Do Donald Trump and Bryan Caplan have the same goal (for immigration)?

I’ve recently been wracking my brain trying to figure out what Trump is trying to do with immigration policy. Last year he was close to a deal on funding the border wall (combined with DACA reforms), and then suddenly walked away from the deal. His government shutdown to force construction of the wall was doomed from the start. He’s cut aid to Central American that was intended to reduce immigration from that area. (Yes, the wall and the foreign aid may not be that effective, but that’s true of EVERYTHING the government does. You think the war on drugs is “effective”? Does that stop the government from attempting it?)

Here’s Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times:

It is in Mr Trump’s interest to major on immigration in 2020, and perhaps even run a single-issue campaign. For that, the subject has to be of immediate, living concern to voters. The worst thing he could do before then is fulfil his promise to bring immigration under control.

It is perverse, I know, that a president could make so little progress on his number-one priority during four years in office, only to be rewarded for it. Ever since he was elected, his enemies have waited for his inevitable failure to “deliver” for his voters, who would then see through him and come sheepishly back to the political mainstream. The non-materialisation of his wall against Mexico felt like the cue for such a mass epiphany.

But this always assumed that Mr Trump is judged as conventional politicians are judged. In fact, populists do not live and die by their record. They live on a sense of rolling crisis.

When George Bush was unable to keep America safe from terrorism in 2001, it made him even more popular. In 2004, voters decided that we’d be better off with a tough guy like Bush than a French speaking “wimp” like John Kerry.

Trump is ignorant about public policy, but he has excellent political instincts. He realizes that an immigration crisis in 2020 makes it more likely that he’ll be re-elected.

I’m amused by alt-right types who put their faith in Trump. They told me that it doesn’t matter that he’s a scoundrel, because he has the right views on the issues. As the following graph shows, it does matter that Trump is a scoundrel:

March 2019 is the 9/11 of the Trump presidency. It’s the point where he’s failing so badly that his supporters will come to believe that only he can fix the problem.

Janan Ganesh puts it much better than I can:

This is what distinguishes the populist from the ideologue, for whom the ultimate goal is actual change through government policy. Mr Miller is an ideologue. Mr Trump is a populist. The first man’s interest is in reduced immigration. The second man’s interest, whether he knows it or not, is in a national mood of immigration crisis circa autumn 2020. If even he cannot control the borders — voters might think — then perhaps the system is rigged after all. The swamp thwarted me in fixing immigration, he will say to them. Now give me a mandate to finish the job. You need only imagine what finishing the job might entail to see what an unpleasant election awaits us.

And people keep asking me why I obsess about character, and not “the issues”. Heraclitus figured this out 2500 years ago; character is destiny.



35 Responses to “Do Donald Trump and Bryan Caplan have the same goal (for immigration)?”

  1. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    20. April 2019 at 09:24

    I keep hearing that Trump is on track to win in 2020, due in large part to Democratic incompetence, but I’ve yet to hear anyone breakdown how Trump achieves re-election, numbers-wise.

    He’s a bit less popular now than he was in 2016, with negatives just as high, and he won’t have the benefit of running against a candidate who’s been smeared for a generation and also has high negatives.

    Florida is a must-win state, and his poll numbers among previous supporters there have dipped a bit. Meanwhile, the number of Puerto Ricans who’ve moved to Florida since their island was demolished is approaching 200,000. Even with low turnout and lower-than-usual support for Democrats, this alone could doom Trump in Florida.

    Then, there’s the case of the disgruntled supporters in the rust belt who were hoping he’d bring at least some higher paying jobs back to their states. How has that gone?

    True, incumbents often have some built-in advantages, especially if economic growth is trending positive. But, Trump has not only focused solely on his base as President, but has even further turned other voters against him. I also think there will be competing desires for a candidate more likely to blow up the system in Washington, and one who will be an experienced hand to bring a sense of sanity and security back to Washington.

    Also, the economy may not continue to do well. We’ve already had a slightly inverted yield curve this year, which predicted the Fed would lower rates due to a slowing economy, rather than a recession. But, we’re nearing that point in the economic cycle in which the Fed typically blows it. I’d say the chance of recession in 2020 is above that of the average baseline rate of roughly 18% since the Fed was established. Even absent a recesssion, economic growth is widely expected to be lower over the next two years than in 2018.

    So, can anyone explain to me how Trump wins, by the numbers? Can imagine some scenarios, but are those likely?

