Trump's Wall is Falling, and the Dangers of Relying on Symbols

Back in December we pointed out that Trump's "wall" is, in essence, a myth. Whether people crave it or despise it, their feelings about it don't reflect reality. That hasn't stopped it from remaining a top item from Trump, for the news, and 

After abandoning the dream to get Mexico to pay for the wall, Trump demanded Congress pay for it. With cost estimates between $15B and $67B and everywhere in between, Congress balked at covering the bill. Recently, Trump asked for a $1.6B startup fund for the wall in this year's budget, just to get things started. But even this is probably dead on arrival: three Republican Senators have openly opposed the funding, which would max out its vote in the senate at 49. Interestingly, they are all senators from border states with Mexico: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. 

Will Hurd of Texas said, "I voted against including border wall funding into the recent appropriations package because I favor a border security solution based on improved technology and manpower... I’ve made it clear time and time again that building a physical wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border.”

A Wall by Any Other Name...

We can start to dig up evidence to support the idea that Trump's problem is that he is so politically attached to a wall, rather than some broad opposition to border security.

Congress probably won't give Trump the $1.6B he so wants, but it's not a big chunk of change. Bush and Obama each got Congress to increase annual spending on the US Border Patrol alone by more than $1.2B each. For more context, the $1.6B is less than one-tenth what the US spent on border security in 2012. It's not that $1.6B for border security is a lot of money. It's that $1.6B for a wall is something Congress is not willing to pay for.

Americans as a whole feel similarly. Consistently, Americans oppose funding Trump's border wall (58% against to 28% for). However, 50% of Americans (in the same poll) wanted to increase border security spending, with 32% opposing. An even clearer picture comes from a January 6th Pew poll: 77% of Americans believe it is important for the US to establish "stricter policies" to prevent people from overstaying their visas. In the poll, this 77% was the top priority related to immigration. Only 39% said building a wall along the border was a priority; this was the lowest priority in the poll.

The United States has been building what is most definitely not a wall for years. Behold below, construction of concrete... uh, fencing, which sits in front of steel fencing, along the border in Douglas, Arizona. 

If you want, here are many more pictures of what is most definitely not a wall, which already covers 700 miles of the 2000-mile border.

The not-wall has been outfitted with cameras, drones, and more border patrol agents than ever before. All this was done during the Bush and Obama years, and certainly did not cause as much of a stir. In fact, then-Senator Obama said in 2006, in support of funding a border not-wall, “The bill before us will certainly do some good...” it will provide “better fences and better security along our borders” and would “help stem some of the tide of illegal immigration in this country.”

The 2006 Secure Fence Act passed with support of more than half the Democrats in Senate. Talk about bipartisan!

Why is "Wall" So Toxic?

It's quite clear that Americans support stronger border security, but not a wall. They seem fine with a big, beautiful fence, but not a wall. What gives?

This appears to be a problem of symbolism. Can you imagine people getting upset--especially from other countries--about Obama saying in 2006 that the US needed a stronger border fence? You probably can't imagine it, because it didn't happen.

Multiple times, Obama made clear he was extending and expanding a policy that Bush started, and was popular. It created a sense of consistency. People wanted more, incremental change, and they were happy with the direction. To be clear, Bush was also expanding a Clinton policy, though it's likely that 9/11 created a sense of urgency to kick things up a notch.

The reason Trump's wall is a myth is that there is already a fence. There is already a lot of money going into border security. The 2006 bill still mandates that the government make the fence longer than it is. When Trump came out and said that a "big, beautiful wall" would be his policy, he implied there would be a grand departure from past policy. He ran on the idea that Obama had been soft on immigration, when in reality the number of illegal immigrants in the US held steady or dropped under Obama--the first time that happened since well before Clinton.


The number of illegal immigrants entering the US that simply crossed the Mexican border dropped by two thirds since 2000, and apprehensions are down 80%. 

All that means the following: Bush/Obama policies are generally working. Maybe they can be improved. Maybe more needs to be done in certain areas. But they seem to have improved border security, which has been a priority for Americans generally.

The symbol of "the wall" is disconnected from reality. "The wall" implies a major policy shift, when the US has already spent years and billions building not-a-wall. "The wall" is out to solve a major crisis that has been as-yet ignored, when in reality the state of illegal immigration in the US has improved markedly from the last legislative action. It's big and expensive, where the border fence is comparatively clunky and lean. Perhaps worst, Trump spent his campaign talking about "the wall" by making claims that illegal immigrants from Mexico tended to be rapists and drug dealers. Trump couldn't cite dramatic statistics (for indeed, the number of illegal immigrants in the US under Obama's tenure decreased) so he told stories. "The wall" as a symbol was inexorably tied to big government spending, as well as xenophobia. The fence did not get tied up with these problems. That is probably the difference.

Now Trump is stuck with his symbol. He promised repeatedly that he would build it, and his base still wants him to build it (or at least fulfill one of his campaign promises). But it probably won't pass. If Trump had used a less potent symbol--if, for example, he had merely promised to boost border security--he could cut a deal for a brand new drone in Arizona and claim a win. But he can't do that: it's Wall or Bust. 

Such is the dilemma of campaigning on symbols. But as we learned from Fonseca when talking last year about Trump and Podemos, symbols are a great way to win the election. They might, however, be a hinder to governing.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.