump was titillating the media with the possibility that his position on immigration might be evolving.
Was he changing his views to appease those Republicans who needed their standard-bearer to moderate his positions? Was he attempting to broaden his appeal to win Hispanic and African-American voters? Was he finally making the long-awaited shift to becoming a “real” presidential candidate?
Mr Trump gleefully led everyone on a wild-goose chase. Even the candidate’s supporters got caught up in the game. Some attempted to explain away a possible shift, arguing that "he never really meant that stuff about mass deportations or the wall". Others worried that any softening would cost him dearly since his base support came from hard core nativists who believed that the wall would be built, Mexico would pay for it, and all “illegals” would be deported.
The day before his much hyped policy speech on immigration, Mr Trump announced that he would fly to Mexico to meet the country's president. All eyes were now on him. The media frenzy grew. One network even featured a clock in the corner of the screen counting down the seconds to the "big speech".
What was thought to be “a bold and risky” meeting in Mexico turned out to be a rather ho-hum affair. The wildly unpredictable controversial American candidate met the wildly unpopular Mexican president and both said little that was of interest to anyone. It was left to the media to make the absence of fireworks into a big story. And then it was on to the speech.
What I always find intriguing about Trump policy speeches is the delivery. Whenever he attempts a major policy address he has taken to reading his remarks, rather awkwardly, from a teleprompter. But Mr Trump can't help but go off-script. He reads a line and then makes a comment – as if to agree with what he just read. The overall effect is comical.
The speech was reported by Mr Trump’s opponents to be “an exercise in hateful rhetoric” filled with misstatements of fact and by supporters to be a "restatement, with added details, of Trump's hardline position" on immigration. In reality, it was both and more: it was a show, and for Mr Trump, that's what matters.
Fact checkers had a field day pointing out that Mr Trump misstated, exaggerated or just plain made up statistics or claims contained in his remarks. To his already bigoted position on which immigrants would be allowed into America, Trump added new, deeply disturbing criteria: new immigrants must be shown to “share our values and love our people” and that they be selected on the basis of “their likelihood of success in US society”.
But the speech was also filled with Trumpian contradictions. At one point, the candidate reaffirmed that there would be no amnesty and that those who were living illegally in the US would have to return to their countries, while in another place he suggested that those who are in the US illegally who have families and are working hard could stay – but then left that hanging without clarification. One network, falling for this misdirection, ran a lower third saying “Trump softens, hardens, softens stand”.
In the end, however, it's important not to be carried away with analysing what he said or attempting to discern what he meant. It's a fool’s errand trying to make sense out of nonsense because for Donald Trump, the policy formulations don't matter, neither do the misstatements, exaggerations or contradictions. What matters is that he built a huge audience in front of which he performed well. He appeared presidential in the afternoon and then reverted to hate-filled demagogue at night – and his folks loved the incitement and loved him. Like everything else he does, it was a show. All the rest was misdirection designed to confound and draw more attention – and he loved every minute of it.
Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa
Published: September 3, 2016 04:00 AM