Opinion

The President Who Walled Himself Into a Corner

Maybe another president might have gotten away with playing the terrorism card to justify his wailing

Donald Trump could learn a thing or two from the Berlin Wall, Shapiro writes. Above, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other dignitaries place flowers at the Berlin Wall Memorial in 2014, commemorating the 25th anniversary of its fall. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — Walls work. Just ask the East Germans.

Of course, the Berlin Wall, with its 15-foot-high concrete walls topped by barbed wire, only stretched for 28 miles across the divided city. And border guards killed nearly 200 East Germans as they tried to flee to freedom in the West.

In contrast, the U.S.-Mexican border is more than 1,900 miles long. But that has not prevented Donald Trump, the master builder, from fantasizing about a solar-powered wall that would be transparent to protect border agents from being conked on the head by 60-pound bags of drugs that smugglers would routinely toss over the barrier.

(This is not an extract from a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Trump actually described such a phantom solar wall — even boasting that “we have major companies looking at that” during July 2017 comments to reporters aboard Air Force One.)

Trump’s Tuesday “photo-op from hell” with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may have been the most memorable presidential session with congressional leaders since GOP senior senators informed Richard Nixon in August 1974 that he had to resign. Robert Frost anticipated the Democratic view when he wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Even by normal Trump standards what stood out during the Oval Office soap opera was the president’s fearmongering. Like a Roman emperor proclaiming, “The Huns are at the gates,” Trump depicted an America besieged: “This is a national emergency. Drugs are pouring into our country. People with tremendous medical difficulty and medical problems are pouring in. And ... it’s contagious. They’re pouring into our country.”

Good neighbors?

In reality, the crisis on the border has been spurred by a 70 percent jump in legal asylum requests at the border because of violence in Central America. (The key word in the preceding sentence is “legal” since would-be immigrants have the right under U.S. law to apply for asylum at the border. The test is whether they can demonstrate a credible fear of persecution in their home countries.)

Of course, it has never occurred to Trump that most drugs from Mexico — as John Kelly, then the secretary of Homeland Security, told Congress in April 2017 — are smuggled into this country by cars and trucks at regular border crossings. And the medical journal “Lancet” recently concluded that there was scant threat of disease from migrants crossing the border.

Maybe another president — who didn’t tell a dozen lies in tweets before breakfast — might have gotten away with playing the terrorism card to justify his wailing over the wall. As Trump hyperventilated Tuesday, “People are pouring into our country, including terrorists. We have terrorists. We caught 10 terrorists over the last very short period of time, 10.”

There is, of course, no evidence for these overheated claims. The most charitable interpretation is that Trump misunderstood a government statistic that 10 possible terrorists are blocked from entering this country each day, many of them arriving at airports. A more realistic theory — judging from Trump’s refusal to read almost anything — is that he may have deliberately mangled something he heard in passing on “Fox & Friends.”

Crisis actor

Every post-war president before Trump, with the conspicuous exception of Bill Clinton, had to confront fearful times.

From Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush, the Cold War brought with it the ominous shadow of potential nuclear war with the Soviet Union. George W. Bush had to grapple with the horrors of 9/11 and the fear of terrorism. Barack Obama took office amid the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

In contrast, Trump had it comparatively easy. The economy was roaring back by Inauguration Day 2017, the war in Afghanistan was on the back burner and there was no immediate terrorist threat.

Rather than seizing the optimistic moment, Trump reveled in creating fake crises. By virtually every measure, crime was dramatically down from its 1990s heights. But Trump built his inaugural address around the line, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

The president’s continuing obsession with the Fake Wall that Mexico would pay for is both obviously demagogic (demonizing all immigrants) and oddly sincere.

Trump clings to his see-through wall as if it were a testament to his brilliance. He is like the blowhard at the country club who bores all his golf buddies with his patented idea to eliminate the national debt by refusing to pay members of Congress until they approve a balanced budget. A guy like this is rarely deterred by reactions like “cockamamie,” “impractical” and “unconstitutional.”

If Trump wanted to find legitimate crises to occupy his time until the 2020 election, he wouldn’t have to look far. The president could always start with these: Global warming with its devastating fires and floods. Trillion-dollar deficits in boom times. An out-of-control gun culture terrorizing schools, workplaces and concerts. Russian attempts to hack our elections. The deliberate undermining of judges and law enforcement agencies like the FBI. A growing hostility to the First Amendment and the idea of objective truth. And a Saudi ally that wantonly murders Washington Post columnists with no compunction or consequences.

Instead, Trump has walled himself into a corner. He will never get his wall, and his Tuesday outburst (“I am proud to shut down the government for border security”) means that blaming the Democrats will not even convince the suddenly Sphinx-like Mike Pence.

About all Trump did is guarantee that Nancy Pelosi will be re-elected House speaker with minimal Democratic dissent. In that sense, Trump is a unifying president — for the Democrats.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter@MrWalterShapiro.

Watch: Border Wall Meeting Gets Hectic Between Trump, Schumer, Pelosi

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