“When you actually look at the bill itself, it incorporates all sorts of Republican ideas.”
That was Barack Obama in 2010, talking to Matt Lauer on Today. In his health care law’s formative stages, Obama made a point of sharing credit for the Affordable Care Act with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that had developed core ACA concepts, such as the state health exchanges, as proposals for a Republican majority in Congress to consider in the 1990s. Obama also cited the universal health care mandate in Massachusetts, a system that Mitt Romney helped launch when he was the state’s governor. Through flattery, Obama taunted conservatives.
In turn, the Heritage Foundation and Fox News crafted a dark term of endearment for the controversial health care proposal—“Obamacare.” Obama’s opponents deployed the term as an ominous, Orwellian summary of a Democratic president’s invasive conception of federal authority. Gradually, however, Obama embraced the more flattering connotations: “Obamacare” was an ambitious proposal befitting an ambitious president. “Obamacare” has become the shorthand for a long and complicated presidency, so largely defined by a single, tumultuous proposal.
These watchwords define presidential legacies. They’re priorities as vague as “law and order” or as concrete as the Soviet collapse. Typically, they amount to a singular concern—ideally, an achievement—that simplifies and glorifies a political leader’s outlook. President Donald Trump’s great concern is nonwhite immigration. His focus, in particular, is on groups entering the U.S. through the southern border. So Trump has promised to build The Wall, a $5.7 billion superstructure that would run more than 200 miles along the southern border. The Wall is a policy proposal turned political myth.
In general, Trump’s presidency has been an unwieldy proposition, but The Wall—in its capitalized infamy—summarizes Trump and his politics with definitive clarity. It’s Trump’s Obamacare. The Wall is a simplistic, expensive, blunt-force expression of xenophobia, a bias which informs Trump’s ideas about immigration, international trade, and civil rights. The Wall dominates the U.S. even as it fails as a proposal. Trump’s critics are free to oppose The Wall, but they are slaves to the president’s obsession with building it. Hence, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer holding firm in their negotiating stance against The Wall despite their impulse toward capitulation in other matters: To oppose The Wall is to oppose the very notion of Donald Trump. And to permit The Wall, however conditionally, is to give Trump everything.
Before Christmas, Trump had resigned himself to authorizing the spending bills, keeping the federal government open, and leading his never-ending campaign for a border wall into the 2020 presidential election season. He only renewed his threat of a federal government shutdown after prominent right-wing pundits, including Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, disparaged Trump for once again retreating from the banner promise of his presidential campaign. “If we don’t get what we want, I will shut down the government,” Trump promised. “I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” the president added. For 21 days now, Trump has brought the government to a halt as he makes a last, dramatic stand for The Wall. On Tuesday, the president dedicated his first televised address from the Oval Office to stump for The Wall and shunt blame for the shutdown onto congressional Democrats. Trump has said he might otherwise declare a national emergency at the southern border in order to authorize funding for The Wall without congressional approval. Congressional Republicans have always been ambivalent about The Wall, and now they’re defecting, so Trump is preparing to go it alone.
But Trump has also underscored his own weakness in a public policy debate of his own design. Trump has subordinated himself to Limbaugh and Coulter, he’s complicated his language—a “wall,” a “fence,” a “barrier,” “whatever you want to call it”—in the unhappy negotiations with Pelosi and Schumer, and he’s made Mike Pence take on a greater share of responsibility for outflanking Democrats in the press. Obamacare was a crash course in partisan discipline; The Wall is every hack for himself.
In a White House meeting with reporters before his televised address, Trump blamed his own advisers for casting him as the star of a political strategy that he believes will not “change a damn thing.” On Thursday, Trump attended a border security discussion in McAllen, Texas, despite his having already characterized the visit, arranged by his advisers, as a waste of time. Trump’s pessimism, which now sounds fatal, seems to have doomed The Wall as a symbol of Trump’s uncompromising vitality. The Wall isn’t just failing. It’s becoming someone else’s idea.
For Trump, The Wall would ideally persist as a renewed promise in the 2020 presidential election—a specter of “obstructionism” for Trump voters to rally decisively against. But Trump’s doubling down on The Wall in the wrong year may have sabotaged the whole project. Politically, The Wall is disintegrating. So, too, is Trump’s confidence. In 2020, Trump voters may be forced to confront The Wall as the president’s definitive failure.