Trump Checkmates Himself

We can now say this about the president, thanks to the “failing” paper of record: His “idea” for a border wall was neither his nor was it even an idea in the actual sense of something formulated by discernible cognitive function. The wall was “a mnemonic device of sorts,” reports the New York Times, created by campaign aides to keep an aggressively anti-literate candidate on message about immigration. If the last president to enter office while fading into senescence took his campaign rhetoric as literally, HUD would’ve built an actual shining city on a hill and DARPA would’ve been tasked with finding a way to permanently make it morning in America. At what point Trump started taking the wall both “literally and seriously” we may never find out–my guess is the moment he first got applause for it.

Trump appeared ready, however grudgingly, to sign a bill in December funding the government through the holidays without funding for a border wall. This outraged certain media personalities whose affluent livelihoods depend on instigating the lowing herd of Trump voters. Our fearless leader panicked, placed a presidential call to Rush Limbaugh (what I would give to get the transcript of that conversation!), promptly turned tail on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and, hilariously, said on live television that he would gladly take responsibility for shutting down the government. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi could scarcely believe their luck.

The end of this seems fairly obvious. Congressional Republicans, bruised by the midterms, are steadily folding under pressure from national polls and constituent phone calls; large majorities see no reason to furlough 800,000 federal workers over something so unserious. Polling will continue to show what it always has: an actual wall on the border is not a high priority for most Americans, and subjecting hundreds of thousands of families to acute economic insecurity over this farce is stupid and cruel. And the blame will rest mostly with the president and his party.

On Wednesday, eight House Republicans voted in favor of a Democratic bill to reopen the Treasury Department. A handful of Republican senators are already saying the obvious: a real debate over border security and immigration reform should continue while the government is open. Declaring a national emergency, without there actually being one, might unlock the money Trump wants, but the political cost would be clear: Trump would prove himself to be an autocrat (and a petty one at that) just in time for the 2020 campaign ads. Republicans will have to find some mostly symbolic face-saving measure to include in the budget bill, and privately press the president to sign the damned thing.

Those interested in serious immigration and border security policies, particularly conservative ones, see their already meager political capital being frittered away. Border barriers are not nearly as important as hiring more border patrol agents, hiring more asylum-claim adjudicators, building more facilities where asylum-seekers can stay while awaiting the government’s decision about their claim, getting the latest security technology to entry points (where most drug trafficking happens), and revamping our visa and asylum systems. There are already 700 miles of border barriers. Extending them would be a mere a footnote to actual border security–and irrelevant to immigration reform.

Usually, when the opposition party wins back some control of the legislative branch midway through a president’s term, the president is keen to conserve his political capital and carry whatever momentum he can into the reelection campaign. Democrats were gearing up for a long two-year battle, but, amazingly, we may be watching the end, at least politically, of Trump’s presidential term right now.    

Consider the position he’s cornered himself into: Throughout his unending campaign-presidency, he’s infused an enormous amount of toxic symbolism into a border wall. He repeatedly described a “big, beautiful” wall along the entire southern border. According to the Washington Post, he said Mexico would pay for the wall on at least 212 occasions. He must be aware that his approval ratings have never broken out of a relatively small core of base supporters. Any halfwit politician would know that, after running a continuous campaign using such inflammatory rhetoric, there is absolutely no way that the opposition party would ever acquiesce to building a political campaign symbol, especially right after a midterm in which it won back control of the House.

Trump is now grasping to placate that small core of supporters who actually weren’t as upset as Coulter and Limbaugh made them out to be. I recall no rending of hair and gnashing of gums in Trump country when, in early 2018, a Republican-controlled Congress allocated only $1.6 billion for “border security” generally (and only $38 million for ”border barrier planning and design” specifically) despite Trump’s demand of $25 billion for those purposes. (Congressional Republicans are at least serious enough to understand that the border wall was just a campaign gimmick.) And yet Trump has worked himself into a position where he’ll almost certainly have to do the thing he thought he was avoiding: backing out, in the most public and idiotic way possible, of his own demand for wall funding. Tuesday’s forgettable national address and the industrial-scale leaking from the White House about Trump being on the verge of declaring a national emergency were transparently panicked attempts to regain the upper hand.

Trump is stuck between publicly betraying his “base” or lording over the longest government shutdown in American history, which most of the country sees as needless, and as his fault. In turn, he is putting his party’s 2020 prospects on the line. At this rate, Republicans might cut the very long line of Democrats waiting to throw the bum out.  

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.