Trump’s Wall is similar to JFK’s call to put a man on the moon. It is big, it is ambitious, and it is declared in the face of tremendous skepticism. It promises a great sense of accomplishment for our nation, a great act of self-assertion. Gingrich last time around tried something like this in proposing to start a colony on the moon. It was ambitious, but there wasn’t any appetite for it. A great nation project can’t just be big, it has to match the taste of the nation. Romney called Gingrich “zany” for proposing it, as I recall, and it hurt his campaign.
The Wall has sustained Trump’s campaign and shows that it does match the current taste of the nation. Why is that?
It serves a variety of purposes. One, the Wall is the cornerstone of any Republican plan to fix illegal immigration. This is the lesson of history from Reagan’s amnesty for illegal immigrants — the border wasn’t secure and the problem returned. The problem matters to blue collar Americans because it is hard enough to make a living while competing with those here legally. Employers will hire illegal immigrants because they will work for cheaper wages.
The Wall appeals to our national pride and the desperation of many to find a good job, to get a better car, to pay down some debt. We’ve had 9/11, the recession, and a transforming global economy. The Wall isn’t just functional. It’s symbolic of a country than can do anything it puts its mind to and is willing to take care of its own.
So why does Trump take so much heat? The answer is simple: he used the idea of the Wall to go hard after a big slice of the white vote. He depicted Mexico as the great villain. Mexicans coming into the country illegally were called rapists and drug dealers. The drug epidemic in places like New Hampshire is said to be the work of Mexicans. Many of the jobs leaving the country are said to be going to Mexico.
He made Mexicans into villains in order to justify tough anti-Mexican policies. Mexico will pay for the Wall or suffer a trade war. Mexican illegal immigrants, along with all other illegal immigrants, are going to be deported. Even the children of illegal immigrants born here will be deported. The precedent he cited for this government action was Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback.” He threw Jorge Ramos out of a press conference, got in a public dust up with Telemundo, later said he doesn’t trust anything Univision says.
There have been no olive branches extended by Trump or his campaign to Mexico, to the Mexican-American community, or to the Latino community, beyond saying that “the good ones can come back in.” He proudly accuses everyone else running for president as being “weak on immigration.”
There are a lot of good reasons why we probably should build some sort of Wall on the southern border. Trump acknowledges some of them. But he goes way beyond that because he clearly doesn’t believe that a great national project matching the taste of the nation will win him the election. He therefore self-consciously juices his sales pitch by appealing to white Americans in a racist way. This embarrasses his supporters, and they often admit to feeling the heat, because 1. they are seen as biting on a racially infused message, and 2. we all see them cheering as much or more at his anti-Mexican applause lines and confrontational theatrics as they do at his calls for jobs, national pride, and taking care of our own.
It’s too bad Trump estimated America’s current greatness as non-existent. He might have calculated differently, that a respectable campaign would be the key to victory. He might have worried about the harm such a campaign would cause. Instead, he’s motivated by a dog-eat-dog attitude, and he doesn’t care.