‘Whatever it takes, we need a wall’: Why the final Donald Trump crisis of 2018 isn't going away in 2019

New York: What’s Donald Trump playing at with his $5 billion demand for a border wall and shutting down the government - the third in the last 12 months - in Christmas season? For one, this has echoes of what his chief strategist and inscrutable mastermind of the 2016 campaign Steve Bannon told a reporter after Trump pulled off the greatest political upset in American history: "Brother, Hollywood doesn't make movies where the bad guys win" - a riff on Gregory Peck's lines from Twelve O'Clock High.

Trump obsessors say the US president has a 'three terrors' boilerplate strategy that has worked for him so far and the wall fits smack in the middle of it. Pick three issues that scare the hell out of people and keep hammering it in. “Rapists”, “criminals”, “they’ll take your jobs”, “we need wall”, “end birthright citizenship”…the words can change as long as the fear makes it stick.

File photo of US president Donald Trump. Reuters

File photo of US president Donald Trump. Reuters

“Whatever it takes. We need a wall. We need safety for our country”, Trump told White House pool reporters Wednesday. That’s not all. Trump said he would be “going to the wall” early in the year for a “ground breaking” gig.

“I can’t tell you when the government is going to reopen…not until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it. I’ll call it whatever they want. But it’s all the same thing. It’s a barrier from people pouring into our country.”

Trump dug in Wednesday as the partial government shutdown grinds on, putting 800,000 government employees’ salaries in limbo.

In the imagery of the border wall, which Trump crafted for his 2016 campaign, Trump has found a gift that keeps on giving despite the legal peril of the Robert Mueller investigation that hounds him and his family. With fires burning all around - on trade, tariffs, stock markets - the wall allows Trump to be Trump and spin stuff out of thin air. Sample what he told White House pool reporters on Christmas day: “People were walking through Mexico right into San Diego, right over people’s front lawns by the hundreds, by the thousands. And they came to us, they asked for a wall, “ Trump said, without offering any supporting evidence of this type of onslaught. “A drone isn’t going to stop it.”

“Now there may be the case of an Olympic champion who can get over the wall but for the most part you are not able to do it. Very high. It’s gonna be 30 feet. Much of it is 30 feet high. Some if it’s low. But in some areas we have it as high as 30 feet. That’s like a three-story building. It’s my hope to have this done, completed — all 500 to 550 miles — to have it either renovated or brand new by election time,” Trump said, giving a timeline coinciding with the November 2020 presidential election.

The popular notion is that Trump has caved to hardline commentators Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, the leading media voices of the far right. Coulter, in an interview this week, said that, if Trump doesn’t get his wall built, he will “just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people, amused the populists for a while, but he’ll have no legacy whatsoever.” Coulter, Limbaugh and their tribe merely helped Trump rent a quote and glue it onto his hawkish agenda which has never really wavered. Free media, which acts like owned media, is always welcome. Coulter and Limbaugh are a far cry from the original alarmist Steve Bannon who began the right wing fusillade of daily news dumps about murderous illegal immigrants pouring through the southern border. It was under Bannon's direction that Breitbart opened a Texas bureau with direct lines of contact with border patrol agents which made the news site's stories more vivid and meaty.

Trump’s constant freakouts over the US Mexico border wall hide his real legacy in a very short time period - the number of people who are entering the US via perfectly legal means has shrunk, including students and temporary workers.  The number of foreign students enrolled for the first time in U.S. colleges and universities declined in 2017 for the second year in a row; new enrollment dropped nearly 7 percent compared with the previous year.

Immigration is Trump’s wonk word for a concern that runs deep within the hawks in his A-team: tectonic shifts in America’s demographic profile, awash in brown hues now. At the moment, Republicans are still predominantly white, Democrats are substantially more non-white and Hispanic. In the cracks between these cohorts, immigration has become more partisan and polarising than ever before.

Democrats have become far more pro-immigration than before. Republicans have become increasingly concerned with pro-life, reduced rights to LGBTQs and lower taxes. Given the economics of these ideologies, immigration will remain a flashpoint. Although Democrats are rejoicing over the midterm wave, fact remains that Americans did vote for the president and Senate in the same direction while the House is overwhelmingly on the other side. The gulf is here to stay.

Here are four big trends in voting patterns, culled from multiple polls including after the 2018 midterms. Each of them alone and taken together inform Trump’s battering ram strategy with the border wall.

- From 2012 through 2018, the House vote has swung right in 2014 and thereafter has been moving leftwards steadily. The 2018 results have taken the pendulum further left than in 2012.
- Many districts which had never been Democratic earlier turned Democratic in 2018.
- The most educated districts are moving more left over the years. Also, the whitest districts are continuing to move further right.
- The density of the rural/urban mix is shaping voting patterns. Urban is going left and rural is moving right consistently.
- Trump’s base (alone) is not enough to win 2020.

Data like this was available in plenty in 2016 too. The lesson Trump has learned is that saying ugly, untrue, and racist things about immigrants isn’t politically dangerous (yet) and it made him president. His unprecedented 2020 re-election machine is whirring to life and these are the rolling narratives that will define its drumroll: Immigration, criminals on your front porch, ISIS, racial grievances. You scarcely notice that Bannon is gone because all of his weapons are right here.

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Updated Date: Dec 27, 2018 08:42:48 IST

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