On March 15, 2013, an aspiring politician took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and proposed an immigration reform more radical and left-wing than anything ever enacted in America. He called for total amnesty and citizenship for all 11+ million illegal immigrants in the US, declaring that “you’re going to have to do what’s right.” And then he urged dramatically expanding legal immigration by millions to add even more citizens. His name: Donald J. Trump.
Two years later, Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower and launched one of the most virulent anti-immigrant campaigns in American political history, delivering a speech that declared Mexico was sending rapists to the US. No president has ever flip-flopped so dramatically on immigration.
The story of how Donald Trump became a xenophobe reveals how a bigoted con artist joined forces with far right racist anti-immigration radicals and convinced the American people that he had an easy solution to immigration.
It’s no exaggeration to call immigration the cardinal issue of Trump’s 2016 campaign. Building a wall, and making Mexico pay for it, became one of the most famous campaign promises ever made in a presidential election. But this wasn’t the first flip-flop on immigration of Trump’s political career.
For most of his life, Trump showed no indication of caring at all about immigration. Trump was full of political opinions on other issues (in 1989, he launched his political ambitions by running full-page ads against the Central Park Five who were later exonerated for rape, declaring “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!“). But immigration was rarely mentioned by Trump for the vast majority of his life.
In 1999, Trump launched his first serious effort to become president as a candidate for the Reform Party, and he denounced his main opponent, Pat Buchanan, for being anti-immigrant: “he attacks gays, immigrants, welfare recipients, even Zulus. When cornered, he says he’s misunderstood. But the fact is that he has a dead serious purpose, and one purpose only: To gain political power. That makes him a very dangerous man.” In reality, that description never applied to an ideologue like Buchanan. But it perfectly described Trump himself.
Trump adopted many left-wing positions, proposing the largest tax on the rich in human history (a 16% wealth tax) in order to reduce the national debt. In his 2000 campaign book, The America We Deserve, Trump made a mild critique of “our current laxness toward illegal immigration” and told immigrants, “Enter by the law, or leave,” but he was far to the left of Buchanan. Trump wrote, “Pat Buchanan has been guilty of many egregious examples of intolerance. He has systematically bashed Blacks, Mexicans, and Gays.” By 2016, Trump was tweeting about Buchanan (whom he once called a “Neo-Nazi”), “way to go Pat, way ahead of your time!” Trump learned to embrace his own inner Neo-Nazi and attack the Mexicans, too.
Trump abandoned his plans in 2000 because he realized the Reform Party was too divided to help him win the presidency. Instead, Trump went on to become the host of The Apprentice, which satisfied his lust for fame in a highly lucrative manner, making him hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2011, Trump plotted again to run for the presidency, this time as a right winger with the Republican Party, but he ultimately dropped out in order to continue hosting his television show. By 2015, with his TV ratings falling, Trump finally made the announcement he had been dreaming of for so long.
In the speech that followed his June 16, 2015 descent down the escalator at Trump Tower, Trump shocked his allies and enemies alike. In the most famous moment of his unscripted announcement, Trump declared: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The backlash was swift and cost Trump millions of dollars: NBC and Univision cut ties with Trump and his Miss Universe pageant, Macy’s dropped Trump’s line of (Mexican-made) clothing, Serta stopped selling Trump mattresses, chef Jose Andreas cancelled plans to have a restaurant in Trump’s DC hotel, and NASCAR, ESPN, and the PGA moved events away from Trump properties. Sen. Lindsay Graham called Trump’s approach “stupid” and “illegal” and added, “I find him offensive.”
Even the most extreme anti-immigrant Trump advisors and supporters later revealed that they were shocked by what he said. Steve Bannon noted, “When he starts talking about the Mexican rapists and everything like that, I go, ‘Oh, my God.’ I said, ‘This is—’ I said: ‘He’s just buried—they’re going to go nuts.’” Roger Stone declared, “We didn’t know he was going to talk about crimes committed by illegal aliens and illegal immigrants….” Michael Cohen wondered if Trump was “out of his mind.” Trump aide Sam Nunberg said, “he goes off track. You know, he’s a little inarticulate.” Ann Coulter later admitted, “He put them perhaps a little more aggressively than I would have.” She said, “I was a little nervous by it.” Coulter was worried that “he would end up undermining the issues that were so important and so popular by stating them a teensy bit too aggressively.” When Ann Coulter calls you too aggressive on attacking immigration, it means you are on the furthest extremes of the issue.
