On Thursday night, live in front of nearly 17 million Americans watching on national television, Donald Trump abandoned a central plank of the hawkish immigration platform that has helped propel him ever closer to the Republican presidential nomination.
The H-1B visa program makes it easier for employers to import highly skilled foreign labor, and has been widely abused to undercut American workers. Trump has declared himself against such abuses, stating in the immigration platform available on his website that, if president, he would require employers using H-1B visas to hire American workers first. Just last Sunday, Trump highlighted two former Disney IT workers replaced by foreign workers.
But by Thursday night, the front-runner had changed his tune. When moderator Megyn Kelly cited his previous waffling on the subject, Trump announced that he was “softening” his website’s hard line. “We need highly skilled people in this country,” he said. “And if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in.”
Yet one flip-flop was not enough. Just after midnight, Trump’s campaign announced that he was reversing his reversal in a statement that promised to “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
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Well, then. Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?
If only it were that simple. Trump, who’s risen to the top of the GOP scrum by selling voters an image of unbending strength, is suddenly so “flexible” — his favorite word last night — as to make any sane observer wonder whether he has an authentic self. His newly discovered plasticity is at least partly thanks to Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith, who recently discovered that Trump participated in an off-the-record conversation with the New York Times editorial board about his immigration plan. After Times columnist Gail Collins suggested in her column last weekend that Trump “can’t explain how [he’s] going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, because it’s going to be the first bid in some future monster negotiation session,” Smith reported that sources familiar with the conversation say Collins’s comment “reflects . . . something Trump said about the flexibility of his hardline anti-immigration stance.” In other words, all public pretenses to the contrary, Trump allegedly would be willing to abandon his deportation plan in an instant if it became politically inconvenient.
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On Thursday night, he basically confirmed as much. He won’t release the transcript of the off-the-record conversation with the Times, but said that, when it comes to immigration policy, “you have to be able to have some flexibility, some negotiation,” and that “sometimes you ask for more than you want and you negotiate down to the point.” Asked about his much-ballyhooed Mexican border wall, Trump said he is “not very flexible” on that proposal, but reiterated that, “there’s always give and take. There’s always negotiation.”
#share#This all comes after last week’s revelation that Trump, despite his denunciations of employers preferring foreign to American workers, turned down 94 percent of American applicants for seasonal jobs at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., and used, instead, workers brought in on H-2B visas. Not to mention that he has employed illegal immigrants on at least two occasions, the best-known in the early 1980s, when he used undocumented Polish workers to avoid paying pension and welfare benefits to unionized Americans. Trump, who was previously against increases in the importation of low-skilled and high-skilled workers, now suddenly supports those increases.
Panta rhei, wrote Heraclitus. All is flux.
How foolish must Alabama senator Jeff Sessions feel right now? Trump’s about-face on H-1Bs comes just five days after Sessions, the country’s leading immigration hawk — a man who held subcommittee hearing just last week to document “the impact of high-skilled immigration on U.S. workers” — endorsed him for president. Given Trump’s well-known tendency for prevarication, Sessions’s inability to anticipate that he would get burned is an astonishing, embarrassingly public failure of political judgment.
Often, it’s not quite correct to say he’s lying, because he never believed anything in the first place.
Voters should not make the same mistake. Trump’s appreciation of the “art of the deal” may appear to be a virtue. But negotiation is promising only when you’re negotiating with an end in mind. Trump does not seem to have specific, lasting ends in mind when it comes to immigration or any other issue. The man just likes to “win,” which, as with everything else about him, is a concept so vague that it can be conveniently stretched to meet whatever ends serve his own immediate political interests. We need deportation . . . unless we don’t. We need a wall . . . but he’s “flexible.” We need to put American workers first . . . but putting them second is okay, too.
In short, Trump believes in nothing except the force of his own personality. Often, it’s not quite correct to say he’s lying, because he never believed anything in the first place. Donald Trump is post-truth.
#related#That’s the only reasonable conclusion to draw from Thursday night. “I’m changing,” he told Megyn Kelly. And, indeed, one had the sense that Trump was altering his mind right there on the stage in Detroit, that for a brief moment every Trump position was suspended, had slipped through a metaphysical crack, neither Being nor Non-being. Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, there stands Donald J. Trump.
Many people seem to think that that is what America needs: ruthless adaptability as the highest credential. But it should be obvious that cold-blooded self-interest is both antithetical to constitutional government and monumentally dangerous: Any president powerful enough to single-handedly make you a “winner” could just as easily make you a big, big loser, too.
There’s a sucker born every minute, as the saying goes. Trump is counting on it.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.