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Why the wall matters

The more symbolically important Trump’s border fight gets, the more desperately he needs to build a literal wall.

President Trump’s Proposed Border Wall Prototypes Sit Along Mexico / U.S. Border
In this photo, the prototypes built in 2017 for new border wall models — which have apparently been abandoned, or at least put on hold, during the current fight over wall funding — can be seen over the older barriers that already stretch across miles of the US-Mexico border.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

In the waning days of the 2016 presidential election, tech billionaire Peter Thiel stood in a room in Washington, DC, and told the crowd that Donald Trump and his followers didn’t really want to build a physical wall on the US-Mexico border — and that anyone who thought they did was a fool, guilty of taking the Republican nominee for president literally instead of seriously.

“I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally,” Thiel said:

So when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, or things like that, the question is not, “Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?” or, “How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?” What they hear is, “We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

It was obvious at the time to anyone who’d been paying attention that Thiel was wrong, but it was impossible to understand just how wrong he was. Trump’s promise to build an actual, physical, maybe even concrete wall was the keystone of his commitment to his voters, the promise that held every other promise in place.

And as Trump prepares to give his second State of the Union on Tuesday, it’s ever more clear that his attachment to an actual, physical wall could derail his presidency.

While the State of the Union (unlike many of Trump’s speeches) will touch on a variety of topics beyond immigration, the wall is all but certain to come up. A senior administration official said Friday, previewing the speech, that the president would reiterate his commitment to stopping unauthorized migration, human trafficking, and the “flow of drugs and crime” across the US-Mexico border. Since Trump has spent the past several weeks arguing, relentlessly, that those are the problems a wall is needed to solve, it’s not hard to read between the lines.

He doesn’t really have a choice about whether to address it. The federal government is still recovering from a month-long partial shutdown spurred by Trump’s insistence on a wall — and Congress is hurtling toward a February 15 deadline to reach a deal on funding the Department of Homeland Security or face shutdown again.

The wall is derailing Congress because it is a real and physical wall that requires money to build. There’s no imminent resolution in sight, though, because the wall is also symbolic — and not just for the president.

In 2018, Trump agreed to a $25 billion wall deal on the table with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, then left it on the table. Now newly emboldened congressional Democrats have taken an absolutist stance against building a wall. A concrete wall on the Mexican border has become a symbol not just of the president himself but of the United States’ attitude toward immigrants.

At the same time, any hint that Trump might cave carries the risk of turning his much-beloved base against him — or, at least, inspire conservative influencers to try to get the base to choose ideology over Trump’s personality cult.

Congress and the federal government can’t go on like this. But there doesn’t appear to be an alternative. The State of the Union is hitting a wall.

A physical wall to send a symbolic message

Why does the wall matter so much? To say that it matters because it was Trump’s signature campaign promise is tautological, but it’s true. It matters because Trump has decided it matters.

And to a certain extent, as American politics has been shaped by the gravity well that is Donald Trump’s ego — with a Republican base eager to defend his every move, a Democratic base eager to deplore it, and politicians in both parties rushing to ingratiate themselves with their respective bases — it’s why it matters to everyone else too.

But beyond the cynical politics of who “wins” on the wall is the ideology that made building a wall either appealing or appalling to begin with: the message the wall would send.

Trump’s wall promise wasn’t exciting to his base because they had studied the security issues along the US-Mexico border and come to the considered conclusion that increasing physical barriers would be the most effective way to prevent unauthorized immigration and smuggling of goods. It was exciting because they appreciated the message that the US was going to crack down on immigration — that it was going to welcome only the immigrants it was convinced would be good for patriotic American citizens, rather than welcoming immigrants as an act of American patriotism in and of itself.

Where Thiel got it wrong, though, was in believing that the message was a campaign message. It was, instead, the message that Trump supporters wanted to send to the rest of America and the world — by building a wall.

The wall’s importance as a symbol has even influenced its literal form. As president, Trump has occasionally found himself caught between what actual border experts want in a physical barrier — steel bollards with enough space to see between them — and the literal concrete wall that his supporters feel they are due. The administration attempted to meld the two ideas together with a handful of unimpressive prototypes, but it appears to have accepted (at least for now) that any wall getting built will be what the border experts want — though Trump is still fearful enough of criticism from Ann Coulter and company that he has wavered on the subject at least once.

