Do Donald Trump supporters remember – in the not-too-distant past when Trump was a registered Democrat – that he was all-in for open borders and more immigration?
The fact is it’s difficult to discern with any confidence what, if anything, Donald Trump actually believes. He contradicts himself so frequently that one of his chief consiglieres, Kellyanne Conway, famously said that we should look into her boss’s “heart” and pay no attention to “what’s come out of his mouth.” No ma’am, thank you very much.
I’ll stick with what he says (where it’s intelligible), or better yet, given his well-documented history of wild vacillations, what he does. He is, after all, somewhat known for unfiltered blurting, a troubling habit for any national leader, and even more so for the leader of the most powerful national on the planet.
His immigration policies provide us with a good example. A major leg of his campaign platform focused on his Mexican border wall and deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants within two years of taking office with a special “deportation force,” among a whole host of other idiotic, impractical, unconstitutional or impossible ideas.
At various moments he or his lieutenants advocated for deporting all illegal immigrants to Mexico regardless of their country of origin, or levying a border tax which would require Americans to pay higher prices for goods manufactured by American companies in Mexico, effectively passing the price of the wall onto American consumers.
These ideas were then walked back, or explained through circular and curious casuistry via Sean Spicer (who’s college nickname was Sean Sphincter, apparently because he made a lot of noise but never said anything).
Not surprisingly, a pattern has developed within this skeleton crew-of-an-administration’s short, rocky tenure: float an idea and when someone points out how asinine, counterproductive or illegal it is, scrap it. Float, scrap, float, scrap. Not exactly brilliant policy minds at work here.
But on Tuesday, February 28, amidst his administration’s massive ramping up of deportations, Trump told reporters he supported immigration reform and a path to permanent residency. Apparently (it takes some deciphering) he wants to bifurcate the problem of what do with the undocumented already here from the problem of fixing a broken immigration system.
Later, in his surprisingly conciliatory address to a joint session of Congress, he claimed – among other things he got horribly wrong – that illegals take American jobs, and should get in line like legal immigrants do. He called on Congress to jettison the “system of lower-skilled immigration” and adopt a “merit based system.”
Oddly, in his congressional address he forgot to mention his earlier compromise idea for a path to legal residency.
He’s apparently deeply confused on this policy issue (as with most others). As I pointed out in a February 18 op-ed, illegal immigrants taking Americans’ jobs is a false, yet stubbornly persistent myth. What’s more, Trump apparently wasn’t informed that we already have a merit based system for many foreign aspirants. It’s called the H-1B visa.
The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a working paper last month about the 85,000 H-1B immigrants we accept every year. The authors concluded that this class of immigrants who apply legally and wait their turn are taking jobs that Americans could perform, while deflating salaries in the process. (Which is perhaps why Trump’s white nationalist chief strategist Steve Bannon supports eliminating the H-1B.)
In sum, Trump got it exactly backwards, and members of his own administration can’t seem to get on the same page.
H-1B immigrants mostly work in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and while wages in this sector are depressed by 2.6% to 5.1% because of them (depending on the specific field), there also some measurable benefits. Tech company productivity and profitability, for example, have risen dramatically as a result.
The authors of the paper conclude that if the H-1B program were to be seriously curtailed, companies would move many of these jobs overseas. This is one reason why other developed countries accept far more immigrants than the U.S. in proportion to their populations, and why Bannon’s dream of a white America won’t be fulfilled (the tech lobby is pretty powerful).
The NBER paper demonstrates a kind of nuanced thinking that national public policy leaders need to cultivate, instead of relying on popular platitudes and tropes that sell well politically, but are divorced from the facts of a complicated economic system inextricably intertwined with the rest of the world.
Thus I think Trump’s recursive triangulations around every policy problem has less to do with him “speaking his mind” (his most likeable quality among his supporters) and more to do with the fact that he is simply not very smart.
He is not, as it were, a disciplined thinker, and apparently surrounds himself with others cut from the same cloth – people not especially adept at abstract thought or very interested in the minutia of complex problem solving. Having a plutocracy was bad enough, but when you fold in a bevy of kakistocrats who can’t even be bothered to spell check official documents, it doesn’t bode well for freedom and equality.
Some pundits on the political Left have recently characterized Trump as some kind of evil genius. That’s frankly laughable. His schizophrenic policy positions that sometimes change hourly are quite obviously, in my view, the result of the immovable objects of ignorance and populism meeting the unstoppable force of reality.
His election, for example, wasn’t the result of a brilliantly executed plan. It was a fluke, a perfect storm of serious socioeconomic frustrations, a bizarre electoral college system and a profoundly ignorant electorate.
But there is hope. When it finally became apparent to him that there will be no “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act largely due to his very supporters’ white-hot ire at the possibility of losing health insurance coverage, he was forced to admit that health care was “complicated.”
Good for him. It shows that his mind hasn’t been completely decoupled from the real world. And it’s a start, a baby step for a man baby. But I remain skeptical.
Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other non-academic work can be viewed at glenolives.com.