The border wall is Trump University. It’s Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka, too. It’s the futile promise of a fruitful career in the Trump Organization if you’ve earned his favor on a game show, or the assurance of fortunes once you buy that book that he didn’t write and likely never read himself. The wall is a con. And like practically everything else at the foundation of his empire, Trump always lied about who was going to pay for it.
Those of us intimately familiar with the structures already built inside our borders to oppress brown and black people knew that it didn’t matter whether or not the wall was a “metaphor,” as Lindsey Graham put it last Sunday.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., the Liberty University president, told the Washington Post this week that there is nothing Trump could do to endanger his support from the evangelical community and that “I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.” I presume “anything” includes a partial government shutdown over a border wall that Trump said Mexico was going to pay for but alas, there was no follow-up.
The sycophancy of supporters like Falwell, Jr., is why Trump never needed to try this hard to get the wall built. He may not have needed to even attempt to follow through on it. Were he wiser, he would have continued to use the wall as a political McGuffin: the unobtainable, unknowable object that he continued to dangle in front of his supporters until he won his second term. Now, as Democrats take over the House of Representatives today, Trump is behaving as though he lacks bladder control. Inadvertently, he has handed Democrats a unique opportunity. Not to put too fine a point on it, but preventing the construction of Trump’s border wall is a chance to defeat an actual, literal example of structural racism.
Democrats need to both defeat the wall and use this as a teachable moment for the country. Other forms of institutional bigotry are much less obvious, and therefore more easily ignored or equivocated. Betsy DeVos reversed the Obama guidance aimed at reducing racial disparities in school discipline, for one. Right before Christmas, we learned that Ben Carson has been pulling back Housing and Urban Development investigations into systemic patterns of segregation, choosing instead a more regressive path: focusing on individual cases brought to the department’s attention. On Thursday, the Post reported that a more sweeping rollback of “disparate impact” regulations is under consideration. A border wall, even a mythical one, is easier than housing discrimination for some Americans to envision.
Despite his astonishing 89 percent approval rating among Republicans, it is to Trump’s disadvantage for him to make the wall a wedge issue. For one, the partial shutdown is currently showcasing, and not in a good way, how essential government is to our lives. Native tribes surely care more about their roads being paved by government workers so that they can eat and get health care. Those 800,000 or so federal workers must understand that their rent and bills are jeopardized solely because Trump wants to signify to bigots yet again that “No, really, I’m with you.” (Perhaps he needed to reboot his credibility with the racists after signing the FIRST STEP Act and getting too much credit for “overhauling” the criminal justice system.) The folks coming to Washington on their class trips have found museums closed and uncollected garbage overflowing from the cans in the National Mall. Yosemite’s roadsides reek of the urine from reckless visitors. Images from the shutdown have offered a gross analogy for a nation under Trump: this is America without adult supervision.
Democrats depend on an America that considers government to be important, and their voters strongly prefer it not to be racist. The wall is structural racism manifest, not “border security.” Consider that argument, not some heady stuff about whether it can actually exist along the nearly 2,000 miles of border line. Democrats have the power to keep Trump and the Republicans from having the wall, and that should be the end of it. Politically, this is hunting in the zoo: tell Trump, “Hey, how about $0.00 for your wall,” and wait him out. I don’t think that it will take all that long to get the government working again.
Even conservative commentator Ann Coulter, a consistent advocate of the wall, believes that Trump will fold on this issue. What happens next is the question. “If he doesn’t build the wall, the next president will be a Democrat,” she said during a Wednesday radio interview. I’m not so fatalistic. If Trump caves, I doubt too many Democratic challengers bring up the wall as a failed promise in 2020. And if dropping his ransom demand ends the shutdown, the effect may be like the changing of a channel once the credits begin to roll. Given the attention span that folks seem to have, it all might depend upon whom he fires the next day. Or which country he fires upon.