That’s true of both the specific actions he has taken and of the broad, long-term goals he is trying to achieve — goals that were never possible in the first place.
Let’s start with the particular. A month ago, the administration announced it would soon begin a nationwide sweep of undocumented immigrants, and Trump said “millions” of people would be rounded up. The actual number of arrests in this high-profile operation turned out to be 35. On Wednesday, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement launched raids on seven agricultural processing plants in Mississippi, arresting 680 people.
Despite the attention the administration has called to raids like that one, and the policy of family separation that was intended in its cruelty to create a deterrent to immigration, people keep coming. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it apprehended more than 780,000 people along the southern border in the first nine months of the fiscal year beginning last October. That’s compared to 521,000 in all of fiscal 2018, and 415,000 in fiscal 2017. So despite all of Trump’s efforts, more people are coming to the United States — particularly from Central America. He has failed. And he has also failed to build the “big, beautiful wall” that, during the 2016 campaign, he promised would stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
The parts of his immigration agenda that Trump has implemented with any degree of success are in practical terms the least important to his overall vision. For instance, he has all but shut America’s doors to refugees, but refugees make up only a tiny portion of the immigrant population. The highest number of refugees admitted in recent years was in fiscal 2016, when 85,000 came to the United States, essentially a rounding error when placed alongside the 40 million foreign-born people living here today.
That latter number is what Trump supporters and Trump himself really have a problem with. What they have always been after isn’t just a reorientation of immigration policy away from being welcoming and toward being restrictive. They want a transformation of American society itself. The grievances to which Trump appealed in 2016 — and which he thinks will win him reelection — are about certain people’s feeling of disorientation in the face of a changing society, where native-born white people are seeing immigrants in places they didn’t before, or fearing that immigrants will come to their communities even if they haven’t yet.
Trump has now been president for nearly three years, and his supporters should ask themselves: How’s it working out? Trump spun out a fantasy when he ran in 2016 and has continued to do so as president. It’s one in which his wall would end all unauthorized immigration, he’d round up all the undocumented people and send them away, and the doors of America would largely be shut, at least to nonwhite immigrants (“Why do we want these people from all these shithole countries here? We should have more people from places like Norway.”)
The result — and this is the part that was unspoken but still clear — would then be a society that was “Great Again,” a society where you wouldn’t have to hear people speaking Spanish and where there was no doubt who was in charge.
The fact that he cannot bring that vision to reality is Trump’s ultimate failure to his supporters. Even if he could somehow succeed in stopping every last immigrant from coming to the United States for the remainder of his term — which, of course, he won’t — it wouldn’t change the reality he wants to reverse. America is and will continue to be a diverse society. White people will continue to decline as a proportion of the population. The future will see new waves of immigrants, bringing with them their language and food and music and culture, all of which will become part of America. Our society will continue to change, because that’s what it has always done. And there’s nothing President Trump or his voters can do about it.