The Wall started as an applause line at Trump’s campaign rallies, and has morphed into one of the dumbest policy debates in the history of American politics.
“This is the stupidest day in American history,” wrote Matt Christman during the Donald’s inauguration, “a record that will be broken by every subsequent day in American history.” PolitiFact says: Mostly true. But it feels especially true these days, in the swampy mire of one of the dumbest policy debates in the history of American politics. I’m speaking, of course, of the matter of The Wall.
The Wall started as an applause line at President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies. It was an effective rhetorical tool not because it made any degree of practical sense, but because it was a symbol of Trump’s showy commitment to a hard line on immigration. The wall was emphatically not like the vehicle barriers and fences that already dot the U.S.-Mexico border, which Trump surely did not know existed at the time. The Wall would be built coast to coast, it would be beautiful — maybe as high as 40 feet — and it would be fully paid for by Mexico, making it a double humiliation for the “enemy.” It was clear from the beginning that it was a simple expression of racial resentment.
Then he won, and essentially forgot about it for two years. Of course, he talked a lot about The Wall, but he clearly didn’t care enough to do much about it. With one of the largest GOP congressional majorities in recent history, he failed to secure funding for the kind of wall he had promised in the campaign, because even Republican lawmakers understood that The Wall was a boondoggle. At the end of that two years, with an incoming Democratic majority in the House, Trump has partially shut down the government.
Trump is doing this because he wants to have a fight; the substance of the thing doesn’t matter. But in the process of having that fight, The Wall has gone from a stupid idea to a vortex of stupidity that’s sucking in everything it touches. In the intersections of these various stupidities, and our ability to watch them bounce off each other in real time, The Wall actually helps clarify some truths about Trump’s first term.
Why is the idea of a coast-to-coast wall stupid? No one who has visited Big Bend needs this explained, and support for The Wall is lowest in border communities, where people actually understand what day-to-day life is like there.
Huge stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border aren’t practical corridors for smuggling or illegal immigration. A wall through the national park would be a hideous billion-dollar project to keep that one guy in Boquillas from bringing wire roadrunner sculptures across the river in the morning to sell to hikers, and would negatively affect predominantly poor communities on the border, whose existences are fragile and often dependent on neighbors across the river.
The heaviest-traveled sections of the border already have fencing. If the president simply wanted to bolster those, he wouldn’t have needed to fight anybody. For better or worse, those barriers have been expanded by Democrats and Republicans over the years, and are uncontroversial in Congress. Indeed, Congress provided additional funding for that system of fencing in Trump’s first term — construction in South Texas is slated to begin in February.
But neither is the expansion of those fences inconsequential. The people who live in these areas have been more or less absent from the national debate — on the matter of The Wall, some in the media seem more interested in irate Trump-supporting steelworkers in Ohio than the people it would actually affect. The Texas borderlands are already a police state, and about 95 percent of the Texas-Mexico border is privately owned.
The shuttering and reopening of border crossings, along with the presence of numerous state and federal law enforcement agencies with a bewildering set of acronyms — down to the militarized wing of the Texas game wardens — are an enormous burden on daily life. And because The Wall has to be built on the American shore of the river, the space required for it represents a significant taking of the property of private citizens, historical sites and nature preserves.
Why fight for this? Trump wants to show that he’s delivering on one (1) campaign promise, but he’s doing it at the least politically favorable time of his presidency so far. And if he’s trying to make his re-election campaign about immigration, against open-border Democrats, well, the White House ran its midterm election effort on the migrant caravan. They were successful in making it an issue, and stoking a tremendous level of fear about it among conservatives. And the end result was that Democrats won more seats than they have in any election since Watergate.
But the wall is useless even to Trump’s people. His presidency helped elevate a small group of immigration hardliners, among them Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions, Michael Anton. These were people who are primarily concerned not about illegal crossings per se, but about long-term demographic shifts in America. They want above all to scale back legal immigration. Trump has of course done terrible things with his executive power, but that group missed their best chance in decades at limiting legal immigration through Congress. All they have left now is this dumb wall, which they, unlike Trump’s base, know will do nothing whatsoever to make America a whiter country.
The Wall fight is a microcosm of the fact that the 115th Congress was a missed opportunity for Republicans by every conceivable standard, except for the tax cuts. The White House failed to move other major reforms on any issue: They have nothing to brag about except what they did with executive agencies, the easiest part. So they’re back to fighting about stupid symbols.
Are conservative pundits mad about any of this? No, of course not, they’re defending Trump in this new fight. Dan McLaughlin, a columnist at the National Review, recently tweeted a defense of The Wall that captures the ridiculousness of their thinking on the matter: “The Vietnam Memorial Wall is also a wall. So is the Wailing Wall,” he said. “If you are against all walls regardless of purpose or function, you are against houses, churches & hospitals.”
These are the words of a man whose brain cavity is filled with pea soup. McLaughlin isn’t even pro-wall, really, he understands that it’s a garbage policy. Just as he professes to dislike Trump, who last night took the same tack when he asked a national television audience why rich people have fences if walls don’t work. But McLaughlin is incapable of being less anti-lib than he is pro-the-people-who-make-libs-mad. The left’s new anti-wall stance, he continued, was “an interesting test case in how hard people will circle the wagons around demagogic nonsense from D candidates.” Hm!
There’s no groupthink in the vortex, of course, because there’s no thought. He’s stuck there, a place where there’s no light and heat and no self. We are, too. We live here now.