The question of building the wall, meanwhile, has become totally detached from the question of making Mexico pay for it. No one who wants the wall wants to wait for Mexico to pay for it first. The die-hard Trump personality cultists either believe his ludicrous claims that the new North American trade agreement is the same thing as Mexico paying for the wall or insist that Trump will ultimately make Mexico pony up. The hardcore immigration restrictionists, meanwhile, don’t mind the US spending the money.

Democrats have always understood the wall as a symbol

Given how intractable the wall problem seems now, it’s hard to remember how close Trump was to getting $25 billion for it in January 2018. He and Schumer reportedly agreed to a deal that would allocate $25 billion (over a period of years) in exchange for allowing unauthorized immigrants who’d come to the US as children to legalize.

Either Trump subsequently changed his mind or then-Chief of Staff John Kelly (who reportedly called Schumer to say the deal was off) changed it for him, triggering a weekend-long government shutdown as Democrats refused to approve government funding without addressing the status of the immigrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

In the midst of that shutdown, some progressives voiced their frustration with Schumer for being willing to concede the wall. Democrats had spent 2017 promising that they would never give Trump what he wanted, because they would never endorse something they understood (correctly) as a symbol to the rest of the world that immigrants were not welcome in the US.

That outrage was snuffed quickly — in large part because Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigrant rights in Congress, leaped out to say that he would build the wall himself if it meant legalizing the DREAMers, as they’re known.

The episode seemed to confirm something that a lot of people in Washington had been saying behind closed doors since Trump announced the end of DACA in September 2017: that ultimately, the wall would be a great bargaining chip for Democrats, giving them something to offer Trump in exchange for protections for DREAMers and people facing the loss of their Temporary Protected Status.

After all, the thinking went, the rest of Trump’s legislative agenda on immigration was every bit as hardline as the wall, and because the wall was a symbol that wouldn’t do much to change the existing border security apparatus, it would be an easier cost to bear than a change to immigration law that would slash future legal immigration or restrict asylum. Besides, Democrats had long believed in the calculus of throwing money at the US-Mexico border as a trade-off for protecting unauthorized immigrants and preserving or expanding future legal immigration.

Democrats appear no longer willing to make that deal.

Trump’s State of the Union is an appeal to a Democratic Party hardening against the wall

With Trump no longer the beneficiary of unified Republican government — and having lost his first standoff with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the shutdown — his State of the Union is already being spun as a bipartisan overture to find common ground.

Trump is not a credible messenger on this, to say the least. He’s revealed himself to be diffident toward Congress. He’s already said that Republicans are “wasting their time” by trying to negotiate a homeland security deal with Democrats (never mind that the only alternative available to Congress is another shutdown).

Even if he were to stick to a message of bipartisanship, though, it may be too late. The Democratic Party he’d have to work with now is no longer the party that made a handshake deal with him for $25 billion in wall money a year ago.

For one, the family separation crisis, and increased attention to the administration’s treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children, has made it even less appealing to do anything that the Trump administration could consider a “win” on immigration — even if it were paired with protections for some immigrants.

Second, the composition of Democrats in Congress has changed. Gutiérrez — the key messenger between the party establishment and the immigrant rights movement — has left. The newly sworn-in group of young progressives led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not just insisting on “no wall” but demanding cuts to existing funding for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, demands echoed by the key DREAMer-led group United We Dream.

The Democrats tasked with making a border security deal are thus in a bit of a bind, and Hill sources indicate they aren’t happy about facing pressure from the left. They are attempting to offer a deal designed to appeal to Republican conferees, a “smart wall” proposal that offers the same amount of money Trump demanded but spends it on things that Congress has generally accepted as priorities, like surveillance technology and improvements at ports of entry.

That plan would also keep their options open on whether any of that “smart” wall will be a physical barrier. The left of their party doesn’t appear willing to give them the space to negotiate.

The progressive wing genuinely does believe it is of the utmost importance not to send the message to the rest of the world that Donald Trump is right about America. If anything, their rhetoric indicates that they’d rather tear down the existing physical barriers so that America never sends that message again.

Refusing to send that message doesn’t just mean refusing to give Trump $5.8 billion to build a concrete wall; it means not giving Trump a win on his signature issue.

If Peter Thiel were right — if Trump meant “the wall” and the “Muslim ban” as code words for a “saner, more sensible” immigration policy that “recognizes costs as well as benefits” — then the president and his base should be happy with what he’s accomplished. His administration has done more, on more fronts, to impede immigration than any in recent memory, including even a reworked version of the “Muslim ban.”

But in reality, Trump has chained himself to the wall so completely that it’s no longer possible for anyone to tell where it ends and his presidency begins.