When the history of the 2016 election is written, August 31st may very well be identified as the most important day of the campaign. Last Wednesday Donald Trump tried to make two complex moves, one within the other. In the afternoon he met with Mexican president Peña Nieto, and in the evening he gave a speech about his intended immigration policies. Initially all went well, Peña Nieto and Trump gave a joint press conference during which Trump, albeit somewhat subdued, appeared measured and coherent, reading a short statement off index cards. He informed the press that the right of either country to build a wall on its border had been established, but when asked who will pay for the wall he said that the issue had not been discussed. Trump’s performance was so ‘presidential’ that observers from very different backgrounds like for instance Bill Kristol and Jon Allen both called it a very good day for his campaign. The first challenge to that judgment came a couple of hours after the press conference, when Peña Nieto tweeted that he had immediately told Trump that Mexico would not pay for the wall, period.
Now Trump had a serious problem. Not only had the Mexican president effectively called him a liar, but it also appeared that in spite of all his strong language about building a wall and ending illegal immigration he had left for Mexico as a pitbull and returned as a Chihuahua. It forced Trump to rewrite parts of his evening speech, which thwarted his original intentions. He had planned to achieve dual – and arguably incompatible – goals, on the one hand convince the hard core of his followers that nothing had changed in his stance, and on the other make non-committed Republicans and Independents believe that there had been a ‘softening.’ After Peña Nieto’s tweet the latter objective went out of the window, and Trump gave one of his harshest, most racist hate speeches yet. The effect of his speech was the generally shared impression that Trump had threatened millions of undocumented aliens with deportation, and it almost immediately impacted his outreach to the Hispanic community, with the defection of prominent members of his Hispanic Advisory Council, all of whom scolded Trump in TV interviews.
The attempts at damage control by the Trump campaign were amusing, to say the least. Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who still informally advises Trump, trumpeted on CNN that nothing had changed in Trump’s stance, while current campaign manager Kellyanne Conway tried to convince TV audiences that there had indeed been a softening, and Boris Epshteyn, the latest addition to Trump’s band of distorters, tried to have it both ways.
Other Trump surrogates made things even worse. The co-founder of ‘Latinos for Trump’ called his own culture ‘very dominant,’ and warned that if nothing is done about it there would be ‘taco trucks on every corner.’ Even Kellyanne Conway could not walk that back, and it showed once more that the Trump campaign mostly consists of lunatics, with Trump as primus inter pares.
It is estimated that Trump will need 47% of the Hispanic vote to get elected, and currently only 19% of Hispanics support him, according to polls taken before last Wednesday. Hillary Clinton would be a shoo-in if only she had known what a C on State Department emails means.