I used to think that President Trump was unwavering in his insistence on the erection of some 2,000 miles of palisade across America’s southern border, even if no one else was. The “Wall” was, more than anything else, the mainstay of his candidacy, an issue that defined his ludicrous, hectoring, loud-mouthed pro wrestling match of a campaign.
Sure, Trump was happy to equivocate about whether the Mexican government would be responsible for funding its construction. The definition of what it would mean for our neighbors to “pay for it” shifted several times, from a direct transfer of funds from “Mexico’s” checking account to an increase in visa fees to any number of beautifully dotty schemes involving a ban on wire transfers to Mexico that could theoretically raise $24 billion.
But at some point it became clear that Vicente Fox was right and Mexico was not going to pay for the “f—g Wall” after all. It then became the responsibility of Congress to secure the necessary appropriations. Since last summer at least it has been hinted, not least by the man himself, that Trump would veto a budget that did not contain money for the Wall. This raised the distinct possibility of a government shutdown if Republicans faced defections and Democrats decided to seize upon the most obvious of wedge issues.
Last Friday, the president got exactly what he wanted. In the frenzy of last-minute negotiations, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreed to nearly $2 billion in funding for a project that he and his party have opposed for many years.
What did Schumer, speaking on behalf of all but the most recalcitrant (and earnestly progressive) of Senate Democrats, want in exchange for this Wall funding? Only support for an extension of DACA, the Obama-era program that indefinitely deferred deportation proceedings for people illegally brought to this country as children. This was something which Trump himself had been urging Congress to pass for months, despite having given DACA just six months to live with an executive fiat in the fall.
Trump rejected the Wall funding deal out of hand, and Democrats found themselves getting far more of the blame for the abortive three-day government shutdown that followed the breakdown of negotiations. What could possibly explain his reluctance?
The answer must surely be that somewhere in his mind Trump does not actually support the construction of the Wall, at least not in any conventional sense. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, told legislators as much last week. Trump, Kelly suggested, had not been “fully informed” of the practical questions surrounding its construction and the present state of border security while on the campaign trail. Since then, lawmakers were told, his views had “evolved.”
This seems plausible and even in a sense admirable. It is normal, healthy, sane human behavior to change your mind about something after you come to understand it better. Which is exactly why only a few hours after Kelly spoke the president decided to contradict him. Trump responded with one of those prose poems he is so fond of composing and sharing with the world’s litterateurs via Twitter:
The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2018
These are not the words of an elected official opining in a public forum on a question of practical import. They are a High Romantic credo, an aesthetic and even religious testament, a singing affirmation of Platonic idealism. The Wall, eternal and unchanging, sprang fully formed out of the president’s brain, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, and its existence in a plane beyond our experience is sublime and ineffable. And also see-through.
All of this goes a long way towards explaining the seeming contradiction here. We don’t need to build the Wall. The Wall is already there for those with eyes to see. Any attempt to realize it in actual plate glass and concrete would besmirch the ideal Wall that Trump willed into existence goodness knows how many eons ago.
To enjoy even a fleeting glimpse of the private mental world of our president would be an extraordinary privilege, a fantastical excursion worthy of Aladdin’s descent into the genie’s cave. What pale, glittering fancies must there reside! To lose oneself in the labyrinthine expanse of that inscrutable intelligence would enlighten us with unguessable wisdom. Alas, we must imagine for ourselves what rubies, what carved idols of gold and graven likenesses of men and beasts loom and delight his waking dreams.
Nobody knows what Trump is thinking, or what he wants, or what he expects, or what he remembers or regrets except the man himself. This is not going to change.