It's too late for President Trump.
Yes, it's still early in his presidency. Yes, it's welcome news that he appears to be nearing an agreement to keep young migrant "DREAMers" at home in the United States. And yes, it's fun to watch Trump's anti-immigrant base melt down over these developments.
But all the bipartisan deal-making in the world is still not enough to undo Trump's essential, ugly legacy: He unleashed overt racism as a newly resurgent force in American politics. And the country is much, much worse for it.
Birtherism. The Muslim ban. Charlottesville. Not since the days of George Wallace has American society seen a national political figure so routinely and overtly appeal to white racial sentiments. It's gotten so bad that Congress was forced to act this week, passing a bipartisan resolution condemning the "white nationalists, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups" that Trump pointedly refused to condemn in the immediate aftermath of last month's racial violence.
In the wake of all that, Trump's decision to seek a deal that would legalize the status of young migrants brought here illegally as children seems a bit cynical. The president clearly needs a win — the passage of significant legislation, a little love from The New York Times — and he's willing to cross his supporters to get it.
This too, is reminiscent of George Wallace, who spent the last years of his career letting everybody know he'd renounced segregation — after the cause of segregation had been defeated. "I've learned what pain is and I'm sorry if I've caused anybody else pain," he said after surviving an assassination attempt in 1972.
That's not really what we remember about Wallace, is it? No, we remember that he stood in the schoolhouse doors, trying to keep black children from entering. And we remember his thundering declaration, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"
Everything that came after was the postscript. The damage had already been done.
"I ain't even interested in what he's saying," Rufus Vanable, who marched on Selma, said during one of Wallace's apology tours. "If you lived through it, you wouldn't be either. If he thinks this will ease his mind in some way, let him do it. I'm not interested in looking at his face. It brings back too many memories."
The same will be true of Trump. If his actions allow young DREAMers to remain in the United States, that's fantastic. It nonetheless remains true that during his campaign, he found it difficult to rebuke David Duke, the notorious former Klansman who had announced his support for Trump. And it is also true that when racists marched in Charlottesville last month, they did so proclaiming Trump as their inspiration.
"We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump," Duke said at that rally. "That's why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he's going to take our country back and that's what we've got to do."
This is Trump's real legacy.
Of course, racial tension has always existed in American politics. That's not Trump's fault. The Republican Party spent two generations, from Richard Nixon onward, embracing a "Southern strategy" of appealing to whites alienated from the Democratic Party in the aftermath of 1960s civil rights legislation championed by President Lyndon Johnson. But during those years, even those politicians who preyed on racial resentments acknowledged that explicit racism itself was a losing proposition — they chose instead to cloak their appeals through "dog whistles" about crime and states' rights.
Believe it or not, this was a good thing: Hypocrisy, after all, is the tribute that virtue pays to vice. It's better for society when even racists have to pretend they believe racism is bad.
Trump ripped up that consensus for his own ends. Perhaps now, after months of falling poll numbers have left him so unpopular he can't even show his face at apolitical events like the Kennedy Center Honors, he has reconsidered.
Great. But also: Too late. The damage has been done. If he thinks this will ease his mind in some way, though, let him do it.