If you're an ardent Trump supporter, the president is not making things easy for you. This is particularly true when it comes to his "big, beautiful wall" that was supposed to stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, not just a physical barrier to immigrants but a symbol of all the hopes you poured into Trump's candidacy. Two years into his presidency it still hasn't risen out of the desert, it doesn't look like it's getting closer, and all the president offers you for his failure to deliver on his promise is excuses and misdirection.
For a brief moment last week, it appeared that some sense would prevail in Donald Trump's White House. Just as he had on multiple occasions before, the president threatened to veto the spending bill necessary to keep the government open unless he got funding earmarked for his border wall. But in the past Trump has always backed down, persuaded that it wasn't worth shutting down the government. That looked like what would happen this time as well: a temporary bill to keep the government open for a while, putting off the argument over the wall for another day. Without the votes to make it happen, he appeared to have no other choice.
That is, until this most capricious of presidents heard from the people with the most influence over him: conservative media figures. Trump may be casting off advisers left and right, but he still seeks the counsel of Fox News each and every day ("He spends ever more time in front of a television, often retreating to his residence out of concern that he is being watched too closely," reports The New York Times). And what he saw there changed his mind.
Trump probably thought he had gotten them all used to a cycle: Promise a showdown over the wall, then retreat, but claim victory anyway. This time, however, he made things bad by pledging in front of dozens of cameras in an Oval Office meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, "I am proud to shut down the government for border security...I will be the one to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it." That raised expectations on the right too high, and when it appeared he would back off, there was a mini-rebellion. "It was supposed to be a 'big beautiful wall' with a 'big beautiful door.' Now it’s just an open door with no frame. Unreal. #BorderDisorder #GOPFail," tweeted Fox host Laura Ingraham. Trump's most loyal supporters "want their wall and they want it now," said Dan Bongino, guest-hosting for Trump's good friend Sean Hannity. Similar notes were sounded on conservatives talk radio. Trump was watching it all unfold, and realized he had to come through for his base, no matter the cost.
So now the government is shut down, a testament, Trump no doubt hopes, to his commitment to the wall. But one can't help but wonder: Have Trump's supporters noticed how the wall keeps shrinking, to the point where it's a shadow of its former imagined splendor?
First it was supposed to cover the entire border, but not anymore. Then for some reason Trump decided that it's not a wall at all, but "artistically designed steel slats." He even sent out a picture on Friday:
A design of our Steel Slat Barrier which is totally effective while at the same time beautiful! pic.twitter.com/sGltXh0cu9
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2018
Ah yes, so beautiful.
And what about the most important part of the entire promise Trump made in 2016, that Mexico would pay for the wall? Make no mistake, that was the very heart of the pledge, making clear that it was not just a physical barrier but a symbol of our restored strength. This is something Trump has always been acutely aware of; in a phone call on January 27, 2017, just a week after he took office, Trump begged then-president Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico to stop saying that Mexico wouldn't pay for the wall. "If you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that," Trump said, explaining that "this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important." Peña Nieto refused to budge, saying that "this is an issue related to the dignity of Mexico and goes to the national pride of my country."
Peña Nieto was no fool. He knew that paying for the wall would be a national shaming for Mexico, which was precisely the point. Trump promised his supporters that Mexico's humiliation and subjugation would be the vehicle for the restoration of their own dignity and pride.
And what does Trump say now? He can't possibly admit that it was a preposterous idea from the beginning and anyone who believed it had to have been an idiot. So the brain trust at the White House came up with an answer to the inevitable question: Mexico is paying for the wall! How? Because we made some minor adjustments to NAFTA, and if that works out there might be some increased exports to Mexico, and that means they paid for it so he kept his promise. All White House staffers are now required to repeat this bit of laughable nincompoopery.
So the big, beautiful wall across the entire border that Mexico will pay for is now some steel slat fencing in certain places that Mexico is not paying for. Mission accomplished?
But if Trump is wondering whether his base will accept it, he probably doesn't have to worry. Not because they're stupid enough to believe what he's telling them on a rational level, but because emotionally speaking, they have little choice. If you voted for Trump because of things like building a wall and having Mexico pay for it, are you going to now admit that you got swindled by America's most prominent con artist, just like any gullible enrollee of Trump University? That he was obviously lying all along and you were too dumb to see it? What would that make you?
It would make you a sucker, that's what. And nobody wants that. So don't be surprised when the next time your local paper does one of its regular "In Trump Country, Trump Supporters Still Support Trump" dispatches, little has changed.