As Donald Trump plunges the country into yet another constitutional crisis by declaring a national emergency to secure border wall funding, it’s worth asking why he cares so much about the wall.
Multiple competing and overlapping explanations come to mind, each with its own alarming implication.
My own favored explanation has consistently been that the president is in thrall to the cult of Fox News and the conservative media establishment in general. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter would be furious if Trump doesn’t follow through on building the wall, and Trump doesn’t want to disappoint them not only because his base hangs on their every word, but because he genuinely admires them. He gets his information from Fox News rather than his own intelligence community, and is as eager to please them as any religious acolyte is to placate their priest, pastor or leader.
The challenge to that thesis, however, is that these conservative personalities will generally either defend Trump regardless, or present themselves as unhappy regardless. Ann Coulter will never be happy until every single brown person is exiled from America, and the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh will twist themselves into pretzels to defend the president almost regardless of what he does. The base constituency that Trump seems eager to please is already with him and isn’t likely to abandon him. So why not secure a bit of funding, declare victory and see who salutes the flag–since most of the conservative infotainment complex will in fact march along dutifully regardless?
Another explanation is that Trump genuinely wants to keep the promise that was central to his campaign. After all, the slogan of Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign is “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” and there is no bigger promise than his “big, beautiful wall.”
But there are multiple problems with this theory, too. First, Trump has abandoned many of his other important campaign promises, from better, cheaper healthcare to infrastructure to taxing hedge fund managers and bringing jobs back from overseas. Second, he could always secure a smaller amount of border wall funding and tell his base that the wall is being built slowly but surely; the lag between funding and construction time would be more than enough to tide him over until the 2020 general election.
But third and most importantly, rhetoric of resistance notwithstanding, there is almost certainly a deal that Democrats would be willing to accept in exchange for giving Trump funding for the wall. Indeed, Democrats already offered significantly greater wall funding in exchange for permanent protections for DACA recipients. Notably, protecting DACA recipients was also one of Donald Trump’s campaign promises. If all Trump cared about was fulfilling his promises, he could easily have done so. He could still do so, though the price Democrats would exact in exchange would be significantly higher than before the 2018 midterm. Failure to keep his promises, then, amounts to breathtaking political incompetence.
The third explanation is that Trump genuinely believes that the wall is essential to secure the southern border. This is perhaps the most alarming of the options. Most analysts tend to treat Trump’s grandiose declarations about the supposed necessity of the wall and dangers from drugs and criminals as just so much fearmongering. After all, none of the crime data support Trump’s panicky rhetoric, and every major expert knows that a wall will do essentially nothing to deter drug imports, as most are smuggled through known ports of entry. Part of the challenge for conservatives is that while the wall has dominated so much of the discourse, it would actually have very little impact on the issues that conservatives actually care about with regard to immigration, be it crime or demographic change.
If Trump genuinely believes that his wall is necessary to safeguard the republic, then he’s dangerously ignorant and delusional rather than just dangerously cynical and exploitative.
So which is it? Is Trump too subservient to conservative infotainment to move on from the wall? Is he too incompetent to broker a deal that Democrats will accept? Or is he too delusional to realize that the wall won’t accomplish any of his stated goals?
It’s hard to say. But no matter the answer, it’s clear that Trump is badly ill equipped to handle the responsibilities of the presidency.