But this time Trump inadvertently highlighted a fatal weakness in his political position — and drew attention to an extremely important substantive problem in his overall argument, one that is largely responsible for producing the damage we’re all enduring right now. He just tweeted:
Polls are now showing that people are beginning to understand the Humanitarian Crisis and Crime at the Border. Numbers are going up fast, over 50%. Democrats will soon be known as the Party of Crime. Ridiculous that they don’t want Border Security!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2019
A big new Caravan is heading up to our Southern Border from Honduras. Tell Nancy and Chuck that a drone flying around will not stop them. Only a Wall will work. Only a Wall, or Steel Barrier, will keep our Country safe! Stop playing political games and end the Shutdown!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2019
Trump believes not just that he is winning the argument but also that more vindication is coming his way in the form of another caravan.
The poll Trump is referring to there is almost certainly this new one from Quinnipiac University. Matthew Gertz demonstrates that “Fox and Friends,” which Trump watches religiously, just discussed this poll, with this amazing chyron:
Poll: 54% agree with Trump on security crisis
But in an important way, the Quinnipiac poll demonstrates the opposite. Yes, it does find that 54 percent of voters believe there is a “security crisis" at the border, so a majority agrees on that point.
But Quinnipiac finds that even larger majorities don’t believe the wall Trump wants will be effective in addressing that crisis. Voters say by 59-to-40 percent that a wall is not necessary to protect the border; they say by 56-to-43 percent that a wall won’t be effective in protecting the border; and they say by 55-43 percent that a wall will not make the United States safer.
Trump is losing the argument, but Fox won’t tell you that
This gets at an absolutely crucial way that Trump is losing this argument. The Democratic position is that we can secure the border without building the wall Trump wants, and Democrats have offered him $1.3 billion in new border security money, with restrictions against wall spending, that would do just that.
The public accepts the Democratic reading of the situation, not Trump’s. The Quinnipiac poll also finds that 61 percent of voters support funding border security without the wall; that 59 percent think the wall is a bad use of taxpayer money; and that 63 percent oppose shutting down the government to get the wall.
Trump just highlighted a poll that undermines his argument, secure in the knowledge that his followers will only hear the cherry-picked finding (which Fox will gladly help make happen).
One of the most important propaganda tools that Trump and Republicans have employed throughout this whole affair is to conflate the wall with border security. This effort has failed: Large majorities see the two as distinct from one another. The poll Trump himself highlighted shows this.
Humanitarian crisis versus security crisis
In recent days, Trump and his propagandists have emphasized the humanitarian side of the border crisis. As Trump just put it, “people are beginning to understand the Humanitarian Crisis and Crime at the Border.”
It is true that voters understand the migrant crisis as a humanitarian one. The Quinnipiac poll Trump himself cited shows that 68 percent see a humanitarian crisis at the border — far more than the 54 percent who see it as a security crisis.
But here again, this undermines Trump’s argument, by highlighting a fundamental absurdity at its core. Trump and his allies constantly lurch back and forth between depicting asylum-seeking migrants as sympathetic figures in need of more aid on one hand and terrifying invaders on the other. Trump and his allies spent months leading up to the election painting the migrants as criminals, terrorists and murderers — which failed — but, more recently, they’ve been emphasizing the dire humanitarian horrors many of these migrants face, to depict Democrats as heartless for not giving him his way on the border.
There is a deeper reason for this schizophrenia in Trump’s position: The type of immigration that poses the genuinely urgent challenge at the border right now is not the type that more security would address. (Never mind whether a wall would be effective at this.) This is neatly illustrated by two charts: The number of single adults crossing the border illegally (the type more security would address) is at record lows, while the numbers of families crossing the border, many of whom are seeking asylum (the type more humanitarian assistance would address) are soaring.
Here’s Trump’s problem in a nutshell: The humanitarian crisis is the truly pressing one right now, but the humanitarian crisis doesn’t justify the building of the wall, because those people are turning themselves in at the border, so they can seek asylum. This is why we’re trapped in an endless feedback loop in which Trump keeps hyping the security crisis — sometimes even absurdly citing the asylum-seekers to do so while faking sympathy for them in the next tweet — even as the real humanitarian crisis gets more grave.
Indeed, it’s worse than this. Trump’s hyping of the security crisis to get the wall is actually preventing solutions from moving forward on the humanitarian crisis. Customs and Border Protection officials badly want hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade border facilities, so they can handle the real crisis’s crush of families and children. Democrats support doing these things, but it is Trump’s insistence on the wall that is holding movement on those fronts hostage.
Americans understand the basic outlines of the situation very well. Trump’s own Twitter feed helpfully illustrated it for us all to see.