After an utterly pointless government shutdown that lasted more than a month, President Trump has finally relented and will sign the budget agreement reached by Democrats and Republicans. As this controversy has worn on, it has been truly bizarre to watch him tie himself in knots over how to talk about his border wall: It’s a wall, it’s a fence, it’s steel slats, it has to be built, it’s already being built, it’s almost finished, it’s fantastic, we’re all gonna die.
Trump’s news conference on Friday at which he announced that he’s declaring a national emergency was a case in point: It was rambling, incoherent, angry and even contradicted what members of his own administration say about the border.
None of this seems to reflect anything resembling a strategy, at least not one that lasts for more than a day at a time. Trump’s own confusion about how to talk about it raises an important question. We all know how important the wall is as a symbol for his most ardent supporters. So what is he going to tell them next year when he runs for reelection?
In the short term, the consensus is that he’ll declare victory, because that’s what he always does. That’s despite the fact that he suffered a humiliating loss. A year ago, Trump could have had $25 billion for the wall in exchange for legal status for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, but he rejected that deal because it didn’t limit legal immigration. Then he began this negotiation demanding $5.7 billion, and in the end he got less than $1.4 billion. And even with his new national emergency, there’s no telling how long it will be tied up in the courts.
So Trump is trying to convince his supporters that in fact their dream is already coming true; at a rally this week in El Paso, he greeted the familiar chant of “Build that wall!” by telling his fans, “Now, you really mean finish that wall, because we’ve built a lot of it.” Oh.
Unfortunately, some of Trump’s most important supporters in the conservative media are not convinced. Fox personality Tomi Lahren tweeted, “I’m not gonna sugar coat it, if @realDonaldTrump takes this sham border deal from the Democrats, he loses in 2020 and we ALL lose for years to come.” Laura Ingraham agreed: “Total SCAM! @realDonaldTrump wasn’t elected for this.” Ann Coulter went with all caps: “IT’S OVER IF HE SIGNS THIS BILL.”
If you were a Trump loyalist who is also devoted to the right-wing media personalities who tell you how to interpret each day’s events, what would you be thinking right now? Is this deal a betrayal or more proof of Trump’s genius? Is there a wall, or isn’t there a wall?
There are few more important questions Trump has to answer in 2020. As everyone knows, he is singularly focused on pleasing his base, because he believes that they are the key to his political survival. While his presidency might have played out differently had he not taken that approach from the beginning, it's far too late to change now. He has absolutely no ability to persuade anyone who is not already on his side.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always simple. Think about the way Trump talks about the terrible threat we supposedly face from immigrants. When he was running for president, he described the United States as a hellhole of horrific crime and economic misery, encouraging people to feel as angry, afraid and resentful as possible. Those are powerful emotions, and they helped him get elected, in part because many people who weren’t regular voters were thrilled enough by Trump’s message that they got out and voted.
But now that he has been president for two years, it gets more complicated. He still wants people to feel anger and fear, but he also wants them to believe that he has been a tremendous success and delivered us to a paradise of safety and prosperity. It’s almost impossible to make both arguments at the same time, which is why he keeps toggling manically back and forth between “The wall is being built” and “We need the wall.”
When the wall existed only in his supporters’ imaginations, it could take on huge symbolic weight. Not only would it keep out immigrants, but also it would enable us to humiliate the country from which many of them came (“Who’s going to pay for it? Mexico!”), and finally allow us to stand tall again, our strength and dignity restored.
But now it’s supposed to be real — big, beautiful and real. An extra few miles of fencing isn’t what they were promised. Trump can come back and tell all the old stories about MS-13 coming to kill you and rape your daughters, and it will frighten some people, but is it really going to have the same effect when he couldn’t keep the central promise of his 2016 campaign?
Is “The wall kinda exists, if you think about it in a certain way” a message that is really going to get people streaming to the polls in November 2020? From the way he’s talking, it appears that Trump doesn’t believe it will.