President Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

This week the world was treated to the leak of the President’s conversations with the Australian and Mexican heads of state. Among the many eye-opening details was the American president begging his Mexican counterpart to help him keep an outrageous campaign promise he made to Mexico’s detriment. I’m talking, of course, about the wall.

The only thing I will ask you though is on the wall, you and I both have a political problem. My people stand up and say, “Mexico will pay for the wall” and your people probably say something in a similar but slightly different language. But the fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to. 

It goes without saying that the wall is a both a racist and stupid idea. Illegal immigration via border crossing is at a low level. A wall wouldn’t really help, and even if you believed the notion that immigration was costing America economically, a wall would be far more expensive than the alleged cost. It’s a answer in search of a problem, a political gift to a group of deplorable racists who pretend that they don’t want to pay taxes and benefits to undocumented immigrants, but in reality just want to protect white demographic majorities as long as possible.

But Trump has a bigger problem than just advocating for the wall itself. He promised that Mexico would pay for it. He has no way of keeping that promise, but his base expects the wall to be built, anyway.

Which brings us to the budget. Republicans (to say nothing of Democrats) are not inclined to help Trump solve his problem by allocating significant resources to the wall. After all, Trump said Mexico was going to pay for it. It’s up to him to make that happen.

If Trump insists on getting funding for the wall in the budget, it may well lead to a shutdown:

  • • Hill leaders have discussed ways to get Trump “enough” on border security so he feels they’re making enough progress to sign their funding bills. This could mean modest funding for the wall or other border security measures that moderates could live with, and/or other avenues to add funding to fight international crime gangs like MS-13.
    • But sources close to Trump say he’s dead serious about building an impressive wall and will go crazy when he realizes Congress has no plans to pay for it.
    • Even if Paul Ryan can work magic, the bill still needs 60 votes in the Senate to pass. That means leadership will have to work with a messy coalition of Republican moderates and centrist-Democrats — sure to enrage Tea Party types and fuel even more anti-Ryan vitriol.

Bottom line: The wall is no metaphor to Trump. He will accept no substitutes to a huge, long, physical wall, which he believes his voters viscerally want. He told GOP Hill leaders in June he wants it to be 40 to 50 feet high and covered with solar panels. Hill Republicans privately mocked that idea, but some of those same people now recognize that Trump’s big, beautiful — and in their minds, ridiculous — wall could be the thing that brings the U.S. government to its knees.

Trump is obsessed with dominance and humiliation. The border wall was perhaps Trump’s biggest campaign promise. If he doesn’t get it, it will be humiliating for him–far more than failure to repeal Obamacare, which involves complex legislation out of Congress. A wall is a simple budget item. If Trump cannot force Congress to allocate the money he wants, he will not take it well. There will be a big backlash.

But Congress holds all the cards on Trump. They control the investigation and possible impeachment process. It’s hard to see a way out of this that lets Trump save face, unless he settles for some small amount of wall funding and simply calls it a victory. But the true believers in the alt-right media probably won’t play along with that. They’ll know they’re getting hustled.

But that’s the price Trump pays for making lying campaign promises he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep.

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Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.