Trump Time Capsule #5: ‘Gang of Eight? Never Heard of It!’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As a reminder, these dispatches are meant as a chronicle for time-capsule purposes, recorded at a time when no one can be sure that Donald Trump won’t become the 45th President of the United States. They are meant to note the traits that distinguish Trump from the first 44 presidents and from all previous major-party nominees. As more members of his party’s establishment accommodate themselves to Trump, this record is also meant as a reminder of the kind of person they are now deciding to find acceptable.

Daily Trump #5, May 26, 2016. What’s this ‘Gang of Eight’ I keep hearing about?

The most jarring part of Donald Trump’s announcement speech nearly one year ago was what he said about immigrants. You can see the whole thing, which even now is startlingly coarse, in the C-SPAN archives here. The part about Mexicans begins around time 9:00, and is cued in the clip above.

What’s the news? It’s in a great story out today in Bloomberg Businessweek by Joshua Green — longtime friend of mine, Atlantic and Washington Monthly alumnus — that is about Reince Priebus but includes an interview with Trump. In it Trump discloses that he had not actually thought about the immigration issue, or other issues, before diving in head first. From Green’s story, with added emphasis:

“I’m not sure I got there through deep analysis,” he said [speaking of another policy]. “My views are what everybody else’s views are. When I give speeches, sometimes I’ll sign autographs and I’ll get to talk to people and learn a lot about the party.”

He says he learned that voters were disgusted with Republican leaders and channeled their outrage. I asked, given how immigration drove his initial surge of popularity, whether he, like Sessions [Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama], had considered the RNC’s call for immigration reform to be a kick in the teeth. To my surprise, he candidly admitted that he hadn’t known about it or even followed the issue until recently. “When I made my [announcement] speech at Trump Tower, the June 16 speech,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Gang of Eight. … I just knew instinctively that our borders are a mess.”

***

Everything about the GOP struggle over immigration concerned whether the “Gang of Eight” was a step in the right or the wrong direction. The gang was an informal alliance of four Republican and four Democratic senators. On the Democratic side, senators Bennet, Durbin, Menendez, and Schumer; and on the Republican side, senators Flake, Graham, McCain, and crucially Marco Rubio. If you were a “reform”-minded Republican (and most any Democrat), you supported this effort to revamp immigration laws, including finding a “path to citizenship” for some already-present illegal/undocumented immigrants. If you were from the Tea Party, you blasted Marco Rubio for being involved at all.

But either way, you would have heard of it. Donald Trump, who has made “the wall” and the threat of uncontrolled immigration the emotional center of his campaign, did not know what the Gang of Eight was. He is the only person running for the nomination in either party  of whom this could possibly be true. Even Ben Carson was informed enough to talk about the Gang of Eight back in 2014.

As a first approximation, it is fair to assume that Donald Trump does not know anything about public policy. Anything. Including about the issue that is the main point of his campaign. It is almost impossible to convey how far this is outside the range of even the least-brilliant or dutiful “normal” politicians. Instinct always matters, but going purely with the gut is the route to sorrow in public affairs.

For comparison, please check out this previous item on why Sarah Palin, the closest apparent comparison, actually was much better informed than Trump. We are entering the realm of “Chauncey Gardner,” the simple-minded gardener whose blurtings are treated as meaningful, in Being There. This is the person who would be making judgment calls as president, including about the use of force and nuclear weaponry. This is the person the Republican party is preparing itself to accept.

***

As a reminder, here is what Trump said on immigration and border issues in his announcement speech. From the C-SPAN transcript:

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They are laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically.

They are not our friend. Believe me, they are killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems. It’s true. And these are not the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best. They are not sending you [points]. They are not sending you [points again].

They are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems to us. They  are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people…

We have no protection and we have no confidence. We don’t know what’s happening. It’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast [APPLAUSE]