Trump’s Wall Versus “The Wall”
Trump’s chief of staff, General Kelly, described Trump’s position on the border wall as having “evolved” since his campaign, particularly with regard to whether a 2,000-mile continuous wall is necessary or possible. Trump took to Twitter to shoot down this “evolution” narrative — and then restated (with qualification and nuance) his old claims about the wall and who will pay for it.
Right Scoop came to Trump’s defense on this issue, citing evidence of Trump having said, as early as 2015, that of course the wall would not be continuous, due to natural barriers, and that there might only need to be about 1,000 miles of physical barrier.
Caleb Howe at RedState took the opposite position, arguing that although Trump has always referred to natural barriers in interviews, he is also on record boasting about the materials and ever-increasing height of his “big, beautiful wall,” even while, on other occasions, he would concede that the existing fences would remain as is, and only be supplemented with some new wall spanning the unfenced areas. Furthermore, his latest restatement cites “wastelands” among the natural barriers that obviate the need for a continuous physical wall, which, as Howe observes, is an awfully nebulous notion.
That’s true, too.
But, General Kelly’s wording aside, the real question about the wall was never whether Trump has ever conceded that natural barriers would suffice for certain parts of the border. Nor is the real question whether Trump was completely clear about the materials to be used, or about which kinds of geography constituted “natural barriers” in his view.
The real question about the wall, as with all of Trump’s campaign imagery (“promises” feels like the wrong word), is about optics and intended effects. And on no issue is this more true than on immigration.
Trump built his base during the early months of the primaries by leading his large audiences to believe he would completely harden the border to protect his disenfranchised and embittered listeners from “outsiders.” This was consistent with his rhetoric about Muslims. His talk of Mexican rapists and ISIS decapitators streaming into the U.S. was intended to stoke and heighten legitimate concerns of the modern age, to turn them into overriding fears, and then to palliate the frightened masses by standing athwart History, in front of his famously enormous rally crowds, and promising to protect all of them, and all of America, from the bad guys and bogeymen.
He was, as Milo Yiannopoulos called him, “Daddy.” “In Trump We Trust,” said Ann Coulter, her attempt at provocative irony squashed under the weight of the all-too-sincere piety Trump had deliberately promoted in his fans. His whole campaign show was about elevating himself to the status of a lone avenger, a demagogue. Rather than telling Americans that they were going to regain their pride and their electoral power, he told them, over and over, in every way possible, that he and he alone, Donald J. Trump, would take care of them, save America, bring back their jobs, and most of all, make the big, bad, scary, outside world disappear forever.
Let me cite another specific example to clarify my point. From the outset of his campaign, Trump’s plan on illegal immigration, insofar as he articulated one, was nothing other than touch-back amnesty, essentially the same plan promoted by the New York Times years before. But if you pointed this out during the primaries, two thousand voices would scream at you over the internet, “La-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear you! Trump is going to round them all up and kick them out of our country! La-la-la-la….”
Why? Why couldn’t his base see the plain facts? Why didn’t they care when you showed them Donald Jr. explaining this very point to calm the concerns of those on the other side of the issue who claimed his father was threatening to “round them all up”?
The answer is that Trump had carefully fostered the alternative, simplistic, bombastic, standing-athwart-History image of himself as Universal Protector at his rallies. He knew this was what would win him the biggest following of those who felt afraid of losing their jobs, of losing their country, to foreigners — yes, including “non-white” foreigners, the special concern of the alt-right extreme of his base. So he let them believe it. He encouraged them to believe it.
He accentuated the tough talk and downplayed the version of himself that described Mitt Romney’s immigration policy as “mean-spirited” in 2012. He didn’t tell his followers he was promoting touch-back amnesty. He didn’t say to them, “Look at the fake news media saying ‘Trump’s going to deport all the illegals.’ Fake news! I love the illegals. I hire lots of them. My immigration plan has been endorsed by the New York Times for years. My plan is only slightly different from Jeb Bush’s.” Instead, he talked about “sending them all out” (and then occasionally, in a less emphatic voice, about bringing “the good ones” back).
He was accused of being anti-Muslim for his vague proposals about cutting off immigration from Muslim countries. He didn’t tell his fans, “Fake news! The media knows my ban on Muslim immigration is only an idea I borrowed in a wishy-washy form from the platforms of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Why are they claiming my position is the most extreme when it isn’t?”
He didn’t clarify himself to his followers this way — that is, in a way that would explode their runaway fantasy picture of him as a cross between John Galt and Benito Mussolini. Instead, he dissembled and danced around the truth of his formal proposals in order to build a following of the weak, frightened, and angry on a foundation of half-truths and vague images of locking down America, i.e., making the bad guys and bogeymen go away. The substance of his platform was never important, and in fact often stood in the way of his mass appeal.
His appeal was built on the fantasy, which the reality TV star and lifelong brand salesman knew how to foster, that he himself was indispensable to protecting Americans from all their worst fears, and that he could do it alone, through the sheer force of his personality. “I can do it, believe me!” was a constant refrain in his rallies and debate performances. Personal chutzpah and self-aggrandizement took precedence over substance, because the substance had elements he knew would deflate his appeal with his base, and because “charisma” — a concept antithetical to the core principles of republican government — is what he knew how to sell, and the easiest road to the hearts of the disaffected and desperate.
So it’s true that Trump’s position on the wall hasn’t evolved — technically.
And it’s also true that his position has evolved — technically.
But, technicalities aside, the key to Donald Trump has never been about consistency or the lack thereof. In fact, the question of whether his position on this or that has “evolved” is a red herring. The question of evolution presupposes an underlying substance that is evolving (or not). Trump’s whole campaign method, which has continued throughout his presidency so far, relies on there being no solid underlying substance at all, i.e., nothing which could evolve. Genuine substance and solidity in his character, his rhetoric, or his positions would actually undermine his strategy and appeal, which depend on his image being infinitely malleable to suit the viewer and the circumstances of the moment.
His method is pure salesmanship, in the traveling peddler-man sense. He has a magic elixir to sell. The bottle says “Magic Elixir” right on the label. What does this elixir do, exactly? Well, the answer depends on what you need it to do. If you want to find true love, drink two sips every morning for a week, and ta-da — love will be yours. If you want to cure your lumbago, drink two sips every morning for a week, and shazam — you’ll be dancing a tango before you know it. If you want your president to be an anti-immigrant militant defending white culture, read two tweets every morning and poof — your hero is in the White House.
As I explained almost two years ago, “The Wall” was never a continuous physical barrier to begin with. It was a continuous psychological barrier, protecting Trump’s hardcore followers from everything they fear in the modern world: leftism, immigrants, terrorism, job stress, cultural rot, Hillary Clinton, you name it. “The Wall” was not a campaign promise. It was a mantra. It was the key catchphrase in the creation of a personality cult that raised a wholly inadequate man to the highest seat in a great nation.
Trump continues to double-down on this mantra (albeit with qualification and nuance to cover his rear end), not because he is afraid of breaking a promise, but because he is afraid of breaking a spell.