Nobody seems happy about this. (Yuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Donald Trump may not know much about policy, but 2016 showed that he had an intuitive sense for what the Republican base would find thrilling. One of the biggest applause lines in his rallies would come when he proclaimed his intention to build a great, big, beautiful wall along our southern border. “And who’s going to pay for it?” he’d ask. “Mexico!!!” the crowd would shout.

The idea that Mexico would pay was always ludicrous, and now that Trump is actually president, he and his aides are discovering just how difficult it will be to follow through on this particular promise. So what’s going to happen? I have managed to obtain the secret Trump plan. Here it is:

  1. Build something that is kind of a wall, even though it’s really a wall only in a few places, but mostly a fence in other places, and some electronic surveillance in other places, and nothing at all in yet other places.
  2. Claim you’ve built the wall.
  3. Even though Mexico refuses to pay for it, find some fee or tax you can impose that relates to Mexico in some way, even if it’s a fraction of the cost of your sort-of-wall, and even if it’s paid by American taxpayers.
  4. Claim that Mexico paid for the wall.
  5. Victory!

Okay, this isn’t the actual secret Trump plan, because as has become more than clear, there is no Trump plan. They’re flying by the seat of their pants. But it’s what’s going to happen.

It’s vital to understand that this whole question is about symbolism. The wall is a symbol of Trump’s willingness not just to close the border but to stop the economic and cultural change that his supporters find so disorienting. The Mexicans understand this perfectly well, which is why they’re so adamant that they will never agree to pay for a wall, no matter how great a negotiator our president supposedly is.

So the obvious alternative is to force them to pay for it. That’s also symbolically critical, because it means Trump has forced his will upon them. There have been some ideas floating around for months on how to pay for the wall, like seizing or taxing remittances immigrants from Mexico send back to relatives. But doing so would probably fail to raise much money as people would quickly find a way around the new regulations.

So the latest plan is to just appropriate $15 billion or so for building a wall, and pay for it out of the deficit. The administration has also been making noises about covering that cost with a 20 percent tax on goods imported from Mexico. The trouble is that such a tax doesn’t actually force Mexico to pay for anything — it makes American taxpayers foot the bill by paying more for consumer goods. It would do enormous damage to the Mexican economy, which Trump might find satisfying, even though that would also damage the American economy, since it would mean we’d export fewer goods to Mexico. And that’s before we get to the full-blown trade war.

If you’re shocked that Republicans would do such a thing, you must have forgotten that they have a Republican president now, which means that deficits no longer matter. It’s only when there’s a Democratic president that they say that deficits are a dire threat to our grandchildren’s hopes and dreams, and every bit of spending anywhere must be offset with brutal cuts to social programs.

So American taxpayers will pay for the wall now, with the promise that Mexico will kneel in shame and humiliation before our great and powerful leader … eventually. Or as Trump told ABC News: “I’m just telling you there will be a payment. It will be in a form, perhaps a complicated form.” That’s a man who knows that his original plan is dead and gone.

There’s a deeper policy struggle going on right now, as Republicans try to reconcile their traditional free-trade position with Trump’s protectionist desires. They’re considering some ways to do that, including a “border adjustment” plan that would change corporate taxes to favor exports. But even that is going to run into trouble: Americans for Prosperity, the de facto political arm of the Koch brothers, has come out against it.

>But the most important question for Donald Trump is still the symbolic one: Can he say that he brought Mexico to its knees? It’s important to remember that Trump sees all interactions between the United States and foreign countries as zero-sum: If they’re winning then we’re losing, and vice-versa. It’s why he always talks about foreign trade in terms of who’s “taking advantage of us” and “laughing at us.” In other words, we’re being laughed at now, but once we force other countries to submit to our might, we’ll be the ones laughing.

It’s a near-certainty that Trump won’t be able to get Mexico to pay for any wall. So what he’ll do is just find a way to claim that he did, just as he’s now claiming that he won the popular vote and had the biggest inaugural crowd in history. All it will require is some tiny thread to hold on to — some little tariff or fee or fine that the Mexican government or Mexican nationals living in the United States will pay, or a provision buried deep within some bilateral agreement. It won’t matter how small it is, or what it’s for. Trump will traverse the country saying that just as he promised, Mexico paid for the wall. At friendly outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, they’ll repeat it until every conservative knows what they’re supposed to believe. Fact-checkers will say it’s bogus, Democrats will mock the idea, and the administration will say that just shows that the news is biased against them.

And in the end all that will matter to the president himself and to his supporters yearning to feel like they’re respected and honored and feared once again is that Trump will be able to proclaim, “I built the wall, and Mexico paid for it!” So what if it’s not remotely true? It isn’t like that has stopped him before.