President Donald Trump has yet to break ground on his great border wall, but already it’s proving to be a powerful deterrent. Republicans are running away from it.
In TV interviews last weekend, Republican lawmakers bent over backward to avoid the word wall. “I happen to agree with the president on barriers,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine pledged “to continue to build physical barriers.” On Fox News Sunday, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, used the word barrier 13 times. Trump is “winning the battle on the importance of a barrier,” said Mulvaney. On Face the Nation, Mulvaney boasted that Democrats were privately telling the White House, “We think you might be right on this barrier thing.”
Barrier thing? If Trump is winning, why is everyone around him afraid to say the word wall?
The answer is: Trump isn’t winning. He’s been losing on this issue for a long time. The wall, as he originally proposed it, was a dumb idea. Border security experts told him so. Democrats rejected it, and polls backed them up. Trump tried to get his way by shutting down the government, but nobody budged, and his approval ratings tanked. So now Republicans have retreated to a fallback position. They’re claiming that renovations and extensions of current border infrastructure—in short, the status quo—count as Trump’s wall.
One sign of the president’s troubles is the behavior of his polling adviser, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. She’s been recoiling from the word wall like a vampire recoiling from sunlight. Democrats “keep calling it the wall, the wall, because they want that to be a four-letter word,” Conway complained on Fox News earlier this month. When an interviewer asked whether Trump would “sign something that doesn’t have border wall funding,” Conway shot back, “It’s not border wall funding. It’s border security.” Last week on CNN, Conway and Chris Cuomo engaged in a 14-minute spell-casting duel. Cuomo hurled the word wall 15 times; Conway fired back with eight invocations of barrier and four uses of fence.
Conway understands that the word wall is poison. Last week, a reporter asked her about a survey that showed 71 percent of Americans didn’t think the wall was worth the shutdown. “Why is that a good question?” Conway snapped. “I’m asking why you and the polling questions, respectfully, are still saying wall.” Survey questions about a “fence” tend to attract more support than questions about a “wall.” By shifting the GOP’s language, Conway hopes to shift the polls.
Why does a wall poll badly? Because it never made sense. It was a gimmick designed for the 2016 Republican primaries. As conceived by Trump and his aides, the wall was supposed to be huge, manly, and a manifestation of Trump’s genius as a builder. It would be “massive,” made of concrete units 40 to 50 feet tall, bigger than the Great Wall of China. It would be an icon of American dominance, growing taller, according to Trump, every time Mexico refused to pay for it. When a rival candidate called it a fence, Trump bristled: “Jeb Bush just talked about my border proposal to build a ‘fence.’ It’s not a fence, Jeb, it’s a WALL, and there’s a BIG difference!”
The wall was supposed to be unprecedented in scale and grandeur. It would be “like you have never seen before,” Trump promised. It would prove his superiority over “politicians” who, in Trump’s words, had “no idea” how to construct such a thing. “Nobody builds walls better than me,” Trump declared at his campaign kickoff in June 2015. When a reporter asked the candidate how he would erect “a 1,900-mile wall,” Trump replied: “Very easy. I’m a builder.”
The whole shtick was a fraud. Trump knew nothing about the border. After he became president, border security officers explained to him that a huge concrete wall would block them from seeing people on the other side. They noted that along much of the border, rivers, canyons, and other natural features make a wall unnecessary or impractical. Experts pointed out the legal headaches of seizing ranchers’ land. Instead of a wall, they recommended better detection technology, more personnel, and slatted fences along specific parts of the border. In other words, an extension of the current system.
Trump didn’t want to give up his dream. But in November, he lost the House. In December, facing trouble in the polls and in Congress, he began to change his language. “The Democrats are saying loud and clear that they do not want to build a Concrete Wall,” Trump tweeted, “but we are not building a Concrete Wall, we are building artistically designed steel slats.” An extension of current fencing, he argued on Jan. 4, would be even more powerful than what he had originally envisioned: “A see-through wall made out of steel is far stronger than a concrete wall.”
On Friday, as he ended the shutdown, Trump recast his position. He stood not for a massive concrete wall—“We never proposed that,” he lied—but for “smart walls” with “see-through visibility … equipped with sensors, monitors,” and “state-of-the-art drones.” These “structures”—Trump also called them “barriers” and “fences”—would be built only at “high-risk locations.” Such barriers were hardly radical, he argued, since the past two administrations had constructed them along one-third of the border. In fact, said Trump, “Most of the Democrats in Congress have voted in the past for bills that include walls and physical barriers and very powerful fences.”
This retreat puts Republicans in a safer defensive posture. They shut down the government, and eventually reopened it, for nothing. By redefining the wall as an extension of current fencing, they give themselves a chance to attract Democratic support for at least some border construction, for which Trump can later take credit. The GOP’s new position also helps Republicans deflect the objection that they controlled Congress for two years and did nothing. “We are building the wall right now, a portion of it,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy assured Trump’s supporters on Sunday’s Meet the Press. The next day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders bragged that Trump, with congressional authorization, had already “contracted to build roughly 115 miles” of border fencing.
Meanwhile, the new position gives Republicans a better angle of attack. If Democrats balk at extending the fences, Republicans can call them hypocrites. “We’ve got Democrats with hair on fire saying they’ll never vote for a wall,” Mulvaney protested on Face the Nation. “But they voted for money to build that exact wall. In fact, something very similar is being built today.” Conway, speaking with reporters last week, said she would tell Democrats, “You’re betraying your own past votes … if your border security package does not include a physical barrier.”
But the Republican retreat also creates problems. To begin with, it complicates Trump’s depiction of Democrats as the party of open borders. On Fox News Sunday, Mulvaney lambasted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for refusing to “give us a single dollar for the wall.” He asked whether Democrats were so “beholden” to Pelosi that they were “never going to vote for a barrier.” But 30 seconds later, he called Pelosi a hypocrite because she “just voted for almost a quarter-billion dollars for a barrier on the southern border.” Which is it, Mick? Is she a conniving centrist or a wild-eyed liberal?
Second, piecemeal extensions of the status quo might not satisfy Trump’s base. Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser, says polls and focus groups show the president’s supporters want a wall “that is not like anything that is built before.” That magnificent colossus is exactly what they’re not going to get, and Trump isn’t happy about it. Four weeks ago, the president’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, told the Los Angeles Times that Trump’s latest proposal was “not a wall.” On Twitter, Trump fired back: “An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED.”
So good luck, Republicans, on selling your base—and your boss—on slats and sensors. Maybe, while avoiding the word wall, you can somehow convince Trump’s supporters that they’re getting one. But the narcissist who conceived this idea as a monument to his greatness might not surrender that fantasy without a longer fight. And it’s hard to let go of the wall when your president is still on the fence.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.