Trump Is Whoever You Want Him to Be

The Republican says he’ll build a wall on the Mexican border, ban Muslim immigration, and rip up free-trade deals. Many of his endorsers insist he doesn’t really mean it. Who should voters believe?

Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

When is a wall not a wall?

Although Donald Trump insists he plans to build a massive, solid, very real wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, some of the presumptive Republican nominee’s backers say that will never happen.

“I’m for Donald Trump, and he says we’re going to build a wall, the Mexicans are gonna pay for it,” former Texas Governor Rick Perry told Snapchat’s Chris Hamby. “It’s not going to happen,” Hamby replied.

Perry agreed. “Well, it’s not. It’s a wall, but it’s a technological wall, it’s a digital wall.” He added: “There are some that hear this is going to be 1,200 miles from Brownsville to El Paso, 30-foot high, and listen, I know you can’t do that.”

In Perry’s defense, he’s been saying that the wall is implausible since well before he endorsed Trump. (Of course, he also used to say that “Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded.”) But he isn’t the only Trump backer to claim that there won’t really be a wall—or to suggest that some of Trump’s other signature policies aren’t even campaign promises, but something even weaker.

Every successful politician succeeds by acting, to some degree, by allowing themselves to look like a blank screen on which a wide range of voters can project their own hopes and dreams. The clumsier politicians risk the appearance of pandering. Smoother ones manage to simply stay vague enough to convince voters they’re with them, although that can cause problems later: Barack Obama campaigned as an inspirational liberal in 2008, only to disappoint many of his more progressive backers with an essentially moderate governing approach.

The Trump candidacy is a more unusual case, though. Seldom has a candidate run on such a clear set of policies, delivered so bluntly: He’s gonna build a wall. He’s gonna rip up trade agreements. He’s gonna stop Muslim immigration. He’s gonna beat China. Yet in spite of the directness of these promises—or perhaps because of them—quite a few of Trump’s supporters in the Republican Party insist that he doesn’t really mean what he says.

Trump has been very explicit about the fact that he intends to build a real wall—even if his plan is unrealistic, as many critics note, or scant on details. Nonentheless, Representative Chris Collins, a New York Republican who was Trump’s first congressional endorser, told The Buffalo News in May that the wall wasn’t going to be, you know, an actual real wall.

“I have called it a virtual wall,” he said. “Maybe we will be building a wall over some aspects of it; I don’t know.”

Collins also said that Trump wasn’t really going to deport illegal immigrants.  “I call it a rhetorical deportation of 12 million people,” he said.

Not that Collins is alone. North Carolina Representative Renee Ellmers, the first candidate Trump endorsed, told Talking Points Memo in May that there’d be no mass deportation: “Logistically that is an impossibility. It would cost the taxpayers of America. We would never get there... It would be an endless pursuit.” (Ellmers lost a June primary against against George Holding, another sitting member of Congress.)

Even members with more substantive disagreements seem able to see common ground where others cannot. Speaker Paul Ryan, a supporter of free-trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnernship, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last month that he and Trump, who has fiercely rejected TPP, basically agreed: “Look, he wants to get good trade agreements. So do I.”

When he made his comments, Collins was careful to add that he spoke for himself. “I’m not speaking for Donald,” he said. “Those were my opinions.” But arguing that the candidate you’ve endorsed is wildly unrealistic in his central campaign claims is a little weird. It’s undeniable that Trump’s appeal is partly rhetorical: Supporters thrill to his variety of brash talk, which he and they style as a rejection of political correctness. Some of them are also well aware that Trump—like every presidential candidate—is exaggerating what he can accomplish. A majority, for example, told Quinnipiac’s pollsters they didn’t think Mexico would really pay for the wall.

Still, suggesting that they don’t care about the policies he’s proposed is at odds with polls and what Trump supporters who attend his events say, and also rather patronizing. Besides, candidates mostly do what they promise to do, as Al Hunt notes.

There are some signs that Trump himself may not really believe these things, though. He told the editorial board of The New York Times that he uses the wall talk to inject enthusiasm into rallies when energy is flagging: “You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.” BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith also reported that Trump told the board something that undermined a core tenet of his candidacy, though it wasn’t clear what. Did he say deportation wasn’t feasible? That the wall wouldn’t be built? The truth hasn’t emerged, but Trump did tell Fox News that “everything is negotiable,” not much of an assurance.

Senior Trump aide Barry Bennett was similarly vague in May, insisting that Trump’s ideas were just “suggestions.” “This ‘words matter’ stuff is ridiculous,” Bennett said.

More recently, Trump has wavered notably on his plan to ban Muslim immigration into the United States. In May, he called it “just a suggestion.” He has at times argued more or less strongly for the temporary nature of such a ban, and in Scotland in June he suggested that all he really cared about was banning immigration from countries with major terror problems, like Syria. One might almost forget that when Trump proposed the Muslim ban in late 2015, he was outflanking Republican rivals who were calling for lesser steps, like barring Syrian refugees. Now, Trump is gradually moving toward the position of those candidates whose position he considered too moderate at the time.

For voters who are drawn primarily to Trump’s rhetorical stance, these variances may be irrelevant. But for voters who are supporting him largely because of his promises, or for citizens who want to know what a Trump administration might be like, they make it hard to know who to trust. Should you believe Trump? Or should you believe the people who say Trump doesn’t really mean it, like Rick Perry, Chris Collins, and, well, Donald Trump?