I like the idea of Ben Carson, man of integrity and plainspoken utterer of hard truths, being okay with Trump lying outlandishly to the public about what he thinks so long as he doesn’t really believe it.
“I needed to know that he could listen to other people, that he could change his opinions, and that some of the more outlandish things that he’s said, that he didn’t really believe those things,” Carson said.
When asked which statements Trump might back away from, Carson demurred.
“I’ll let him talk about that because I don’t think it’s fair for me to relay a private conversation,” he said.
When he said last week that “There are two different Donald Trumps,” he wasn’t kidding. The dark art of Trumpism lies in making the individual voter believe that he’s BSing everyone else, that “their” version of Trump is the true one and the “other” Trump is just working an angle to protect himself temporarily. If you’re a border hawk, Trump saying that he’s changing on H-1B visas isn’t disqualifying, it’s just a self-serving lie designed to make him seem more moderate on his way to the general election. If you’re more open to legalizing illegals, Trump’s mass deportation demand is just a self-serving lie he’s telling the right to protect his lead in the primaries. If you’re an alt-righter, Trump saying that he loves Israel is just his way of pandering to mainstream conservatives and centrist Democrats. If you’re pro-Israel, Trump dodging Jake Tapper’s questions on David Duke was, unfortunately, just something he had to do to keep his turnout up this month. He’s been doing this for months. That’s why most Trump controversies come with some sort of walkback: We’ll have mass deportation but we’ll also let the good ones back in, we’ll bar Muslims from entering the U.S. but it’ll be temporary and maybe short-lived. Believe whatever you want. Carson’s no exception.
The upshot of this, as Michael Brendan Dougherty notes, is that Trump has been able to retreat lately from all sorts of nationalist positions that his fans love with no dip in support. He’s lying to everyone else, see. Not to them.
But over the past few months, there has been a lot of evidence that Trump’s populist-nationalism is disintegrating. In September he released a tax-reform plan that is much beloved by the most anti-nationalist conservative thinkers around. In fact it is the very thing that Beltway creatures like Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth cite when they try to explain their sudden and perplexing support for Donald Trump.
Trump has also sounded completely out of his depth on immigration, much to the chagrin of his restrictionist fans. In a debate in Detroit, where Trump would supposedly have some of his most nationalist-minded fans, Trump said, “I’m changing. I’m changing. We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in.” He described his position on immigration as “softening” and then long-windedly explained why Americans would not take seasonal jobs on some of Trump’s American properties. One of the reasons he offered was the weather. That’s right, the pro-American-worker Trump says that America is just too hot for American workers. Trump also pushed “touchback” amnesty, where illegal immigrants are granted legal status if they go home and obtain a guest-worker pass from an employer. Suddenly the “big beautiful door” in the Mexican border wall sounds a lot bigger. As Trump has begun to emphasize about immigration, “everything is negotiable.”
Trump’s non-interventionism also seems to be on the table. In the Detroit debate he talked about creating “safe zones” in Syria to stem the refugee flow. And in the Miami debate he said he would commit ground troops to Syria and Iraq: “We really have no choice, we have to knock out ISIS… I would listen to the generals, but I’m hearing numbers of 20,000-30,000.”
Is Trump against amnesty or secretly for it? Is he anti-interventionist or secretly in favor? Is he serious about a trade war with China or does he secretly think that’d be a bad idea? (And it would be.) With a garden-variety pol like Romney, this slipperiness would damage him badly, smoking-gun proof that he has no principles. Trump gets away with it for two reasons. One: Because he sounds like the opposite of a smooth-talking politician, unconcerned with policy and eager to brawl rhetorically with the competition, no amount of weaseliness on his positions can shake the perception that he’s “authentic.” The guy called out rapists from Mexico who’ve crossed the border illegally in his announcement speech last June; anyone willing to say that has gained an essentially irrebuttable presumption of honesty from his fans. And two: The whole point of electing Trump is that he’s going to be some sort of populist avenging angel against the entrenched establishment in D.C. In reality he’d be anything but that as president — read Dougherty’s piece — but that’s the image he’s built for himself. He’s going to war with the people’s enemies, both foreign and domestic. Once your candidacy is successfully framed that way, your supporters will indulge you nearly anything. War is, after all, a dirty business. If you need to lie to the media and the establishmentarians in order to gain power then that’s what you’ve gotta do. The moment of truth for Trump will be what happens if, somehow, he pulls this off and wins in November. Come next January, when he needs to start signing bills, one side or the other will find out conclusively that it’s been lied to. Which side will it be?