The construction of a physical barrier along the Mexican border has been Donald Trump’s signature issue since he hit the campaign trail in 2015 and led repeated chants of “Build the wall!” After Trump won, he enjoyed two years when his fellow Republicans controlled both the Senate and House of Representatives. But he only began to insist on billions in wall funding after Democrats captured the House, precipitating the longest federal shutdown in U.S. history. If the border wall was as important to Trump as he says, why didn’t Republicans provide the funds while they ruled Capitol Hill?
The answer to this political mystery is that the wall has never been a top priority for most Republicans. And their stance reflects limited enthusiasm for its construction among conservative policy-makers and voters alike. An American public that has serious concerns about immigration in general nevertheless remains unconvinced that a wall would solve the problems it perceives. As a result, Republican politicians apparently calculated that they’d be better off if the electorate continued to express broad anxiety about the border than if lawmakers actually tried to impose an unpopular solution.
This dynamic reflects a larger, enduring attribute of American politics. For more than 50 years, scholars have noted that the public collectively leans to the right in its general predispositions even as it prefers left-of-center positions on most individual policies; voters are philosophically conservative and operationally liberal. For example, 53 percent of Americans agree that the federal government has “too much power,” according to a recent Gallup survey, compared with just 8 percent who believe that it has too little. But the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans opposed budget cuts in every one of 14 specific policy areas, including health care, education, environmental protection, and aid to the needy; on 12 of the items, the number of respondents who supported spending increases even outnumbered those who preferred reductions. As a rule, then, Republican politicians benefit strategically by sounding broad rhetorical themes rather than discussing the details of their favored policies.
Trump has created the current crisis by ignoring that calculation and forcing a national debate over the unpopular wall, in an even more politically uncongenial situation than the one he faced a year ago. As then House Speaker Newt Gingrich discovered in 1996 after a similar confrontation with President Bill Clinton over cuts to federal entitlement programs, this is not a formula for success.
In the rhetorical battle over the shutdown, Trump is casting Democrats as the impediment to both the wall and a re-opened government. But the main obstacle to Trump’s wall-building ambitions in his first two years were his fellow Republicans in Congress. Key GOP senators expressed misgivings — especially moderates like Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, and border-state incumbents like John McCain, of Arizona, and John Cornyn, of Texas. Cornyn argued in early 2017 that “I don’t think we’re just going to be able to solve border security with a physical barrier because people can come under, around it and through it.”
Their reluctance was surely in part a response to public opinion. According to national exit polls, only 41 percent of voters in the 2016 election — in both parties — approved of a wall across the entire Mexican border. Other conservative immigration policies are even more unpopular, including Trump’s move to end the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects certain immigrants without documentation who came to the United States as children (an Obama initiative that received support from fully 84 percent of respondents in a July 2018 poll by The Washington Post), and the controversial policy of separating children from their parents at the border (which provoked opposition from 69 percent of respondents).
Even if Trump had managed to unite Republicans by appealing to their party loyalty (or by threatening retribution), the border wall’s low approval ratings meant that congressional Democrats were hardly tempted to lend their support without significant policy concessions. Republicans could have used the budget reconciliation process to push wall funding through Congress, thereby making it impossible for the Democrats to filibuster it. But Republican leaders were limited by Senate rules to one reconciliation bill per yearly budget resolution — and they had planned to use those vehicles for their own top legislative priorities: repealing the Affordable Care Act and enacting tax reform.
While opinion polls consistently find limited support for the wall and other conservative proposals, though, they do also reveal strong concerns about immigration on a more abstract level. For example, 58 percent of Americans reported that they personally worried about illegal immigration a “great deal” or a “fair amount” in one 2018 Gallup survey; a previous poll, from 2015 (the most recent time the question was asked), found that 83 percent of respondents favored “tightening security at U.S. borders” in order to reduce illegal entry.
So Republican leaders are on stronger ground invoking immigration as a symbolic cause that motivates their party base at election time — warning about crime committed by undocumented immigrants and accusing Democrats of supporting “open borders” and a “changing America” — than they are in forcing a legislative showdown over their specific policy aims. The policies on health care and tax reform advanced by Republican congressional leaders in 2017 and 2018 were also unpopular with voters, but at least they reflected the ideological priorities of many conservative politicians, intellectuals, financial donors and interest group leaders. The proposed border wall, in contrast, inspires limited enthusiasm even among expert immigration restrictionists like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, who recently expressed concern that Trump might “trade almost anything” to get it. And of course, support for the wall among libertarian-leaning or business-oriented Republicans is even weaker.
But if Republican politicians risk a popular backlash if they try too hard to enact policies that most Americans oppose, they also face a rebellion from within their own ranks if they fail to deliver on their stated goals. Frustration among grassroots activists with the pace of conservative policy change, stoked by a number of popular media personalities on the right, helped to fuel tea party challenges to incumbent Republican politicians during the Obama presidency. Trump is well aware of this pattern. He normally loves to return fire when he is publicly attacked. But after the conservative media stalwarts Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and the hosts of “Fox and Friends” suggested that he was backing down on the border wall, Trump responded instead by acquiescing to their wishes that he sharpen his demands, demonstrating that even he recognizes how much of the power in his party is wielded by increasingly popular conservative media figures.
The current standoff is often characterized as the product of this president’s distinctive characterological qualities: stubbornness, combativeness, a fear of backing down. But Trump has become caught in a very familiar bind for Republican politicians. He successfully won his party’s nomination in 2016 by taking an uncompromising position on an issue of great concern to conservative activists, attacking his opponents for being weak or feckless in comparison. Once in office, however, he has scrambled to fulfill the ambitious promises he made en route to gaining power, as public attention focuses on the unpopular specifics. Think of it as an echo of the struggle over repealing Obamacare — except that this time, a functioning government for the rest of us has become a casualty of the partisan warfare.