Republicans know they have to line up behind Donald Trump, but one reason there's likely some hesitation is that it's genuinely difficult for them to do so without signing off on some of the more over-the-top things he says. It seems Republicans are starting to form their main talking point: Trump's just a liar who will say anything to our yahoo voting base to get elected.
Of course, they put it in politic terms, but that's the general message coming out of Republicans who are asked if they support Trump on this front. Talking Points Memo contacted multiple Republican congressmen to ask what they think about Trump's views on immigration, and the general consensus seems to be that you can't take anything he says seriously.
"Logistically that is an impossibility," Rep. Renee Ellmers told TPM, adding that she felt it was just a bit of hyperbole constructed to get attention the issue.
"He's not gonna deport 11 million people," Sen. Cory Gardner told TPM while laughing, arguing that Trump is all talk.
Rep. Chris Collins was the first congressman to endorse Trump, and who heavily campaigns for him, has also been pushing this notion that the wall is just a yarn spun to bamboozle the yahoos.
"I have called it a virtual wall," he told the Buffalo News. "I call it a rhetorical deportation of 12 million people."
If these folks are right, then Trump's immigration "policy" claims are well beyond the typical truth-embroidering that most politicians get up to. On the contrary, this makes him more a con man running a grift. Which leads to a whole new host of questions, starting with why all these Republicans are willing to back a man who treats their voters like a bunch of marks to be conned out of their votes with shameless lies.
It's true that conservatives have long had a surprisingly high level of tolerance for con artistry within their ranks. Conservative publications subsist on ads from snake oil salesmen selling gullible right wingers everything from overpriced gold bullion to survivalist gear. This practice has moved into the internet age, with many conservative personalities running email lists hawking fake cancer cures and other such scams. Indeed, one reason the Republican presidential primaries have become so overcrowded is they are stuffed with people who have no real interest in winning, but are just using the free media coverage to get more signups for their email lists.
Part of the reason this works is that, like good con artists, conservatives make their marks feel like they're in on the con, that it's not them but the guy next door who is getting fleeced with their mail list fundraising schemes and herbal remedy scams. That's clearly what these Republicans are doing with their comments about Trump. It's about making the voter feel like he's "in" on the con, and it's that other guy who is stupid enough to be sucked into Trump's clearly silly chatter about wall-building and mass deportation.
Most of the time, I'd be pretty sure this would work for them. Feeding the base a bunch of right wing paranoid gibberish and then winking at them to suggest they're in the secret club of people who know it's all just a game has worked for a long time on the right. It allows conservatives to wallow in their own worst impulses while giving them a way to save face if someone calls them out on it.
You saw this behavior a lot with the birther movement. Much of the transmission of the conspiracy theory was through joking-not-joking comments and "just asking questions" posturing, allowing conservatives both to spread this ludicrous notion while maintaining plausible deniability.
Trump himself is the master of this, floating all sorts of conspiracy theories while denying he believes it while simultaneously winking at the idea that he might actually believe it but knows better than to speak his truths in front of the skeptics. (See here and here and here.) Existing in this space between belief and skepticism sounds exhausting to liberals, but for many right wingers, that's just day to day life for them.
So it's not nuts to think that it might work for Republicans to frame Trump's deportation-and-wall scheme as a con that everyone just happens to be in on (except when they're not).
However, there's a real danger in Republicans employing this strategy, which is that rise of Trump suggests that the base is getting a little sick of playing this game. They are quite vocal about their belief that the "elites" are putting them down and treating them like a bunch of know-nothing yahoos who can be exploited for their votes and then written off as too stupid and unimportant to be heard in non-election years. They hate the "political correctness" that forces them to play the "just kidding, I don't believe that" game in front of non-right wingers. They just want to let their right wing nut flags fly.
In other words, they want their damn wall and they don't want to have to placate the forces of "political correctness" by pretending that they were kidding when they said they wanted their wall.
When Gardner or Ellmers or Collins writes off Trump's deportation-and-wall talk as so much hot air, that says to people who got caught up in it that they are a bunch of morons who got hoodwinked by obvious lies. That dismissiveness can cause defensiveness, and cause people who believe the lie to double down.
To make it worse, these comments are coming from people that right wing voters already think of as liars and sellouts. They sent these folks to Congress in order to get rid of Obama and shut down the government and usher in the new right wing utopia where you never have to press "1" for English again, and the lack of progress on that front is frustrating them and making them feel lied to. Which is why they turned to Trump in the first place. Having the same people openly scoff at Trump fans, portraying them as a bunch of rubes that buy into easily debunked lies (however true that may be) will just double right wing suspicions that these folks, not Trump, are the con artists and liars. That might help Trump's chances, but it is not going to serve these Republicans well in the long run.