Phil Houston is CEO of QVerity, a training and consulting company specializing in detecting deception by employing a model he developed while at the Central Intelligence Agency. He has conducted thousands of interviews and interrogations for the CIA and other federal agencies. His colleague Don Tennant contributed to this report.
Donald Trump’s reversal on the issue of immigration has stunned supporters and adversaries alike, as the Republican Presidential candidate appears to be adopting a position that mirrors that of Jeb Bush, who Mr. Trump vilified in the past for his stand on the issue. But given the nature of the deceptive behavior that Mr. Trump exhibited in leveraging the hardline position he had taken since the outset of his campaign, we find the shift entirely unsurprising.
Mr. Trump’s vow to deport all of the millions of Mexican immigrants who are in the United States illegally was never a realistic scenario, and there is every indication that Mr. Trump recognized that all along. As we noted in a column back in March following the Republican debate in Detroit, it was Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly, a co-moderator of that debate, who zeroed in on Mr. Trump’s refusal to release the transcript of his behind-closed-doors meeting with The New York Times. During that meeting, the candidate reportedly suggested that he would not stand behind his public position on immigration.
“[That] will have some asking whether, on your immigration policies, you are really just playing to people’s fantasies, which is a tactic you praised in your book, ‘The Art of the Deal,’” Ms. Kelly said. The conclusion we articulated in that previous column is worth revisiting here:
Kelly was spot on with her recognition of Trump’s efforts to manipulate the American electorate. What’s important to understand, however, is that if Trump is just playing to people’s fantasies, what these fantasies stem from are the frustrations people feel with the political establishment. If there is one word that defines the 2016 political campaign, it is, beyond a doubt, frustration. And Trump’s strategy is clearly to prey on that frustration.
Arguably, the cornerstone of Trump’s success in this campaign is his trademark attacks on anyone who crosses him. The brilliance of these attacks, regardless of how unpleasant or unpalatable any of us might find them, lies in the immediate validation they provide to so many people who are frustrated to the point of contempt for the dysfunctionality of Washington. And there is a very tangible benefit that Trump derives from them.
That benefit is the remarkably high level of deception that these attacks enable Trump to accomplish. He is consistently able to diminish others, while at the same time enjoying a means to escape from answering the important policy questions that would allow voters to evaluate his potential effectiveness.
There almost certainly was never an actual plan or intention to deport every illegal immigrant in the United States, because Mr. Trump almost certainly never believed that any such action could possibly be viable. But the reality is that he never needed to believe it. All he needed to do was convince a sufficient segment of a frustrated electorate that he believed it. His ability to accomplish that no doubt helped him secure the Republican Presidential nomination.
But what needs to be understood is that that accomplishment was the outcome of the failure of his base to recognize the deceptive behavior Mr. Trump exhibited in the process. If Mr. Trump ever truly had a plan to carry out such a hardline policy, he most assuredly would have articulated it. Lacking such a plan, however, he was forced to rely almost exclusively on the behavior that enabled him to redirect his base’s attention: attacking the policymakers who failed to prevent the current immigration situation, and attacking the illegal immigrants themselves.
It remains to be seen how successful Mr. Trump will be in redirecting attention away from his reversal. What seems certain is that Mr. Trump will rely as heavily as he ever has on attacks to accomplish that. His attack behavior clearly helped him win the nomination. We’ll know soon enough whether it will have helped him win the Presidency.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.