I’ve been reading articles recently about how Trump is not getting much of what he wants for border wall funding in the latest spending bill. Its sparking a lot of anger on right and in response Trump has threatened to veto the bill. Its a great sign that by introducing the idea of the wall Trump has given a truly enormous gift to the American right.
Everyone knows that most people who get here illegally overstay visas or go through some other legal maneuver rather than just crossing the desert. Everyone knows that even though a lot of drugs are smuggled in from Mexico, there would be plenty of ways for drugs to get here or be made here with a Wall. The Wall is mostly symbolic. To the right it is a symbol that America is a great place and that coming and sharing in that greatness is a privilege that has to be earned by contributing. To the altruist left, the wall is a symbol that America is a fundamentally heartless and “racist” place that denies its bounty to poor suffering people just because they weren’t born here.
Because of the symbolism, the left has a hatred of the wall that vastly exceeds its practical importance or cost. If they just let it be built then for most part the problems it seeks to address would still be around and it would be easy to just forget about it. But as long as it is not built, it is a convenient stand in for the larger philosophical issue and Republicans win that issue. Most Americans are not altruists and can understand at a visceral level that helping poor foreigners doesn’t help them.
It reminds me a lot about universal healthcare. Universal healthcare was a democratic goal for decades. Republicans had the abstract, philosophical objection that it constituted “socialized medicine” and that socialism is bad. The abstract threat of socialism didn’t resonate as much with people as the observable fact that US healthcare is very expensive and being uninsured or in danger of being uninsured is scary. Finally it got to a point after the 2008 election where democrats had complete control of the federal government and a strong mandate to do something about healthcare. They managed to pass Obamacare which was a pretty small and mild reform designed to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of the old healthcare system from a consumer point of view. It didn’t address any of the thornier provider side issues. But even though it was a smallish thing, Democrats still put up the “mission accomplished” banner and haven’t stopped getting their ass kicked since. Without that issue to drive the lower middle class to polls for dems, the wind really went out of their sails. People won’t vote for the people who had a good idea and implemented it. They’ll vote for the people who have a good idea and want to implement it.
The wall is not a particularly good idea, but it represents a good idea. It represents an American government that looks out for American interests. It represents a government that is of, by and for the American people and not some other group of people. By wrapping the good idea in a bad idea that guarantees that it never gets done, Republicans have a gift that keeps on giving. It can help drive Republicans to wins for decades, and then once elected they can spend their time lowering taxes and repealing regulations and doing actual immigration reform. They can do all the stuff that helps America in the long run but has limited appeal for ordinary people.