President Trump, as he himself will tell you in a heartbeat, wasn’t supposed to win. Pundit after pundit predicted time and again that his comments would doom him, that his rhetoric was too virulent, that his tone was too aggressive. But he built a following among Republican primary voters that carried him (however bumpily) to the nomination and then, using the same rhetoric of danger and fear, leveraged partisan loyalty to squeak past Hillary Clinton by enough votes in enough places and prove everyone wrong. Trump can’t win the presidency? He just did, running the same race at the end as he had at the beginning.
There was a lesson Trump took from that, clearly: The pundits are wrong, and villainizing immigrants from Mexico and the Middle East works. He internalized the importance of holding the same core base of support that was with him early on and, however overtly, has maintained a focus on offering the same rhetoric that earned their love in the first place.
From that perspective, it’s not a surprise that Trump’s first Oval Office address to the country focused on stoking visceral fear of people crossing America’s southern border. Sure, there was, as expected, the sort of misleading data on the flow of drugs from Mexico, failing to note that (as his administration admits) the majority of those drugs and that heroin comes through existing checkpoints. Sure, he argued that the revised NAFTA agreement that hasn’t yet been ratified would somehow mean Mexico will pay for the wall, which it doesn’t. But that’s not really what he wanted Americans to focus on.
Instead, he wanted America to focus on a police officer murdered by an undocumented immigrant in California. He wanted listeners to hear about a veteran brutally killed by another immigrant here illegally. He wanted people to focus on gang members he talked about so often at his rallies, who killed a teenage girl in cold blood.
“Over the last several years, I’ve met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration. I’ve held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible,” he said. “I will never forget the pain in their eyes, the tremble in their voices, and the sadness gripping their souls. How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?”
No one would wish to trade places with those whose loved ones were killed by immigrants in the country illegally — or with people who lost loved ones to criminals born and raised in the United States. Trump’s claims at his campaign launch that migrants entering the United States from Mexico were criminals spurred some of the first fact checks of his candidacy and, as you and he should know by now, it’s not true. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, including immigrants in the country illegally.
There are certainly examples of immigrants committing horrible crimes, just as there are examples of people from Canada committing horrible crimes or people named Donald committing horrible crimes. Those criminals are outliers. Trump and his defenders will argue that the immigrants in the country shouldn’t have been here to commit those crimes in the first place, but Trump himself didn’t present evidence that a wall would have prevented them from being here. When Congress passed a law named after Kate Steinle, a woman who was accidentally shot to death by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco, I asked the Department of Homeland Security how the shooter had entered the country. They weren’t able to say.
Most of the people who are added to the ranks of those in the country illegally in recent years, in fact, have overstayed visas. In 2015, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that the number of Asian undocumented immigrants was growing much faster than arrivals from Mexico or Central America. A few months later, an immigrant from China in the country illegally was sentenced to 125 years in prison for murdering an entire family in Brooklyn. Despite his focus on crimes committed by immigrants, Trump didn’t mention that case.
Setting aside the validity of Trump's arguments, it's worth asking why he keeps making them. There are few Americans, it seems safe to assume, who are unaware of Trump's position on immigration from Mexico or his tendency to cherry-pick bad actors as exemplars of the group. So why make the same case yet again?
In part, it’s because he’s facing one of the hardest fights of his political career. His campaign pledges to build a wall on Mexico’s dime ranged from impractical to fanciful, but the conservative media that he voraciously consumes never forgot them. He’s decided, once and for all, to try to wield the levers of power to make the promise a reality, choosing to take a hard stand on an issue that, probably more than any other from his campaign, evokes fervent opposition. He is picking a fight over something that he himself has made politically toxic and is realizing that he lacks the clout to force his opponents' hand.
So he reverts to his original political strategy. It worked in the primaries, right? It worked in the general. Everyone said it wouldn’t work then, and they were wrong, so why won’t it work now? The short answer, of course, is that everything else about the playing field has changed. The long answer is that it worked in 2016 thanks only to a number of other lucky breaks.
As we kept our eyes out for misleading statistics in Trump’s speech, this was his original false claim, one from which Trump refuses to back down.
It’s worth remembering something else about that 2016 race and about Trump’s entry into it. For a week or two after his campaign announcement, he was still mired at the bottom of the polls, not seeing much of an effect from his words. At least until companies started to sever ties with the Trump Organization over his controversial comments, decisions that gained national media attention and brought his hard-line immigration comments to broad attention.
Without that boost from the media, who knows whether his arguments would have been effective in the first place.