The very obsession of President Trump’s that has kept a good portion of the government shutdown over the past two weeks began its life as a mere mnemonic device to keep the “undisciplined candidate” from forgetting to mention border security during his 2016 campaign speeches, according to an article in The New York Times today.
The idea sprung from the minds of Trump’s political advisors in the earliest days of his campaign when they realized that Trump hated reading scripted talking points but thoroughly enjoyed bragging about himself and his career as a building developer.
“How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration?” Sam Nunberg, an early political adviser to the then unlikely candidate, remembered telling his colleague Roger Stone. “We’re going to get him to talk about he’s going to build a wall.”
Single-syllable four-letter words naturally seem to stick in Trump’s mind more easily than the college level vocabulary that actual immigration experts would use to describe the complex issues surrounding the subject.
However, the distillation of the issue to a simple term that a first grader could comprehend not only helped Trump latch onto the subject in a way that even he could understand, but dumbed the entire immigration debate down far enough that it found wide appeal among the “poorly educated” voters that Trump loves and attracts.
As Trump adopted the wall terminology and used it in all of his rallies, soon his base of misinformed Fox News viewers began to take up the chant of “Build the wall!” as enthusiastically as they were shouting “Lock her up!”
It is only in the past few weeks as the impasse over the funding of the wall that Trump initially promised Mexico would pay for has led to the president’s refusal to sign the legislation necessary to continue the operations of multiple federal agencies that the president has begun to hedge his bets and suddenly modify his language to slowly back away from calling it a border “wall” and start introducing the concepts of a “fence” and “border security” instead.
Ironically, even hardline immigration opponents see the wall that Trump has predicated his shutdown upon as a minor priority and a not particularly effective solution to the issues that concern them. They are beginning to worry that Trump will become so focused on the symbolic importance of the wall to his base that he will ignore what they consider more pressing priorities in order to register a win on the physical barrier he seeks.
“I’ve always thought it created a danger that he would trade almost anything in order to get the wall — I think that’s still a potential danger,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group advocating fewer immigrants. “I’m still worried about that now.”
Krikorian argued that Trump undermined the possibility of negotiating a compromise with Democrats on border security by making the wall such a potent symbol of his anti-immigration stance that it has made it politically untenable for any Democrat to be seen to be compromising with him in any way whatsoever on the issue.
“As a messaging strategy, it was pretty successful,” Mr. Krikorian said. “The problem is, you got elected; now what do you do? Having made it his signature issue, Trump handed the Democrats a weapon against him.”
Democrats have had no problem weaponizing an issue that resulted in pervasive coverage of children being separated from their parents at the border and locked in cages at poorly staffed, often privately-run for-profit, detention centers where some perished from lack of adequate medical care.
“A wall is an immorality — it’s not who we are as a nation,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday. “This is not a wall between Mexico and the United States that the president is creating here; it’s a wall between reality and his constituents, his supporters.”
The true disconnect between Trump and reality comes with his insistence that a physical barrier would be effective in reducing the flow of refugees, drugs, and terrorism from crossing the border.
The truth is that more than twice as many people enter the country illegally by overstaying their visas than by illegal border crossings.
The truth is that drug smugglers primarily tunnel under the border and use trucks, boats, and planes to deliver their cargos to the U.S.
Even President Trump’s own acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has admitted that the wall is not a real solution to the immigration issues that right-wing activists claim are at an emergency level now.
“The fence is an easy thing to sell politically,” Mr. Mulvaney said in 2015 while he was still a South Carolina congressman. “It’s an easy thing for someone who doesn’t follow the issue very closely to say, ‘Oh, well, that will just solve everything, build the fence.’ The fence doesn’t solve the problem.”
“Just to say ‘build the darn fence’ and have that be the end of an immigration discussion is absurd and almost childish,” Mr. Mulvaney said.
So while President Trump has begun to refer to his cherished wall as a steel slat fence, the change in terminology does not impact the solution’s ineffectiveness, according to members of his own party.
However Trump may twist his language in describing his border barrier, chances that he will abandon his demands for a physical solution before reopening the shutdown government agencies are slim unless a face-saving compromise allows him some evidence of at least a small victory to deliver to his base.
The only other exit from the current impasse is the chance that Republicans finally realize how badly Trump’s intransigence on the issue — while hundreds of thousands of government employees struggle to make ends meet without their paychecks — is politically damaging to them and decide to join Democrats in overriding his promised veto of their legislation to reopen the government.
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