  2. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    20. April 2019 at 09:31

    Oh, and don’t forget about the drip, drip of demographics moving against Trump each year.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. April 2019 at 11:53

    Michael, He won’t win the popular vote, but I see no sign that the electoral college vote would be any different. Most Trump supporters don’t much are about specific issues like immigration numbers, they like his rhetoric.

    As far as demographics, that might help. But not if offset by changes in voter behavior within a given demographic. Thus whites are becoming increasingly reactionary.

  4. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    20. April 2019 at 15:41

    Trump is Trump.

    Yet an establishment figure such as George W Bush entangled the United States into not one but two counterproductive wars at a cost of $7 trillion and counting. Oh, and the US financial system collapsed also. And Hillary was a little militarist-statist in pantsuits.

    Everyday, a Niagara of effluent is dumped upon Trump’s head. He seems to invite most of it. But is he any worse than the establishment alternatives?

  5. Gravatar of Cameron Blank Cameron Blank
    20. April 2019 at 17:24

    Benjamin Cole,

    “But is he any worse than the establishment alternatives?”

    Yes. Bush was president during a difficult stretch, Trump has been president during one of the least difficult periods of recent history. Trump has accomplished nothing productive with all three branches of government (even if you agree with him politically!) and is the least popular president since polling began. Bush would have done fine from 2016-present. And remember, he was against a proactive foreign policy until it became popular due to 9/11. Would Trump have been restrained after 9/11? Bush 2016>Trump 2016>Bush 2000>Trump 2000. Of course US politics were sane in 2000, so Trump never would have happened.

    A better comparison would be Clinton, who had a relatively easy presidency and accomplished quite a bit. Gee I wonder who we could have gotten like that? (Okay I kid a bit, Bill is certainly a better politician in every respect)

    Will you at least support Bill Weld as the Republican nominee?

  6. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    20. April 2019 at 20:11


    First, ceteris paribus, Florida will be harder to win. If Trump doesn’t win Florida, he can’t win.

    Second, he won three must-win midwestern states by less than 80,000 votes, combined. Again, he’s a bit less popular now and turnout for incumbents is often lower for second terms. Even happened to Obama. But, Trump’s opponents are perhaps more highly motivated than in 2016.

    My point, again, is how do the numbers get him there? It’s an uphill battle for Trump to win again.

  7. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    20. April 2019 at 20:17

    Immigration is a great theme for Trump, maybe his most important one. Why would he ruin it? Certainly not before 2020. If the Democrats were intelligent, they would have cleared the subject long before the elections. (Emphasis on: if).


    Bush was president during a difficult stretch

    Are you kidding? Close to nothing was difficult in his stretch. FDR had a difficult stretch, and maybe Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan.

    You mean: Bush made his stretch difficult because he was an idiot.

    US politics were sane in 2000

    Nostalgia is such a powerful force. But politics were not sane back then. Clinton was impeached shortly before that (for no reason at all, it was just a shit show by the GOP for political reasons); his wife already played an important role in politics (mostly because she was his wife); and the idiot son of a former President was about to become the next President. All pretty good signs of a banana republic.

  8. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    20. April 2019 at 20:31


    My point, again, is how do the numbers get him there? It’s an uphill battle for Trump to win again.

    I assume it depends on the Democratic candidate again.

    If they get a moderate acceptable candidate (in the eyes of conservative voters), then it could be an easy win for the Democrats. But if they don’t do it then Trump certainly has his chances.

    The Atlantic writes Biden has decided he will run. I don’t know if that’s good or not, but I guess it’s a step in the right direction (from the perspective of moderate voters).

