His much anticipated immigration speech Wednesday night began with a throwaway line about his "love for the people of Mexico," and he blew a few kisses at his new best friend, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. Also uncharacteristically, Trump had done a little homework, consulting with experts and studying up on immigration law.
But most of the 73-minute speech was given over to a wild, dystopian rant: criminal aliens, foreign terrorists, runaway welfare use, immigrant-driven job loss and downward wage pressure -- an immigration system, Trump summed up, that's "worse than anybody ever realized because the media won't report on it."
That's a hard claim to counter -- by design. If you buy it, it means no known facts matter. No one else's arguments carry any weight, because others don't know what you know. And in Trump's telling a handful of appalling instances -- cases in which an unauthorized immigrant slated for deportation murdered an American citizen -- outweigh all that immigrants contribute to the United States, economically and in other ways.
The GOP candidate's Manichean vision is simple and clear. If anything, it came through more starkly in this supposedly sober, considered address than it has in over a year of unscripted stump speeches.
Thanks to several decades of unprecedented immigration and lack of control on the border, "our country is in a mess" -- "a terrible and dangerous mess." Illegal immigration and our elite's misguided response to it is the major challenge we face as a nation -- and once we get control, all of our problems will disappear.
"Peace and law and justice and prosperity will prevail. Crime will go down . . . . Gangs will disappear . . . . Welfare use will decrease. We will have a peace dividend to spend on rebuilding America . . . . You'll be proud of our country again."
It sounds great. If only it were true.
You can dispute many of Trump's facts. You can question his racial and ethnic biases -- and many will. But what's most pernicious about this vision is what it leaves out.
What about the immigrant who invented the Pentium chip -- or the immigrant third of the Silicon Valley science workers who drove the dot-com boom in the 1980s and 90s? What about the immigrant workers who keep America's farms growing food and staff the kitchens in our restaurants? The housing boom ended badly, but before it did, it brought wealth to millions of Americans, and it would never have happened without immigrant construction workers -- they built the houses. But not in Trump's vision. He sees only the criminal aliens.
His policy recommendations are similarly skewed. He gets one big thing right: American immigration policy should be driven by American interests -- not what's good for immigrants. He makes the point in a particularly ugly and vindictive way, but he's on to something -- and too many immigration reform advocates get it wrong.
Some of his specific recommendations are also reasonable: Despite dramatic advances in recent years, we aren't in full control of the border, and state and local law agents should play some role in immigration enforcement.
But even in his policy specifics, there is too much focus on an exaggerated threat and not enough understanding of what immigrants bring to America. As Mexican President Pena Nieto pointed out in his comments Wednesday, standing on a stage next to Trump, the net influx of unauthorized Mexican immigrants is at a 10-year low -- in effect, zero.
It's not the major problem we face as a nation. And no amount of scapegoating will make it so.
On the much-contested point of what should happen to the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already living in the U.S., the speech was wildly contradictory -- a little something for all voters, liberal and conservative.
The notion of prioritizing the most threatening aliens was still in the mix, but Trump's criteria for who should be prioritized have grown so broad that the very concept of priority has become all but meaningless. The speech also embraced the old, unrealistic proposal of "touchback": Make the unauthorized go home and apply to be readmitted under the same quotas as everyone else.
But then, a few paragraphs later, came a conflicting nod to more pragmatic voters: "In several years, when we have . . . ended illegal immigration for good," we'll turn to the problem of those already here and decide what to do.
Bottom line: what would a President Trump do about the 11 million? It's still anybody's guess.
Where does it leave us? Pretty much back where we started some 15 months ago when Trump announced his candidacy by denouncing Mexican immigratnts as criminals and rapists. Apparently, that's still his main bid -- his vision of how to right what's wrong with America. If you think that's right, he's your man. But don't tell me this was a thoughtful presidential speech -- it was anything but.