The expectation coming into President Trump’s primetime address Tuesday night was that Trump would use the nationally televised moment to try to make a case that building a wall was some sort of an emergency, something urgent, something that required the nation’s attention not just anytime—but right now. Despite his penchant for fiery unsubstantiated rhetoric to make his point, from the Oval Office Trump flatly offered up little more than reheated immigration talking points that slowly got around to the idea that a wall would be a good idea. The lines haven’t really changed since the campaign, which was now two-plus years ago, and for a president who is trying to stoke a sense of an emergency offering up nothing new from last week, or last month, or even last year, doesn’t provide much of a rationale for dropping everything to fix a thing that hasn’t changed all that much. The wall, whatever it might look like, came off as a priority for a frustrated president, not an emergency.
What was tactically noticeable about Trump’s speech—and the buildup—is the slow-motion humanitarian pivot he’s trying to pull off, as if he could possibly win over middle-of-the-roaders who are appalled by the detention of children and the callous treatment of migrants and refugees on the border in Americans’ name. Here are consecutive lines in the speech that exemplify the discordant tone:
Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now. This is a humanitarian crisis. A crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul. Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States, a dramatic increase. These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs. One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico. Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system. This is the tragic reality of illegal immigration on our southern border. This is the cycle of human suffering that I am determined to end.
What? “A crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul?” The president is concerned about the migrant women and children? The humanitarian pump fake surely isn’t fooling anyone that doesn’t want to be fooled at this point. It also undermines the emergency powers argument. The biggest tragedy is the plight of migrant women and children, so you want to build a wall right this minute to make sure they’re safe? That’s obviously not what Trump intends. But it’s important to remember, the wall is why we’re here at the moment without a functioning government. The wall that is supposedly not simply a policy priority, but a full blown national security emergency.
The burden was on Trump to make that case, and he didn’t really come close. At one point, Trump waxed hypothetical. “Some have suggested a barrier is immoral. Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences, and gates around their homes?” Trump asked. “They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside but because they love the people on the inside.” I mean, sure. The entirety of Trump’s speech was a reminder that he’s not very good at making the case for something or explaining anything, his only effective rhetorical and political tool is scaring the bejesus out of people. If he’s not trying to terrify you, it’s probably not working.
Trump made a pass at terror by going on to link undocumented immigrants to crime and violence and drugs and other things that are bad. It’s a tactic that gets his most ardent supporters frothing at the mouth, but it’s a one-trick pony with diminishing returns. Trying to link the wall to heroin shows how thin the argument for the wall is. The president, from the Oval Office, added the requisite gore to sad stories plucked from obscurity, using lines like: “the life of an American hero was stolen”; “savagely murdered in cold blood”; “raped, murdered, and beaten to death with a hammer”; and “killing, beheading, and dismembering his neighbor.” “How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?” Trump darkly pondered.
It was a speech so unpersuasive and likely self-defeating that it didn’t need much of a response, but Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered one up anyway. Standing awkwardly close on a single podium that smacked of a Saturday Night Live skit, neither Democrat was able to emphatically dunk on Trump’s nonsense. Pelosi dutifully said the wall was dumb and Trump in the wrong for the real world consequences of shutting down the government. “The fact is, we all agree we need to secure or borders while honoring our values,” Pelosi said. “The fact is, the women and children at the border are not a security threat. They are a humanitarian challenge, a challenge that President Trump’s own cruel and counterproductive policies have only deepened.” “This president just used the backdrop of the oval office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear, and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration,” Sen. Schumer said in closing. “The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall.”