In his videotaped quasi-apology issued several hours after The Washington Post made an “Access Hollywood” tape public, the most contrite portion of what Donald Trump had to say came down to this: In the months since he had launched his most unorthodox campaign for the White House, he had traveled the country and learned a lot. The experience had transformed him.
What Trump made clear in the final presidential debate Wednesday night is that his journey has been limited.
The campaign began with a speech staged at Trump Tower — a building constructed with the aid of workers who were in the country illegally, according to the New York Times and PolitiFact. That speech was most notable for Trump's promises to deal with the undocumented in a decisive way, a manner required, Trump said, because Mexico has dispatched the dregs of its society — “rapists” and “criminals” — to the United States.
Wednesday night, in his final opportunity to address the general public and those who have not attended his rallies, Trump said much the same. He punctuated his rationale for mass deportation of those in the country illegally with just two words: “bad hombres.”
And that, folks, is the Trump campaign in two key moments representative of his political way.
There are those who will disagree, those who view these two statements as nothing more than unimportant or inoffensive language that was considered perfectly acceptable in 1950s-era Westerns, as Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord suggested on CNN. But Trump began his campaign as a candidate whose politics and vision for how to improve American life centered around which groups should be removed, watched, policed heavily and have their constitutional rights be subject to an overdue edit. And on Wednesday, Trump marked the final four weeks of his bid for the White House with more of the same. Only now, in a nod to his understanding of the general-election audience’s sensibilities, Trump avoided the term “rapist” and instead made reference to “bad hombres.”
It is that vision that Trump has repeatedly promised to transform into a muscular, deportation-centered immigration policy, a temporary ban on Muslim immigration and a call for the widespread application of police tactics such as stop-and-frisk. What Trump appears to have learned in the past 16 months is how to express that vision more creatively and succinctly.
Just to be clear, these are Trump’s own words on two occasions:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
— Donald Trump, announcement speech, June 2015
One of my first acts will be to get all of the drug lords, all of the bad ones — we have some bad, bad people in this country that have to go out. We're going to get them out. We're going to secure the border. And once the border is secured, at a later date, we'll make a determination as to the rest. But we have some bad hombres here, and we're going to get them out.
— Donald Trump, third and final presidential debate, Wednesday
Many moments in Trump’s quest for the White House have been described as remarkable. And certainly, there is a long list of Trump public comments, favored phrases and claims that, many a political pundit and consultant has noted, probably would have ended other campaigns. But leaving aside the many personal insults Trump has lobbed at individuals on the basis of their religion, race and ethnicity, he has never, ever backed away from his promise to govern by way of group assessments and, with this, make America great.
That Trump’s political philosophy of group blame, suspicion and presumed guilt did not end his campaign but instead helped him defeat a field of more than a dozen Republican competitors with more traditional conservative ideals and political résumés is no more meaningless than the intricacy of his chosen hairdo. It signals that Trump’s is a philosophy with real appeal to a substantial and, as his surrogates often point out, record-setting number of Republicans who participated in the primary process. That Trump’s only real adjustment in his political plans, promises and policy ideas is a matter of language, not substance, that has helped him keep the support of 35 to 40 percent of Americans is certainly worth noting.
Clinton may be leading with voters of color, young Americans of all races and ethnicities, and groups that have traditionally been critical to most Republican presidential victories — married white women and white, college-educated men and women, according to polls. But Trump's America is not small or somehow insignificant.
For these Americans, the candidate who will call undocumented Mexicans immigrants rapists, suggest that stop-and-frisk is what America’s crime-ravaged, war-zone-like black communities really need, and argue that a temporary ban on Muslim immigration, along with some type of ongoing surveillance of Muslims in the United States, is needed, truly sounds like the man with a plan that would make America great again.
That is the essence of what has carried Trump this far. That is the heart of his campaign. That is the stuff that Trump has learned, which remains within bounds for a substantial share of American voters.
And when one thinks of the Trump political trajectory that way, Trump's decision to begin his campaign by describing undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and end it by leaving millions of Americans with the idea that these same people are simply “bad hombres,” makes perfect sense.