  9. Gravatar of George George
    21. April 2019 at 00:37

    “they told me”: I am just curious, who is “they”? More fake news, or do you actually have a source? And who is “alt right”? I find these labels amusing. I have yet to hear anyone describe themselves as “alt right”. And in regards to Heraclitus, obviously his statement is not true. Do you think america, on average, are people of “good character”? Have you seen the atrocities of war. I hope you are not blinded by the uncle sam propoganda. Frankly, you live a very unique lifestyle.Most people do not sit in a room all day reading books, and journals. the benefit is that you have a lot of knowledge, but the problem is you don’t fully grasp the complexity of business relationships, and capitalism in general, specifically in regards to the corruption that exists within the system. You teach negative externalities, but you don’t see them all because you are from a lower class, and you don’t have the money to move the markets. Trump has awful character, but awful character does not mean his policies are wrong. The immigration system has been abused for decades. The migrant caravans you see are not simply people seeking a better life, or running from drug cartels, but some of these people are paid to organize the caravan and drive it north for political reasons, and its not the democrats or republicans, is foreign actors. They want the system to implode, and they want to create a crisis, because its self-serving. So when you talk about “wrapping your brain” around it — whatever that means, lol — what you are really saying is you dont have a plan. Why don’t you do something constructive, like propose a solution, instead of complaining about someone else trying to find a solution. Thats called “taking the initiative, and its an amazing thing that exists in the business world, but is severely lacking behind the academic desk. in other words, you are all talk and no action :O

  10. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    21. April 2019 at 02:36

    Christian List,

    Is Bernie Sanders moderate and acceptable? The same talking class who said Trump couldn’t win says Sanders can’t win, yet Sanders even leads Trump in polls of Fox News viewers. Ann Coulter says she could support Sanders under some conditions. Tucker Carlson praises some of his perspectives.

    And Medicare for All and breaking up big banks are popular ideas, as is free public college tuition.

    I think Sanders is generally seen as honest, even on the right and some on the right will vote for him just to stick it to the Washington establishment, punish the banks and health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, etc. People are still fed up and Trump’s accomplished very little. The professional talking class underestimates how much many Americans want blood for the financial crisis and Great Recession, the opiod crisis and unaffordable healthcare coverage. Many would also like to see companies like Facebook punished for betraying the public trust concerning user data.

  11. Gravatar of Joseph Joseph
    21. April 2019 at 03:49

    Scott, could you please explain what exactly this graph is supposed to confirm? The number of apprehensions may mean both more thorough agencies work and a “last minute” run by people who are worried the window may close soon?

  12. Gravatar of Cameron Blank Cameron Blank
    21. April 2019 at 04:49

    “Are you kidding? Close to nothing was difficult in his stretch. FDR had a difficult stretch, and maybe Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan.”

    Relative to H.W. Bush, Clinton, Obama, and especially Trump he had a difficult stretch. We had two recessions that couldn’t have plausibly prevented and a weak labor market all through his admin. No way he was going to be seen as a “success” walking into a great economy and the relative peace of the late 90s. In contrast, Obama had it pretty easy since the bar was lower.

    Again, George W. Bush (or Jeb) has been doing a fine job in some alternate dimension since 2016. He probably has a 60% approval rating with this economy, compared to 42% for Trump. Or is Trump somehow great for the economy?

    “You mean: Bush made his stretch difficult because he was an idiot.”

    I thought this bad left wing myth was dead. Bush isn’t stupid except maybe in comparison to other presidents. Meanwhile Trump is certainly stupider than Bush. Trump is even a worse speaker and debater than Bush! It’s not even close when it comes to academic success (How much do you want to bet that Trump had lower SAT scores and grades than Bush?), monetary/economic understanding, and not suggesting that vaccines cause autism.

    Politics really was pretty healthy in 2000. Voters agreed on basic facts, had smarter views on economic policy, and extremists had little influence. It wasn’t perfect but it certainly was sane. If you think the US was a banana republic then I’m not sure what you think we are now. When in your mind was politics sane?

  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. April 2019 at 08:05

    George, With new commenters, there’s often a point at which I stop reading. Here it is:

    “The migrant caravans you see are not simply people seeking a better life, or running from drug cartels, but some of these people are paid to organize the caravan and drive it north for political reasons”

    Conspiracies everywhere you look

    Joseph. Both the Trump administration and his critics agree on one thing—this graph is the best measure we have of the flow of illegal immigrants into America. Both Trump and his critics may be wrong, but it’s the best data we have.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    21. April 2019 at 08:06

    Joseph, BTW, the door is already closed, but migrants don’t care. They go right around the door.

  15. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    21. April 2019 at 17:40

    Nice distinction between populist and ideologue.

    If the economy starts doing badly, The Donald is clearly toast. If the Dems pick a vaguely plausible nominee, The Donald is in trouble, because he is not, and has never been, an electorally strong candidate. (He got 3%pts less votes than did the Republicans in the House, a clear sign of a poor candidate.)

    If the economy continues to do well, and the Dems continue to run hard for the woke-intersectionalist vote, then the “Peace and Bread” equation will likely win out.