Everyone was so focused on Trump calling Mexicans rapists that they ignored what was truly remarkable about Trump’s speech. Trump based his entire immigration policy on a ludicrous conspiracy theory that the Mexican government was smuggling criminals over the border. This is why a wall was needed, and the Mexican government would pay for it because Trump thought they were smuggling in the criminals. One of the most famous promises in the history of presidential campaigns was based on a conspiracy theory that no one other than Trump believes in and that even his anti-immigrant allies dismissed.
Even after he was criticized, Trump doubled down on his conspiracy theory, which Politifact gave a “pants on fire” rating as a complete lie, and the right-wing anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies rejected. In July 2015, Trump issued a statement reiterating his theory, even making clear that when he blamed Mexico at his campaign launch, he meant the “Mexican government.” Trump said, “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” Trump told one interviewer that he was angry because, amid the complaints about him calling Mexicans rapists, one aspect of his position on immigration had not received enough attention: “I’m saying the government of Mexico is sending people into our country and no one reports it that way.” In an August 2015 Republican debate, Chris Wallace asked Trump, “What evidence do you have, specific evidence, that the Mexican government is sending criminals across the border?” Trump responded, “Border Patrol, people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what’s happening.”
None of this was true. Trump did go to the border in July 2015, but he espoused his conspiracy theory long before he ever spoke to any border patrol officers. The source of his theory was actually in 2011 when Trump was devoted to the conspiracy theories of the birther movement that believed Barack Obama’s birth certificate was a fraud. The birther movement inspired Trump to invent the conspiracy theory about Mexico that he would use to build his populist crusade four years later.
In 2011, Trump desperately wanted to run for president, and he needed the Republican Party nomination. However, despite having a lot of name recognition, Trump’s haphazard record as a businessman paled in comparison to competitors such as Mitt Romney. Trump needed to be taken seriously as a conservative, which was difficult for a New Yorker who believed in nothing and had no record in politics. But as a white supremacist who seethed at the idea of a black president, and a conspiracy nut who adored the craziest speculation about celebrities, Trump seized upon the birther movement as the way to prove his conservative credentials. Absorbed in the birther world of conspiracy theories, Trump created one of his own about the Mexican government.
Trump wrote in his 2011 campaign book, Time to Get Tough, “Have we suddenly become an annex of Mexico’s prison system? If so, Mexico should pay for it. I actually have a theory that Mexico is sending their absolute worst, possibly including prisoners, in order for us to bear the cost, both financial and social.” This appears to be the first time that Trump (or anyone else) ever mentioned the Mexican government smuggling prisoners over the border, and it was the first time Trump suggested that Mexico must pay America compensation. The wall wasn’t mentioned, but the core part of Trump’s 2015 campaign promise was established in 2011 because of Trump’s obsession with conspiratorial thinking.
Where did Trump get this idea? It appears that Trump simply invented it. This is the only time in Trump’s entire book where he describes anything as a personal “theory” of his. There is no record of anyone else advocating this conspiracy theory, and it is unlikely that Trump sought out advice on immigration policy because he didn’t care about the issue. Trump’s 2011 speeches laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign don’t mention immigration at all. Whether it was his February 10, 2011 speech to CPAC, an April 28, 2011 speech to Republicans in Las Vegas, or a June 3, 2011 speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Trump never said a word about immigration. He clearly didn’t care about the issue.
That’s why Trump was willing in 2013 to flip-flop completely on immigration. After Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, Republican Party leaders believed that they needed to moderate their position on immigration. Trump agreed.
Trump’s 2013 CPAC speech embracing total amnesty was largely ignored at the time and ever since. One reason was that Trump was a buffoon whom no one took seriously in 2013. The other reason why Trump’s liberal views on immigration were ignored was because other Republicans at CPAC that year, people who were taken seriously, were arguing for Republicans to adopt a more thoughtful policy supporting immigrants. Trump was much more skeptical about immigration reform from a political perspective, bluntly calling it a “suicide mission” for Republicans because all immigrants would vote for Democrats. Trump in 2013 had absolutely no policy or moral objection to total amnesty for illegal immigrants. His only concern was purely partisan. And even that, in Trump’s view, wasn’t enough to overcome Trump’s support for total amnesty. His CPAC speech argued for massive increases in European immigration to counter the Latino vote for Democrats.
