In his most recent podcast, John Derbyshire made the point that there is little hope of getting any sensible immigration reform out of the current Congress. Paul Ryan is an open borders sock puppet, determined to undermine any effort at reform. Even if the House managed to pass something, the Senate is unlikely to take it up. They have no interest in the topic, beyond amnesty. Just as important, President Trump has largely lost interest, other than the occasional tough talk his promised wall.
This reality is vexing to immigration patriots, who correctly see this as a betrayal, as well as a supreme act of stupidity. Cracking down on illegal immigration is extremely popular and most voters now support curbs on legal immigration. A big reason Trump is in the White House is his tough talk on immigration. This is what set him apart for the dullards in the GOP primary. In theory, at least, the failure to follow through on immigration should be bad for Trump and the GOP.
That is not the case. Trump has a higher approval than Obama and Reagan at the same point in their terms. That is not entirely a fair comparison, as both inherited economies in severe recession, as well as massive reform projects. On the other hand, both came in with a massive mandate to push through their reform agendas. Trump, in contrast, entered office with a hostile uniparty and a divided public. Throw in a berserk mass media and it is remarkable that his polling is so strong.
It turns out that despite what the cool kids of the alt-right have to say about the Boomers, pleasing that generation turns out to be good politics. Trump is of that generation, born in 1946, so it is not surprising that he would be good at appealing to those voters. He is also a guy who understands the math of politics. Boomers are a third of the adult population, but close to half the voting population. Older people vote in higher numbers than young people.
Boomer politics, of course, are close to civic nationalism. Even those on the liberal end of the spectrum tend toward the orderly and law abiding, even though they embrace big government solutions. Baby boomers came of age in a prosperous and orderly age when America was still close to 90% white. That means they continue to have a high trust in political and social institutions. Despite what his critics say, Trump has operated like a good government conservative who believes in the system.
Take a look at his two big achievements thus far. One has been the systematic dismantling of the regulatory regime that had built up under George Bush and Barak Obama. This is one of those civic nationalist things that appeals to people who believe in the fundamentals of the country. Similarly, his tax bill fits in with the general sense that Americans need to keep some of their own money. Put the two together and Trump’s big achievements are right out of the CivNat playbook.
Of course, Trump’s growing obsession with the black vote is right in the wheelhouse of the baby boomer voter. Despite 70 years of failure on race relations, the boomers still believe blacks can be fully integrated into white America. More important, they still seek the approval of blacks, which is why getting a selfie with one of the three blacks at CPAC is a phenomenon on Twitter every year. Trump getting the seal of approval from Kanye West resonated with his base.
So far, the best way to describe Trump’s presidency is as a rollback of the past three administrations to something closer to Reaganism. In fact, Trump seems to be using Reagan as a model. Look at his approach to North Korea. Rather than the bellicose approach of the neocons or the appeasement of the neolibs, Trump has brought back Reagan’s peace through strength doctrine. Different facts and players, but the same approach as under Reagan.
Getting back to the immigration issue, what Trump seems to understand, and what immigration hawks have missed, is that baby boomers have not abandoned their immigration romanticism. They still think it is groovy that people come to America “yearning to be free” just as long as they do it legally. There has been no change in attitudes with regards to immigration as a cultural. Boomers still think immigration works, as long as you have the right laws.
Trump appears to have figured this out, so he has modulated his immigration approach to be heavy on the illegal side, but supportive of the legal side. That explains his strange obsession with giving the DACA people amnesty. It is not just an effort to drive a wedge into the Democrat coalition. Trump wants to be seen as supporting the immigrants “who have followed the rules” because he knows his voters get weak in the knees over that stuff.
The lesson here is that American politics is still controlled by baby boomers, whose politics are rooted in an America that is fading away with them. While this cohort dominates elections, their attitudes will be the center of gravity for our politics. As a politician, Trump has figured that out, so he has adjusted to it. What that means is the Overton Window has not moved all that much. The actuarial tables need more time to make that happen.