  16. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    21. April 2019 at 20:26

    I’d be fine with a number of candidates. Beto, Tulsi, Gravel, Yang, etc. But it’s clear at this point the Zionald does not deserve re-election.

  17. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    21. April 2019 at 20:28

    “I’m amused by alt-right types who put their faith in Trump.”

    We got Gorsuch+Kavanaugh.

  18. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    22. April 2019 at 02:12

    OT, but fascinating:

    “The government of Guangzhou plans to set up a RMB 20 billion ($3 billion) rescue fund to help struggling publicly listed private enterprises, said Caixin.

    Guangzhou, home to 100 A-share listed companies, is the most recent local government to roll out plans for helping cash-strapped private companies mired in the country’s pledged-share crisis starting late last year.

    Local Chinese governments and financial institutions started setting up bailout funds in October as a part of the central government campaign to help stabilize the stock market. At of the end of November, local governments had rolled out special bailout funds totaling RMB 170 billion. In addition, financial institutions including brokerage firms, insurers and asset management companies launched bailout funds and bonds worth about RMB 120 billion.

    The Guangzhou fund, announced on the website of the municipal government, it will expand the RMB 3 billion mergers and acquisitions fund already set up by 18 state-owned enterprises in the city. The government will direct financial institutions and social capital to participate in the expanded bailout fund, according to a government statement.”

    They say the Sino economy is liberalizing. Maybe in some ways. But the Communist Party of China sure runs the show—-and controls the capital.

  19. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    22. April 2019 at 03:13

    Cameron Blank:

    You make a lot of good points. Still, the “successful” US presidents since 1960 have been those that avoided foreign entanglements, such as Reagan, Clinton and now Trump.

    LBJ, Nixon and Bush jr., were disasters. Trump appears disinclined to pursue a large overseas entanglement. Bush jr. was not compelled into his endless wars—they had to beat the drums to get there. Bush jr. wore military costumes, remember?

    I might support Bill Weld, but I confess I get a lot of entertainment value out of Trump. I also believe the Trump take on foreign policy is rather better than than the establishment GOP or D-Party. Even Trump’s instincts are monetary policy are arguably better than the right-wing tight-money crowd.

    I gather some people have reservations about Trump. I can’t seem to get my gander up. I was fascinated by the way Trump exposed the GOP as the political party equivalent of a Potemkin Village. The national establishment GOP has no base, other than the wealthy and some militarists. Even the evangelicals bolted.

    It is too bad Trump has zero self-discipline and no game plan and a sometimes ugly personality. He could have done a lot of good.

  20. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    22. April 2019 at 05:38

    Good post. I’ve often wondered why the GOP didn’t allocate the piffling sums for the wall in 2017 when they had a majority. It looked like Trump’s strategy was to swap DACA extension for Wall money, and it had political legs, but they let it crumble and then Trump did a volte-face last December against the lame-duck GOP Congress after Ann Coulter turned up the heat on him.

    The only plausible explanation I have heard is that Trump is picking this fight, which is consistent with what you are saying here.

  21. Gravatar of n miles n miles
    22. April 2019 at 12:15

    I interpret the graph as potential central American immigrants realizing

    1) If we all come at the same time no way can current laws can keep us from getting the benefit of “catch and release” asylum policy

    2) No way will the Democrats give Trump a way to change this policy [and the blog post makes a plausible argument that he might not even want to]

    So why shouldn’t everyone come right now?

    I don’t see any practical way for any Republican president to get a better outcome … so blaming Trump seems a bit unfair. I don’t see any Democratic president even trying a little bit to turn down the flow.

    So welcome to the great experiment in open borders friends! I just wish it had of worked out better for the Romans. Fortunately I already speak a bit of Gothic.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. April 2019 at 14:29

    Harding, You said:

    “We got Gorsuch+Kavanaugh.”

    I’m not impressed. In any case, exactly the sort that Bush or Rubio would have nominated.

    n miles, You said:

    “I don’t see any practical way for any Republican president to get a better outcome … so blaming Trump seems a bit unfair.”

    Seriously? Didn’t he promise he’d force Congress to do his bidding. That he would not be a wimp like Jeb? Then didn’t he go out of his way to piss off even GOP members of Congress? And you say the guy who is supposed to be an expert on the art of the deal can’t be blamed for botching relations with Congress when it was entirely controlled by the GOP?

