In the Great Wall Debate of 2019, President Trump is losing on his own terms. Tuesday night’s prime-time television addresses — the first from the president and the second from both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — showed that.
Trump’s messages are simple: There is a trade deficit, so force other countries to buy more American goods. Other countries take advantage of the United States, so start an easy-to-win trade war. Climate change doesn’t exist, so there is no need to do anything about it. It is difficult to argue against him on television because rebuttals must often begin with, “actually reality is more complex than that,” followed by multi-sentence explanations that encourage people to tune out. This is one reason he won the presidency.
But the question now gripping Washington is simple: Is spending five and a half billion dollars to build a wall on the southern border a good idea? And the answers from each side have been simple, too.
The president says yes to the wall, because there is supposedly an immigration crisis. On Tuesday, he blamed illegal migrants crossing the southern border for drug addiction, economic malaise, murder, rape and practically every other problem with American society. “How much more American blood must we shed?” he asked. “It’s just common sense,” he said at the place where there should have been an evidence-based case for why a wall would help with any of the problems he claims that illegal immigration brings.
The Democrats say no to the wall because the wall is a waste of money and is a negative symbol abroad. “We can secure our border without an ineffective, expensive wall,” Schumer said.“The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall.”
Americans, by and large, also say no, according to poll after poll showing support for the wall in the 30s to low 40s and opposition to it consistently above 50 percent. Support for shutting down the government to force through funding for the wall is even lower.
So Trump also tried to change minds Tuesday by complicating his narrative. He insisted that he has been pushing for a broad package of immigration and humanitarian reforms. He did not rehearse his dishonest narrative about how a wall would end illegal immigrant carnage until the end of his address, describing the wall as only a piece of his larger agenda.
This desperate maneuver did not work. He long ago made his message simple and clear: Illegal immigrants are scary, and a wall — not something else — will stop them. And he made the government shutdown about the wall. Democrats have offered to deal on other types of border security, a fact the Democratic leaders highlighted on Tuesday. Throughout the shutdown impasse, there have been plenty of obvious ways for the president to change the story from “Trump is closing the government for the wall.” Perhaps Congress could allocate money to other types of border security, with less going to physical barriers and more going to more effective measures? Maybe if the president offered Democrats something they care deeply about, they might deal on wall funding? But Trump has continually refused to shift the debate from a binary choice on the wall.
Trump’s intolerance of complexity, his compulsion to always win, his instinct to bludgeon any given issue with simplistic proclamations and broad generalizations, usually supported by nothing more than ego and misunderstandings, has led him into an ever-smaller corner. He did not map a path out on Tuesday. Americans got the message. And they do not like it.