What does Donald Trump really believe? The question’s been asked plenty over the course of this campaign. But just in the last couple days, as Trump barrels toward the nomination, he has supplied fresh evidence that on positions core to his candidacy, he is entirely moveable.
Take immigration, the issue that, by Trump’s own reckoning, launched his bid. Sensing the hardline attitude of the conservative base, Trump from the start staked out the most feverishly anti-immigration position possible, pledging not only to build a massive border wall but to deport en masse the roughly 11 million people here illegally.
Or maybe not.
At the Fox News debate on Thursday night, Trump pointedly refused to disavow a report that he told the New York Times editorial board in an off the record conversation that he’s, in fact, flexible on the deportation pledge. On the contrary, he said, “in terms of immigration, and almost anything else, there always has to be some, you know, tug and pull and deal.”
Trump has played up his strongman act to more headline-grabbing effect by promising to get medieval on terrorists and their families, Geneva Conventions be damned. Former CIA director Michael Hayden recently speculated that if Trump as commander-in-chief tried to pursue the policies he’s described, the military would refuse to execute them on the basis that they’re illegal. Trump in the debate waved off the claim. “They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me,” he bragged.
But on Friday, he reversed himself in a statement that read like he wrote it after being dragged by the ear to the principal’s office: “I will not order a military officer to disobey the law. It is clear that as president I will be bound by laws just like all Americans and I will meet those responsibilities.”
Trump likes to talk up his unpredictability as a virtue, one that gives him a strategic advantage in negotiations. And he insists voters appreciate that erraticism, too. Asked earlier this year by Bill O’Reilly if voters have a right to know how far he’ll go in office, he said they don’t — and in fact they don’t want to know: “The voters want unpredictability.”
A survey of South Carolina primary voters showed a disposition toward authoritarianism was the strongest predictor of support for Trump. Now his rivals, backed by big money, appear committed to attacking the front-runner as an opportunist willing to say anything to get elected, rather than a forceful commander with the courage of his convictions. And Trump is demonstrating he’ll help make their point with the merest prodding. Over the next two weeks, we’ll find out whether it’ll be enough to stop him from clinching the Republican nod.