Donald Trump says a lot of things a lot of people consider outrageous. What is he doing?
The first thing to remember is that many of Trump's supporters, and a large part of the American public in general, support the very statements others consider outrageous. Deport 11 million illegal immigrants? Many Americans, including almost everyone in the media, think that's crazy. But many other Americans agree with Trump.
The recent brouhaha over whether Trump did or did not suggest a federal government database of all Muslims in the United States is another example. Trump didn't actually suggest it -- the idea came from a reporter with Yahoo News -- but he never clearly shot it down, either. Like deportations, a poll on the Muslim database question would likely show a significant number of Americans agreeing with the idea.
So maybe Trump just has a lot of outrageous ideas. Or perhaps something else, something more strategic, is going on.
Trump has always portrayed himself as a master negotiator. "I'm a deal maker, I'll make great deals for this country," he has said many times. Trump believes making deals sometimes involves making demands some would consider outrageous.
Trump gave the public an important clue to his method in October, when he appeared at the non-partisan No Labels convention in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Trump knew that the No Labels group craves a candidate who will reject the partisan extremes of left and right and base a governing style on compromise. Trump presented himself as just that man, emphasizing how, as a real estate developer, he had worked with Democrats in New York City to get things done.
Still, the audience wanted to hear more about Trump's willingness to compromise. "Compromise has become the dirty word," a questioner said to Trump. If a President Trump were involved in a conflict on, say, taxes, what kinds of things would he offer, "as a gesture of compromise"?
"Let me just tell you, the word compromise is not a bad word to me," Trump replied. "I like the word compromise. We need compromise, there is nothing wrong with compromise, but it's always good to compromise and win. Meaning, let's compromise and win."
Then Trump got to the heart of the matter. "The word compromise is absolutely fine. But if you are going to compromise, ask for about three times more than you want. You understand? So when you compromise, you get what you want."
Perhaps deporting all illegal immigrants is the political version of asking for about three times more than you want.
Trump has repeated his deportation vow many times. But few have noted that when Trump rolled out his written immigration plan, posted on his campaign website, there was nothing about mass deportation. In addition to Trump's famous "beautiful wall," the plan had a lot of mainstream conservative proposals about securing the border and tightening interior enforcement.
The effect of Trump's deportation proposal was to pull the Republican immigration debate toward immigration and further right -- that is, where Trump wanted it to go. When Trump made an actual written proposal, even an abbreviated campaign-style proposal, it was more measured.
Asking for about three times more than he wants helps Trump keep up his image with supporters. Perhaps the biggest part of Trump's appeal to those supporters is that they see him as strong and other candidates as weak. Trump has to keep sounding strong to keep their support -- even if the things he says scandalize others.
It's all part of the campaign. In a new interview with GQ, Trump essentially concedes a tendency to go over the top. That would change, he said, if he became president. "I would imagine I would be quite a bit different," Trump explained. "I would feel differently about things as a president. Right now, I'm fighting a lot of people. As a president I would be more measured."
Trump's natural penchant for show business, combined with that instinct to overstate his demands, plus the requirements of his supporters, have created a candidacy that can be very difficult for outsiders to read. For now, it works. But it doesn't reveal much about what Trump might do if elected.