Opinion

Why Donald Trump's Mexico-Arizona trip helps his campaign

Admit it: He looked plausibly presidential standing next to Mexico's Enrique Peña Nieto

Turns out there's one failed left-wing president Donald Trump is honored to call his friend: Mexico's Enrique Peña Nieto, who suffers a favorability rating almost as low as Trump's own.

Peña Nieto may have had nothing to lose in meeting with Trump in Mexico City on Wednesday. But Trump had everything to gain. And mark it down: If he beats Hillary Clinton in November, history's ironists will record with bitter relish that Trump owed his campaign's salvation to Mexico.

But it wasn't just his quick trip to Mexico, where — admit it — his rather muted performance actually looked plausibly presidential. Just a few hours later, Trump delivered a rowdy immigration speech in Arizona. These two events — the Mexico trip and Phoenix speech — were the linchpins of a policy pivot designed to substitute for a personality pivot that simply won't come. Team Trump needed them to be perceived as a sensible reaction to a changing reality, not a clumsy retreat from electoral disaster.

And it worked.

"You cannot obtain legal status or obtain citizenship in the United States by illegally entering our country," Trump thundered in his speech. Well, okay, but that's already the status quo. His only true line in the sand was vowing to build his big, "beautiful" wall — the one his advisers have admitted time and again is more of a metaphor than monolith. President Obama has deported record numbers of individuals; Trump vowed to focus on the "criminal aliens" Obama left behind.

This is not a revolution. It is a retrofit. For all the red meat, Trump backed away from his full-bore attack on the immigration reality our elites have wrought.

And you know what? It just might work.

The reason is simple. This presidential election is still not a referendum on Trump. It's a referendum on Hillary Clinton.

Clinton enjoyed historic advantages against her amateurish antagonist, yet frittered away a post-convention bounce so large and prolonged that serious analysts began to swear the Trump campaign was finished. And now, the latest polls show Trump poised to come out of this week in a stronger position than he has been in in months.

This may seem odd, perverse even — a damning indictment of the electorate and a curse on American democracy. But really it is a return to the natural course of a Clinton referendum election. The logic is simple: Clinton is the last member of the elite political establishment standing. The status and power of that elite is the most polarizing issue of this cycle. The elites who have run for president this year have mounted stunningly inept or uninspiring campaigns.

Clinton embodies everything definitive about the elite political establishment that upsets its many critics: the wealth, the entitlement, the aloofness, the callous calculations and consequence-free machinations.

This is why Trump is still fairly competitive despite his soul-sapping faults. Even now, a barely competent performance — of the sort many supposed Jeb Bush might ride to the White House — will keep Trump in the game. Not because Americans are bigoted idiots, but because the ruling class is tanking, and because Hillary Clinton, in a perfect illustration of why she is now the chief representative of that class, can't run a campaign that will turn its image around. If she beats Trump, it will only be because Trump beat himself first.

Reasonable people surely know that it is in fact ridiculous to physically wall off Mexico, no matter who pays for it. But it is equally suicidal to rebrand the GOP as the one faction in the culture wars that doesn't get a seat at the identity politics table.

Trump proved on Wednesday that he just might be capable of accepting those lessons. He proved he could hang with a Mexican president. He used that proof to prepare the ground for his immigration address. And then he delivered a speech whose sharp tone would fire up his base, but whose policies were actually more narrow in scope, and might just make him more palatable to moderate voters.

Remember, Clinton is a dreadful candidate — only marginally less dreadful than the Republicans Trump laid to waste in the primary season. Trump can beat her. And his performances in Mexico and Arizona helped.

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