Opinion writer

We don’t often get a direct and unfiltered window into what the president (or any politician for that matter) says and thinks behind closed doors, which is why it can be so fascinating when something like the transcripts of President Trump’s conversations with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull finds its way into public view. Some are looking at the conversation with Peña Nieto and saying, “Aha, we knew the wall was always a scam!”, which is not an unreasonable reaction. But of course it was always a scam; perhaps more interesting is that Trump would admit it so openly to a foreign leader — and that he himself is in no way deluded about it.

Trump plainly knew that he’d never get Mexico to pay for a wall (if it ever gets built), even as he was telling crowds that they would. And he cared deeply about it, because he understood just how powerful a symbol it had become for his followers. Which meant that he wanted to keep the illusion alive for as long as possible — a project he attempted without success to get Peña Nieto to help him with.

Let’s look at some of the exchanges from this call, which took place on Jan. 27, a week after Trump took office. At multiple points, Peña Nieto says that everyone should just stop talking about the wall, but Trump resists. Trump talks about tariffs he wants to impose on Mexican goods, because “I have been telling this to every group of 50,000 people or 25,000 people — because no one got people in their rallies as big as I did. But I have been saying I wanted to tax people that treated us unfairly at the border, and Mexico is treating us unfairly.” Then he says this:

The only thing I will ask you though is on the wall, you and I both have a political problem. My people stand up and say, “Mexico will pay for the wall” and your people probably say something in a similar but slightly different language. But the fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall — I have to.

Trump then suggests a PR strategy for deflecting questions about the issue:

They are going to say, “who is going to pay for the wall, Mr. President?” to both of us, and we should both say, “we will work it out.” It will work out in the formula somehow. As opposed to you saying, “we will not pay” and me saying, “we will not pay.” …

But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important talk about. But in terms of dollars – or pesos – it is the least important thing. I know how to build very inexpensively, so it will be much lower than these numbers I am being presented with, and it will be a better wall and it will look nice. And it will do the job.

Peña Nieto again insists that Mexico absolutely will not pay for the wall, to which Trump replies, “But you cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.” Peña Nieto then says, “And for Mexico, it is also an issue that goes beyond the economic situation because this is an issue related to the dignity of Mexico and goes to the national pride of my country.”

And now we have reached the heart of things. Trump knows very well that Peña Nieto is right — this is absolutely about dignity. And forcing Mexico to give up its dignity is the whole point and always was.

I’m not saying that Trump doesn’t actually want to cut down on undocumented immigration. He certainly does. But why was it so important that Mexico pay for the wall? Why did Trump do that call-and-response with his rabid crowds about it? “And who’s going to pay for it?” he’d ask. “Mexico!” they’d shout. The reason is that making Mexico pay for the wall would be an act of domination, humiliating them so we could show that we were in control.

This idea lay at the very heart of Trump’s appeal to white working-class voters, particularly men. He understood that those people no longer felt in control — their economic opportunities had dwindled, their communities had declined, they felt deeply uncomfortable in a country growing more diverse all the time and a bunch of liberals are telling them to check their privilege. Trump promised them not just that he would turn back the clock and Make America Great Again, but also that he would empower them to strike back at those who had made them feel small.

Keep in mind that Trump’s entire worldview is shaped by the idea of domination and submission. Every interaction — between people or countries — is a zero-sum contest in which there’s a winner and a loser. If you aren’t the winner then you’re the loser, the chump, the one everyone’s laughing at. It’s why whenever he talks about trade he seems obsessed with the idea of other countries “laughing at us,” as though China filling up our dollar stores with trinkets causes us endless public humiliation. The idea of Mexico being forced against its will to pay for our wall was a potent symbol of America standing tall again, as Trump knew it would be for many people who felt they were no longer standing tall in their own lives.

One can’t help but wonder how Trump would talk about Mexico paying for the wall now, because he hasn’t been asked about it in a while. Back in April he tweeted, “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall,” which is an almost pathetic retreat from his previous position. So here’s the truth: There’s never going to be a wall.

Oh, there will be some additional border fencing in some areas. Some of it may even be wall-esque (the Department of Homeland Security just issued environmental waivers to build a 15-mile stretch of wall near San Diego). But it’s not going to stretch for 2,000 miles, and it won’t be the gold-plated monument to Trumpian excess that the president promised. Republicans, especially those who come from areas far from the border, will continue to tell voters they want a wall. Here’s a little music video that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) put out of him at the border, acting super tough with the Border Patrol — he even got to sit on a real-live horse! But it’s not going to happen.

And Mexico is never going to pay for it. But Trump knows he can’t tell his supporters that, because as he told president Peña Nieto, “psychologically, it means something.”