Before President Trump’s first Cabinet meeting of 2019 on Wednesday, he took questions from reporters. One asked how long Trump was willing to let the partial government shutdown last — beyond the nearly two weeks it has already extended — to secure the funding he seeks for a wall on the border with Mexico.
“As long as it takes,” Trump replied. “I mean, look, I’m prepared. I think the people of the country think I’m right. I think the people of this country think I’m right.”
A slew of asterisks dot Trump’s commentary about funding for the wall in general, including his promises that Mexico would foot the bill, his assertions that Mexico already had paid for it, his claims that the wall is already being built, his claim this week that most of the wall was built or overhauled and his various dubious presentations of why the wall is needed. We must similarly set aside, in the context of Trump’s remarks above, his repeated insistence that the shutdown isn’t a function of his stubbornness but, instead, is the fault of Democrats who, in his most recent iteration on Twitter, are forcing a shutdown because of the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s response is about as directly accurate as you’ll hear from him, acknowledging that the shutdown is something that is in his power to end and that it hinges on how much funding he wants for that border wall.
But it’s still inaccurate. “The people of the country” don’t agree with Trump on the shutdown or on the wall. We looked at this last month, considering polling that showed that most Americans don’t support building a wall and that most think a shutdown should be avoided.
Trump’s discussion of what the American people want, though, is often a shorthand meant to refer to a specific subset of the American population: his base of supporters. There certainly are people who want the wall to be built, most of whom are Republicans and most of whom approve of the job Trump is doing. If that’s your definition of “the people,” then, well, sure. The people want the wall to be built.
It’s worth asking how many people that encompasses. Or, really, we can invert the question: Of Trump’s fervent base of support, what percentage thinks that this particular fight is one that is critical to pick? If Trump didn’t insist on this shutdown, how many of his “the people” would bail on him? That, after all, is the sense in which the shutdown is very much about 2020: Trump’s urgent insistence that his base get what it wants is his ongoing attempt to clutch those voters as close to his heart as he can.
So let’s go back to that polling from December. In conjunction with NPR and PBS NewsHour, Marist asked Americans their views on various immigration issues.
Overall, most Americans approve of Trump’s efforts to protect the border, with more than three-quarters of white evangelical Christians and nearly all Republicans and people identified by Marist as Trump supporters agreeing. (An email requesting more information about how that latter group is defined was not returned by the time this article was published.)
This is an important point in part because it explains the rhetoric that Trump and his allies are using. For the most part, they’re framing the funding fight as being about border security, though the sticking point is obviously the specific subset of security funding that’s focused on a wall. As we’ve noted repeatedly, a wall itself would have only a minor effect on the issues that Trump insists are the problems that need to be addressed. Drug inflow, for example, mostly occurs at existing border crossing points. Most immigrants who come to the country illegally at this point come on valid visas but don’t leave when mandated — something that can happen just as easily at an airport as at the border with Mexico.
But back to that wall. Marist also asked a revealing question: How urgent should construction of the wall be? Half of Americans said it shouldn’t be a priority at all. But only two-thirds of even Trump’s most fervent supporters said it was something that needed to be done right now.
Granted, this poll was taken before the current fight evolved into its present form, meaning that most of Trump’s base of support hadn’t yet been exposed to his rhetoric on the shutdown fight — or to the rhetoric of conservative media, a group to which we’ll return.
Even more telling was that question asking poll respondents to evaluate whether it was worth shutting down the government to build the wall. Only about two-thirds of Trump supporters thought that a shutdown was important to force the wall’s construction.
So that’s two-thirds of Trump supporters who think the wall is needed immediately to the point of shutting down the government, about the same percentage of Republicans who held that position. Last month, Gallup estimated that 26 percent of Americans identify as Republicans — putting the percentage of the country that agrees that Trump should maintain a shutdown at 17 percent of Americans.
Those are the “people of the country” Trump was talking about on Wednesday.
That figure echoes in research from PRRI published in late 2017. In addition to asking Americans whether they approved or disapproved of Trump’s job performance, PRRI asked if those opinions might ever change. About a third of Americans said they disapproved of Trump and would never change their minds. About 15 percent said they approved of him — and similarly wouldn’t be dissuaded from that support.
But, really, the group Trump should be worried about isn’t that eternally loyal 15 percent — it’s the flexible 26 percent who didn’t say they would be loyal to him no matter what. How it overlaps with views of the shutdown fight isn’t clear.
Remember, though, that Trump hears only certain voices in the political debate. That’s generally true of anyone, of course, but Trump, seemingly far more than other politicians, much less presidents, operates mostly in a sealed-off world that’s generally favorably inclined to him. He watches a lot of Fox News Channel, for example, and peruses a Twitter feed that’s almost entirely sympathetic to him. He recently stopped following conservative commentator Ann Coulter after she criticized him for not holding the line on the border wall. The loudest voices he hears are from people such as Coulter and Fox News commentators who’ve been urging him to have this fight; if “the people of America” are the people who are interviewed or part of panels on Fox News, then, yes, those people want Trump to hold the line.
It’s interesting to consider why this is a favorite fight among members of the conservative media. Some, like Coulter, have been immigration hard-liners for a long time. But some, it’s safe to say, are arguing for a firm position on the wall because they, too, think it’s what their audience wants to hear. The overlap between Trump’s base and Fox News’s base is significant. If Fox and Trump both think that Trump’s base is uniformly insistent on building the wall immediately, Fox News serves to amplify an instinct that’s already driving the president.
We come back to our original point. The people of America mostly don’t want this fight and never did. Most don’t want the wall. Trump’s presidency has never been focused on advancing policies supported by the majority of Americans. It has consistently instead focused on that same group of people in the smallest sliver in that pie chart above.