In their book Border Wars, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear describe Trump’s 2013 CPAC speech as highlighting “the danger of 11 million ‘illegals’ gaining the right to vote.” But Trump’s speech said nothing about any danger caused by immigrants in terms of crime, the economy, or anything except which party they would vote for.
The fact that Trump worried about the political impact of undocumented immigrants getting citizenship and voting rights made him seem more right-wing than some Republican politicians at the time. Trump at least was willing to criticize amnesty, albeit only for tactical reasons. But that doesn’t change the fact that Trump’s 2013 speech was a defense of total amnesty, that Trump explicitly called it “the right thing,” and that Trump completely contradicted everything he stood for just two years later when he launched his campaign for president.
Yet everyone, on the left and the right, reimagined that CPAC speech to fit the later image of Trump as anti-immigrant. Nunberg said about the CPAC talk and immigration, “The 2013 speech, that was his. That was a moment where he took this issue as well, and it was something that he naturally, through his own intuition, knew was going to be a great wedge issue for him.” Nunberg revealed that Trump was solely responsible for the content of the 2013 CPAC speech, even though Nunberg forgot what Trump actually said.
Why did Trump endorse total amnesty in 2013, in between his advocacy in 2011 and 2015 of his personal conspiracy theory about the Mexican government sending criminals to the US? It wasn’t because he actually believed in amnesty, because Trump believes in nothing. Instead, Trump was putting his finger to the wind, determining that the debate about immigration had shifted to the left, and quickly following the herd.
The second part of Trump’s 2013 proposal was to have a massive increase in European immigration to offset the political impact to Republicans of total amnesty for 11+ million illegal immigrants. This reflected Trump’s unique approach to immigration. Trump is a white supremacist who has often made racist comments about Latinos. But until recently, Trump did not primarily think about immigration in a racial way. That’s because Trump was always obsessed with his own personal experiences rather than policy discussions he didn’t understand or care about.
Trump’s views on immigration were shaped by the fact that for most of his life, Trump focused on white immigrants: He used white illegal immigrants to work on his construction projects (most famously, a group of Polish workers whom he failed to pay for demolition work on the Trump Tower site), he dated European models (including two of his wives), and he hobnobbed with wealthy Europeans, selling them on his real estate projects.
These personal experiences influenced Trump’s proposal for immigration. In his 2013 CPAC speech, Trump declared: “why aren’t we letting people in from Europe?” He explained, “I have many friends from Europe. They want to come in. People I know. Tremendous people. Hard-working people. They can’t come in. I know people whose sons went to Harvard; top in their class, went to the Wharton School of Finance, great, great students. They happen to be a citizen of a foreign country. They learn, they take all of our knowledge, and they can’t work in this country. We throw them out.” Only an idiot could imagine that European Harvard alums would enable Republicans to offset the votes of Latinos given amnesty, and Trump was that idiot.
So what changed Trump’s mind and turned him virulently anti-immigrant? As with Trump’s 2011 conspiracy theory against the Mexican government, Trump’s far right anti-immigrant shift for the 2016 campaign can also be traced back to the birther movement.
In August 2013, five months after his CPAC speech endorsing the morality of total amnesty, Trump spoke at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa and reiterated his belief that “you have to do the right thing” on amnesty while warning about the political dangers. On the plane trip back from Iowa, Trump discussed his political future with his trusted aide Nunberg, who told him that he couldn’t base his presidential dreams on birtherism because it was too marginal of a movement. What Trump needed was a cause that continued his hold over the birther cult while bringing in a new wave of supporters. Nunberg told Trump, “It’s going to be immigration.” Nunberg later explained, “It’s interconnected. We would be able to keep those people.” Immigration was the logical sequel to Trump’s birther crusade. And because Trump’s racist birther campaign had alienated most moderates and intelligent conservatives, the only people remaining who were willing to support and advise Trump were far-right activists who strongly opposed immigration. Surrounded by racists and anti-immigration hatemongers, Trump was happy to change his policy views.
The links between the birthers and anti-immigration extremists were strong. Joe Arpaio, the anti-Latino sheriff whom Trump pardoned for his crimes, was also one of the most outspoken and persistent birthers, declaring that Obama’s birth certificate was fake long after Trump had publicly stopped talking about it.
Jerome Corsi, who was subpoenaed during the Muller investigation because he told Roger Stone in 2016 about the impending Wikileaks releases attacking the Clinton campaign, was one of the most important birthers (and part of a team Arpaio sent to Hawaii to investigate Obama’s birth certificate). Corsi is the author of Where’s the Birth Certificate? which was a best-seller despite being published three weeks after Obama released his birth certificate in response to Trump’s crusade demanding it. Corsi was also the author of Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America’s Borders (2006) and The Late Great U.S.A.: The Coming Merger With Mexico and Canada (2007), which claimed that a unified North American currency called the Amero would replace the dollar.
