Why Trump is shrewdly calling the GOP Congress' bluff on the wall

What does he have to lose?

Sen. Mitch McConnell, President Trump, and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Images courtesy Mark Wilson/Getty Images, SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If President Trump chooses to shut down the government over funding for the border wall that he said Mexico was supposed to pay for, it will be exactly what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan deserve.

Now, I do not think the wall is ever going to be built. It was always an over-the-top, too-obvious solution to a complicated problem. Which is not to say that it was ever a simple proposition: Building 2,000 miles of continuous fence across the geologically diverse, frequently inhospitable terrain of the southern United States with or without the cooperation of Mexico, not to mention American property owners whose land the wall would need to occupy, would be one of the greatest feats of mega-construction in recent history.

It's sort of extraordinary on its face that conservatives who don't think the federal government is competent enough to provide basic health-care services to Americans — even though it already does — would want to entrust it with a project of such dizzying complexity, or that budget hawks who think that fruit and peanut-butter sandwiches for poor kids are a waste of money are happy to blow some $22 billion on a wall. Besides, we have already built cost-effective piecemeal walls along areas of the border where drug smuggling is a major concern — between San Diego and Tijuana, for example. That cost less than $60 million.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Ryan and McConnell probably agree with me here. At best they are indifferent to the wall, even if they are reluctantly willing to mouth along and call it a "necessity." Like repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, building the wall and getting tougher on "border security" have been good ad copy for GOP House and Senate candidates for more than a decade now. The really astonishing thing is that the party did not vote on 46 different versions of the "Huge Ugly Palisade For Our Southern Border Funding Act" while President Obama was in office.

Ryan is only too happy to make painfully dorky would-be tough-guy infomercials in which he flies by the Rio Grande in helicopters and talks about how "it's time for the wall," but it's not important enough to him to bother whipping his caucus over funding for it. Building the wall is one of those issues like calls for an end to legal abortion that is only valuable to the party as a kind of vague prophecy from which Republicans benefit only so long as it remains unfulfilled. Consciously or not, most GOP leaders operate under the assumption that these things will never come to pass and that the voters will pull the lever every two years regardless without noticing — the political equivalent of Charlie Brown being in on the deal with Lucy to make sure that the football is never kicked.

Trump knows that Ryan and McConnell dislike him and would have been happier to see the White House go to any of his rivals not named "Rand Paul," including Hillary Clinton. He also seems to intuit their cynicism about the wall and the rest of the Republican platform that does not involve lowering taxes, especially the parts that he successfully grafted onto it: large-scale spending on infrastructure and a less liberal approach to trade.

Gambling on a shutdown over the wall is an easy choice for Trump. He has absolutely nothing to lose and the reputations of his Republican enemies to destroy. In the long term, though, it's unlikely to make a difference. Trump, having made his point, will equivocate once more on what the meaning of "wall" is and agree to sign off on a few billion dollars for additional fencing and the hiring of ICE personnel. In a press conference, perhaps with a freshly pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio by his side, he will announce that the wall is finally being built, "big beautiful door" and all. And he will make it clear that these randomly distributed symbolic 35-foot pieces of concrete or barbed wire are all his, exactly what he fought for all along, the greatest wall in the history of walls, like you wouldn't believe.

Meanwhile, for a day or two until the shutdown is resolved McConnell and Ryan will not be able to answer their constituents' questions about why they did not initially support the president's wall. But the same people will vote for them anyway.

There are always more footballs.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us