Trump Is Losing. His Nativist Message Is Winning.

Americans like the wall more than they like the president.

A man rides his bicycle near a border wall.
A man rides his bicycle near the border wall that divides San Diego County, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, on Jan. 3. Reuters/Mohammed Salem

The government shutdown has already proved costly for President Donald Trump. A majority of Americans, including 53 percent of independent voters, blame him for the crisis, the longest in the country’s history. Trump’s approval rating has continued to slide since the shutdown began more than three weeks ago, now barely scratching 40 percent. Last week’s antics, in which Trump misused a prime-time address to score political points, lambaste the opposition, and demonize immigrants, apparently managed to persuade a laughable 2 percent of viewers of the need for a border wall. Only 31 percent of Americans support Trump using emergency powers to build the wall, as he has suggested he might, with 66 percent opposed. Trump’s visit to the border in Texas didn’t fare any better, with landowners announcing their intention to fight the government’s plan to seize their lands through eminent domain. In a desperate attempt to sway public opinion, Trump proceeded to tweet misleading figures on crime and immigration, which were soon fact-checked and debunked. Through it all, the president has appeared distraught, a hustler whose bluff has run its course.

But while Trump’s current gamble appears doomed, his longer nativist con faces better odds. Forty-two percent of Americans now support the construction of the border wall, a full 8 percentage point jump from previous results on the same question, published one year ago. Respondents who said they “strongly support” the wall’s construction increased as well, from 25 percent to 29 percent, while the number of Americans who “strongly oppose” the wall has fallen dramatically, from a clear 53 percent majority a year ago to a startling 38 percent in the middle of Trump’s border-inspired government paralysis.

Trump’s nativist rhetoric has been particularly successful with Republican voters, 88 percent of whom support the president’s border wall. As alarming as it is, the number is part of a larger trend. In another recent poll, 3 out of 4 Republican respondents identified illegal immigration as the biggest challenge facing the United States, an irrational concern in a country where income disparity, gun violence, or drug addiction are far more worrisome, but one that fits Trump’s fearmongering like a glove. And while it’s tempting to dismiss the president’s demagoguery as unreasonable, Trump’s messaging continues to be an effective device for emotional manipulation, as Slate’s Yascha Mounk recently wrote. With the exception of the possibility of impeachment, nothing makes Republicans angrier than illegal immigration.

Democrats should be careful not to misread the zeitgeist. The prolonged success of Donald Trump’s nativist message among Republican voters and the way his manic insistence on the wall has apparently made noticeable inroads among the general public need to be taken seriously. Of course, Trump is wrong in his aggressive call for the border wall, and so are those who mistake a humanitarian crisis happening thousands of miles from the border in Central America with an existential threat against the United States, but intellectual annoyance is an ineffective political tool.

If the Democratic Party’s ultimate goal is to win the presidency back from Trump, it will have to carefully consider how best to approach the issue. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who recently announced his presidential candidacy, has called the president “a failed leader” on immigration while dismissing Trump’s persistence on the wall as merely a way to stoke his political base. Other Democratic candidates will likely echo Castro’s position during the party’s primaries. They should be prudent. With the general election in mind, it seems misguided to dismiss the wall as nothing but a political symbol or a dog whistle.

In 2020, the party’s ideals on immigration could have to take a backseat to the more pressing issue of electability. Democrats could consider, for example, shelving calls to abolish ICE, a rallying cry for some of the party’s base but a fairly unpopular position nonetheless. It’s not a matter of resigning the party’s progressive principles or its more ambitious goals on the issue, but rather a call for stark pragmatism and for workable immigration policies. From the beginning of his presidential campaign, Trump’s nativist rhetoric has struck a raw nerve. However hateful and irrational, it seems to have endured. The Democratic candidate for president will need to recognize its existence and deactivate its persistent toxicity while also validating the concerns of those who, for example, support building Trump’s border wall. It will be a delicate balancing act, to say the least.

In the meantime, the president will be sticking with his not-so-delicate message.