The idea of Obama as a secret Muslim foreigner was always at the core of the birther conspiracy movement that Trump led. The birthers didn’t just think Obama was technically unqualified to be president for being foreign-born. They believe Obama was part of a Muslim invasion of America. In 2011, Trump told Fox News, “He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there is something on that birth certificate—maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim.” Trump offered $5 million to charity in 2012 if Obama would release his college and passport records, believing that they held the secret of Obama’s Muslim identity. Even after Trump was forced to tweet in 2016 that Obama was born in the US, Trump has privately continued to embrace the birther conspiracy theories as president. To the birthers, Obama was the ultimate illegal immigrant, a Muslim man born in Kenya, smuggled into the United States, and given fake papers.
Trump’s racist impulses helped reinforce his racist policies. According to Michael Cohen, Trump told him: “I will never get the Hispanic vote, Like the blacks, they’re too stupid to vote for Trump.” Because of Trump’s racist assumption that Latinos wouldn’t vote for Republicans (which was the only reason he opposed total amnesty), he was willing to make immigration a core issue and launch racist attacks on Mexicans.
While Trump’s anti-immigrant advisors could convince him to embrace xenophobia, they still couldn’t make him care enough about immigration to talk about it in his rambling, off-the-cuff speeches when he was too distracted bragging about his greatness. Nunberg hit upon the brilliant solution: The Wall. By reimagining immigration as a construction project, Nunberg managed to achieve what no one ever had ever done before: Keeping Trump interested in immigration policy.
The wall was a perfect solution for Trump. It appealed to his racism. It appealed to his construction background. It strengthened his appeal with the far right that distrusted him because he didn’t believe in conservative ideas. It reinforced Trump’s strongest asset as a businessman involved in construction. It gave Trump a tactical advantage among his competitors who mostly sought more reasonable immigration solutions. And Trump could actually remember the line, especially when he added, “and Mexico will pay for it,” because Mexico was smuggling criminals into America. That conspiracy theory, born out of Trump’s birther alliance, fueled an anti-immigration administration like no other, from the Muslim Ban to the family separation policy that put children in cages.
A right-wing anti-immigration group, NumbersUSA, gave Trump a “C” grade in 2015 because he didn’t have a consistent anti-immigrant policy despite his hateful rhetoric. Since Trump’s approach to immigration was based upon a simplistic and false conspiracy theory, his policies were considered flawed even by the far-right movement he was appealing to. But that didn’t matter. In the end, anti-immigrant voters cared most about the symbolism rather than the policy. As Nunberg observed: “The wall stood for who had the harshest, strongest, biggest law-and-order policy on immigration.” The idea of a wall that was created to appeal to Trump’s simplistic mind also worked on the simplistic minds of anti-immigrant voters.
But because Trump didn’t actually believe in anything, his anti-immigrant policies were always in danger of falling apart. The biggest danger was DACA Nunberg was upset that Trump didn’t immediately reverse DACA, and explained why: “Trump doesn’t support that. Trump wants DACA.” Why would a virulently anti-immigrant president support DACA? Because Trump never actually believed in his anti-immigrant positions. DACA never fit with Trump’s conspiracy theory about Mexico. If the problem was the Mexican government smuggling criminals to the US, then the DACA recipients brought to the US as children by their parents had nothing to do with it. Trump wanted to do a DACA deal, but as Nunberg noted, “Fox News stopped the deal.” The xenophobes refused to let Trump make a deal on DACA, and he was forced to bow down before the anti-immigrant activists he had pandered to in order to gain the presidency. Trump never cared about immigration, but he had tied his political ambitions to the far right bigots who did.
Today, Trump is running TV ads claiming (falsely) that Joe Biden has promised to give amnesty to illegal immigrants if he’s elected. Virtually no one watching those ads has ever been informed by the media that Trump himself called amnesty “the right thing” while preparing his campaign for the presidency.
The truth about how Donald Trump became a xenophobe exposes the real Donald Trump: He is a racist, a flip-flopping pandering politician, an easily manipulated fool shaped by his fawning advisors, a con artist who mastered the art of faux populism, and a conspiracy nut whose insane theories about the world have helped reshape America.