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The Wall Is Dead, Long Live the Fence: How Trump Lost His Signature Battle

The president campaigned on a U.S.-Mexico border wall paid for by the Mexican government. He didn’t get it. How did he fail so badly?

Illustration showing President Donald Trump behind a fence Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday, congressional leaders reached an “agreement in principle” to approve a new homeland security budget, which includes spending for physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. If passed, the spending bill would fund federal government operations through September, thus averting another federal government shutdown commencing only three weeks after the previous shutdown ended.

Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer brokered the compromise in the Senate, and McConnell has urged President Donald Trump to sign the bill by the end of the week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has urged Democrats to support the spending bill in a final vote in the House. McConnell, Schumer, and Pelosi have all outflanked Donald Trump. The president has complained about the prevailing compromise bill, which falls a few billion dollars short of his proposed funding for the border wall. “I’m not happy about it,” he told reporters Tuesday. Still, Trump seems resigned to signing the bill, having lost his party leadership’s support for his definitive campaign promise, which Trump has sheepishly redefined in recent weeks. Gradually, Trump downgraded his “wall” to a “fence.” And Congress downgraded the funding from $5.7 billion to $1.4 billion to cover a mere 55 miles along the Rio Grande. Trump will walk away with even less funding than the $1.6 billion the Senate offered him in December. The wall is dead. Long live the fence.

Trump lost. Worse yet, Trump lost in a protracted and counterproductive manner that underscored his key weaknesses—his unpopularity, his extremism, his ignorance, his impulsiveness, and his ambiguity. Initially, Trump saw the border wall clash as an opportunity to flatter and rally his conservative base. Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh had urged Trump to extract his desired $5.7 billion in border wall funding from Congress under threat of a federal government shutdown. In November, Democrats won a majority in the House, thus endangering Trump’s top legislative priority. So Trump demanded the border wall funding from a departing Congress with unprecedented urgency. He described a violent “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border; he characterized a migrant group traveling up from Honduras as a cocaine parade co-sponsored by MS-13 and the Islamic State. Briefly, Trump threatened to declare a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border to create a legal pretext for building the wall without congressional authorization. He reneged after Republican leaders warned him against setting a dangerous precedent that Republicans might live to regret.


Two months ago, the shutdown began with Coulter ranting against Trump, calling him a “gutless president in a wall-less country.” The border wall crisis now ends as it began: Coulter has spent the past few weeks ranting against Trump, characterizing the president as a sellout. “We put this lunatic in the White House for one reason,” Coulter told Yahoo News, referring to his infamous plan to build a long, tall border wall and then get Mexico to pay the construction costs. It was always a whimsical proposal and a sham; Trump remains a whimsical politician and sham himself, but he now has little to show for himself. He wasted two months of his presidency, he lost face, he lost confidence, and he won nothing.

Still, Trump’s failure reaffirms his unique value to the conservative movement. For two months, Trump aggressively pursued a right-wing immigration priority that congressional Republicans, in all their mainstream squeamishness, barely supported. If anything, McConnell, Schumer, and Pelosi all prevailing over the president only reaffirms Trump’s alienation from mainstream political consensus, which Trump’s base already believes to be a cynical and corrupt conspiracy against the president, his supporters, and conservatism in general. Trump’s losing the border wall fight should demoralize his hardcore supporters, much as the failure has demoralized Coulter, except for the fact that the border wall is no more compelling as a physical structure than it is—and will be again, next year—as a campaign promise. This isn’t Obamacare, a signature legislative priority which, for better or worse, changed how millions of citizens interacted with the U.S. health care system. The immigration crisis is fake, though the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border—which Trump has gleefully exacerbated—is quite real. The wall is a myth. Its physical dimensions and its very existence are largely beside the point.

The demagogue is nothing without his bogeymen and his scapegoats. The candidate is nothing without his promises, however mythical, divisive, or ridiculous. If Trump can characterize his own defeat as a failure of the Republican establishment’s political will and imagination, then he will have spun his most humiliating episode into an argument for his re-election. He came; he tried; he failed only because the weak-willed Republican establishment struggles to believe. Mitch McConnell is the real problem. He’s the gutless one. In a wall-less country, Trump is, as ever, the solution.