  23. Gravatar of n miles n miles
    22. April 2019 at 17:03

    I accept that Trump certainly did not distinguish himself with a Republican Congress however unless I am misreading the graph the biggest bump in “visitors” appears to have happened at the same time as the Democratic congress started.

  24. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    22. April 2019 at 19:05

    I realize the Ukraine is the not the US.

    But see this headline:

    “Ukraine election: Comedian Zelensky wins presidency by landslide”-BBC

    By a landslide!

    How obvious does it have to get? Voters globally are not satisfied with the status quo.

    Trump may win or lose the next election. But then so maybe will Sarah Silverman. I am ruling out Steven Seagal, but then I never thought Trump could be president.

    I think almost anybody could win the next US presidential election.

    I wish Rodney Dangerfield was still alive. I would vote for him.

  25. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    22. April 2019 at 19:43

    “In any case, exactly the sort that Bush or Rubio would have nominated.”

    Sumner, I think you are tremendously underrating the degree to which a smarter president than Trump would have picked a more pliable Supreme Court justice over a more principled one. Trump chose Gorsuch because, as was evident during the campaign, he was too stupid to understand the judicial process and simply outsourced everything to the Federalist Society. Bush didn’t do that, and Rubio’s handlers may well not have done that, either. Kavanaugh, yes, might have been picked by either Bush or Rubio (he was a leading contender in speculation about a Romney presidency). But Kavanaugh was chosen by Trump for somewhat different reasons than he would have been by Bush or Rubio (in a way voters especially inclined towards campaign Trump like).

    Also, even if they are the kind of justices Bush or Rubio might have nominated, that’s still an obvious “win” relative to Hillary Clinton winning the presidency. I do think Rubio would probably have been worse as President than Trump, though can’t really be certain.

  26. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    22. April 2019 at 19:45

    @Ben Cole

    “Voters globally are not satisfied with the status quo.”

    No. Orban gained vote share in the 2018 election. Putin won with over 70%. Voters in Ukraine, a truly sh*thole country with voters who can never be satisfied by anyone, truly a White Haiti, were, for self-evident reasons, not satisfied with the status quo. Only God knows if they ever will be so satisfied.

  27. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    22. April 2019 at 19:47

    @n miles

    Who do you think convinced the American people to throw out their Republican House members in 2018? Hillary? Quit trying to defend Trump.

  28. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    23. April 2019 at 05:39

    Sandifer, your logic is based on many false premises, but I generally agree with you Trump is unlikely to win re-election.

  29. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. April 2019 at 09:59

    Ben, You said:

    “Voters globally are not satisfied with the status quo.”

    That’s really deep. Voters are dissatisfied with the status quo. Never seen that before.

  30. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    23. April 2019 at 17:17

    Also, this betting market has Democrats winning the Presidency by a wide margin:

  31. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    23. April 2019 at 17:19


    I think your analysis of Sanders is mostly correct. Furthermore, I think he is so strong, because he’s taking immigration out of the equation. He pursues only goals in which he has a clear majority, especially amongst crucial voters. (That’s also his “moderate” part).

  32. Gravatar of Joseph Joseph
    24. April 2019 at 04:18

    Scott, how is the door closed? The only way to close it properly is the wall.

    But I don’t think you have really answered my question. OK, the graph is the best approximation, but does it mean the number of those who managed to get through has increased two- or three-fold? Can it not mean the number of those who try is the same but now more of them are stopped?

  33. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. April 2019 at 08:12

    Joseph, You said:

    “The only way to close it properly is the wall.”

    Are you serious? Believing the wall would work is like believing in the war on drugs. It’s a foolish waste of money that would never work. Even Trump probably doesn’t really believe in the idea; he just put it out there to fool gullible voters.

    As for your second question; anything is possible, but experts on both sides of the debate think it’s an index of how many are getting through.

  34. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    25. April 2019 at 13:43

    I believe most of our other Presidents have hidden their weirdness and incompetence better than Trump. Why he bothers people more than the last 3 dudes is beyond me.

  35. Gravatar of Joseph Joseph
    26. April 2019 at 11:45

    Scott, I am serious. I am not his voter anyway. But why don’t you look at Israel’s example – the wall clearly helped there, why wouldn’t it help on your border. It is pretty obvious the wall not only slows down any attempts of passing but also gives protection to surveillance infrastructure.

Leave a Reply