What is a wall, really? In retrospect, we should never have been so hopelessly linear and literal-minded as to think that when Donald Trump spoke of building a big, beautiful wall along our southern border, he meant an actual brick-and-mortar structure one could touch, climb or maybe even have to pay for.
This is not a revelation to most observers, including some of those Trump voters who when they listened to his pitch, liked the music but weren’t necessarily married to the lyrics.
At a Trump rally in Richmond, Va., last June, for instance, I met a man named Martin Madrigal, who had himself come to this country illegally from Mexico. Now a U.S. citizen, he said that things had changed since the ’90s and that these days, “a lot of bad people come to this country.” After Trump spoke, I saw Madrigal again, and he burst out laughing and said he didn’t have much time to talk: “I’ve got a wall to build. And if I’m going to pay (for) it, I guess I’ve got to start saving.”
People who know the border best know that the kind of wall the president talks about wouldn’t work, and a poll earlier this month by the nonpartisan Texas Lyceum found that a majority of those surveyed in that red, red state oppose the wall and believe that immigration helps more than it hurts.
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Just two days after the election, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was among the first to suggest that his friend Donald was in some ways a traditional politician after all. While Gingrich didn’t expect Mexico to pay for any wall — or think Trump would waste much time pressing that issue — “it was a great campaign device,” he said admiringly.
This week, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman is backing away from the wording of the promised barrier slowly, with no sudden movements: There could be “a wall in some places and technology in other places.” Just as there is now, in other words, only more so. His fellow Republican, the ever-frank South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said the wall is a sturdy metaphor: “There will never be a 2,200-mile wall built, period,” he said. “I think it’s become symbolic of better border security. It’s a code word for better border security.”
Some of the most successful people I know, in and out of politics, have something of a “first I say it’s true, then I make it true” relationship with facts. I’d bet money that’s how Trump’s line about “insurance for everybody,” turned into a plan under which millions of people would lose coverage. And for that matter how “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” wound up meaning you might or you might not get to do that.
Naturally, this aspirational mode of communication can be confusing — as when the president simultaneously says he is “100 percent” not backing off his plan to build the wall — and also suggests, in an interview with The Associated Press, that the problems plaguing the border are already nothing but a memory: Apprehensions at the border are at their lowest in 17 years, “and it’s going lower.”
Which is absolutely true. Just as it was also true when President Barack Obama said in 2015 that the rate of illegal immigration was at its lowest point in 40 years. Illegal immigration has been declining since the recession began in 2008, and that drop continues in part due to falling birth rates and rising education levels in Mexico.
Immigrants are not streaming over the border — and weren’t before. This doesn’t mean the wall is a dead issue.
On his Fox show on Tuesday night, Tucker Carlson kept hectoring Sen. Thom Tillis as the North Carolina Republican tried to present some facts: “I oppose putting a 30-foot structure on the top of a 33,000 foot sheer cliff. … I oppose things that the people on the ground think are not in their best interest.”
“But the people voted for a wall!” Carlson kept saying. Which never justifies doing the wrong thing. After all, the people did want us to go into Iraq, and as of June 1940 were still 2-to-1 against our entry into World War II. Hopefully, Trump’s supporters and detractors will let him learn on the job what he didn’t know as a candidate.