At 8:31 p.m. on August 31, when Donald Trump took to the stage to “have some fun” at a rally in Phoenix, Jacob Monty considered himself an enthusiastic supporter. Having met privately with the candidate at Trump Tower less than two weeks earlier, Monty had concluded, along with the other dozen Hispanic leaders present, that the Republican presidential nominee represented the best hope for immigration reform in America, Monty’s signature issue. The El Paso native and longtime Houston lawyer had helped arrange fundraisers for Trump, made the case for him in an op-ed piece for the Chronicle, and defended his positions on cable TV.
Around 9:05, however, something came over him, a feeling he now finds difficult to describe. It wasn’t anger, he recalled, and in any case, Monty isn’t the sort of man to let anger get the best of him. Still, it was an emotion just that deep, powerful and propulsive—within hours he would publicly denounce Trump and resign from the candidate’s National Hispanic Advisory Council. I asked him if the conservative blog RedState had perhaps put its finger on the feeling in an article published the day after the Phoenix rally: “Hispanic Surrogates for Trump Walk Away in Disgust After Last Night’s Rhetoric-Heavy Speech.”
Yes, he said. Not unlike 55 percent of the rest of America—if a new Pew Research Center poll is to be believed—the presidential campaign had left him disgusted.
As Trump proceeded that evening with what he termed a “detailed policy address” on immigration, Monty—a prominent lawyer, GOP insider and presidential appointee during the George W. Bush administration—sat and watched the speech on TV with his wife. And by the time the candidate reached the fifth point in his 10-point plan, Monty had heard enough.
Point five, you’ll recall, promised to cancel President Obama’s executive orders temporarily protecting undocumented immigrants. In essence, Monty said, Trump was calling for the “immediate repeal of the executive action that protects the Dream Act kids”—the million or so immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children. “That was huge.”
Trump’s actions would, in effect, “put the Dreamers, which are the best of the community, up for deportation. These are kids that didn’t decide to break any rule. They just followed their parents over here. They have clean records, and there’s about a million of them.”
The hardline, “everyone must go back” stance and angry tone shocked Monty, not least because he had heard neither during the meeting at Trump Tower. The candidate had been “humble” and “engaged,” he remembered, frequently jotting notes during the 90 minutes he spent with the council. During one memorable moment, according to Monty, “he said, ‘look, I understand people aren’t excited about deporting these people that are not criminals…. I’m not excited either. I don’t want to do that.’”
Every exchange he had with the Republican nominee that day left Monty more and more certain that Trump had no intention of deporting 11 million illegal immigrants. Indeed, he seemed to believe that doing so would be not only impractical but wrong. “I said, ‘That would involve not eating meat, not eating vegetables, not staying in hotels. These people are working. They’re doing necessary and noble jobs.’ And he agreed.” Trump seemed eager to read the immigration proposal the council had written, and while “he never committed to one way of solving the issue,” Monty recalled, “it was clear that he was not in favor of deporting the 11 million.”
Trump had not been Monty’s first choice during the primaries, or his second—he was a Jeb Bush guy, not surprisingly—and he’d been as offended as the next man by “all that stuff about the rapists and the Mexican judge.” Still, he left Trump Tower feeling euphoric on that day in August. “I remember afterwards texting people that were on the fence before and saying, ‘He moved. He heard us. He’s fine.’”
There are many possible explanations for Monty’s dramatic 34-minute journey from fan to foe during the Phoenix speech: Trump’s obsession with “criminal aliens,” his apparent capitulation to the demands of Ann Coulter, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, and other immigration opponents. (“My conclusion at the end was that he really listens to whomever speaks to him last or speaks to him the loudest.”) But what finally moved Monty to action was disgust—disgust with the candidate, disgust with himself and fellow committee members for allowing themselves to be used as “props,” disgust with a man he thought he knew. Trump had morphed from a results-oriented, no-nonsense figure into the very thing he’d been running against: politics as usual. Like the insiders he’d railed against, his attention had shifted from getting things done to getting elected. The voices outside his head had drowned out his own, and his convictions had become so corroded by special interests, he no longer seemed to recognize them. Monty was repulsed.
“I think I saw the real Donald Trump on the 20th,” he said, his voice still wistful for what might have been. “I think he spoke from his heart. As a leader, though, I think I want someone that can stand up to people in his inner circle, can listen to everybody but ultimately decide what he’s going to do on his own….You don’t want someone in that position that can’t be true to their convictions.”
Of course, staying true to one’s convictions comes with a price, as Monty well knows. In reward for his efforts this political season, he now finds himself equally reviled by both poles of the electoral spectrum. (“The far left hate me, and the far right certainly hate me.”) For the moment at least, he is a sort of all-purpose pariah, as well as an accidental expert on the nuances of hate mail. Letter-writers on the left, he explained, tend to brand him a “traitor,” a “disgrace to your heritage,” a spiritual son of the two “Benedict Arnolds of Mexico”—Montezuma, the Aztec king who “couldn’t stand up to the Spanish,” and Malinche, “the spy who slept with Cortés and gave away all the secrets of the Aztecs.” They say “you’re a coconut, you’re not true, you’re evil.”
Right-wingers, meanwhile, have their own favorite put-downs. The letters arrive more often via regular mail, usually include some variation of “go back to Mexico,” and tend to be both thoughtful and worrisome. “The hard left is kind of like, ‘you suck and you’re a loser and you’re a traitor,’” Monty said. “The hard right puts a lot of effort into it. They may be a little more angry, and they may be a little more ready to take it to the next level.”
In any event, he remains convinced that his decision to abandon Trump was the right one, even as a private meeting with the candidate once convinced him of the opposite. People say he should have known what was coming, that he should never have gone to Trump Tower in the first place. “I think it was the right thing to do to get on board with the campaign,” he maintained, firmly believing that a Republican president could better persuade the American public—as well as Congress—of the necessity for immigration reform. (“I really thought that there could be a Nixon-opening-up-China moment for Trump.”) And if Trump’s idea of fun in Phoenix hadn’t included claims that, as Monty put it, “countless families have been devastated by illegal aliens,” if he’d merely “acknowledged that immigrants were hard-working,” and that “most of them were in fact not criminals,” as he had that day at Trump Tower, Monty might still be behind him.
“I don’t know how he could say that he wanted to have fun in Phoenix,” he said, adding that “there was nothing positive about the speech,” nothing substantive, nothing that would assuage the pain of a nation in desperate need of immigration solutions. Hence, Monty’s disgust, a single, powerful response to multiple indignities.
“This is a deal that’s important to me on a lot of fronts,” he said. “I’ve been viewing the community suffer for 20 years. There have been a lot of horror stories. I know people that have lost their children, who’ve been smuggled over and they die in transit. I know people that haven’t seen their kids in 15 years. So it’s important to me from that point of view. But it’s also important to me from a political point of view, because I’m a Republican advocate and I’ve seen this issue hurt us with Hispanics.”