Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: So Mexico's off the hook for that wall?

Admittedly, I don't understand many, many things about this president and the way that his mind operates, but this one is particularly confusing. Maybe you can explain it to me:

How can the threat of shutting down the U.S. government -- a threat that President Trump repeated this week -- force the government of Mexico to pay for his precious border wall?

That was the whole idea, right? It was always a two-part promise, repeated like a mantra at every Trump campaign rally. It always got a great reaction: He would build a huge lovely wall all along our southern border, aaaannnndddd, who was going to pay for it?


The part about Mexico paying for it wasn't just an afterthought. In terms of emotional resonance, it was pretty much the whole thing. It was an assertion of American dominance, a claim that under El Trumpo we would make our neighbors do whatever we wanted because dammit, we are America, God shed his grace on we.

For that same reason, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has insisted all along, publicly and emphatically, that Mexico would never ever pay for that wall. Every other prominent Mexican official has echoed that stance. So in a private phone call with Peña Nieto back in January, Trump was reduced to pleading with the Mexican leader to stop repeating that refusal, calling the wall "the least important thing" they have to talk about.

"You cannot say that to the press," Trump said on the phone call. "The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that. You cannot say that to the press because I cannot negotiate under those circumstances."

“We should both say, ‘We will work it out.’ It will work out in the formula somehow,” Trump said. "As opposed to you saying, ‘We will not pay,’ and me saying, ‘We will not pay.’”

Peña Nieto then repeated his refusal to pay for the wall, in any form or fashion, again referring to it as a nonnegotiable matter of national dignity.

So no, Mexico is not going to pay for that "stupid wall." The question then becomes whether the American taxpayer will do so.

The wall would be expensive --  somewhere between $25 billion and $70 billion. It would also be pretty useless. Illegal border crossings have been dropping for years now, and immigration experts and engineers alike have pointed out how easily a wall could be overcome by those determined to find a way.

In addition, poll after poll after poll reveals strong American opposition to it, with wall opponents outnumbering supporters by roughly a two-to-one margin. The only place where the wall still seems like a good idea is within the bubble of a Trump rally, which to Trump is the only place that matters anymore.

Again, I don't understand it. With his popularity falling to historic low levels, Trump seems to have abandoned thoughts of moderating to expand his appeal and instead is doing all he can to keep the love and affection of his dwindling hard-core base. They give him what he needs, which is love, so he wants to give them what they want, which is the wall.

Threatening to shut down the government over wall funding fits that latter strategy perfectly, as did his Charlottesville remarks and his ban on transgender Americans in the military. So too would a pardon to Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a withdrawal from NAFTA and a much-rumored decision to resume deportations of so-called Dreamers.

And while Trump doesn't give a damn, that strategy puts his fellow Republicans in a tough situation. They fear tying their political fate to that of Trump, for reasons explained by the chart above. However, they also know that if they defy him, they risk becoming the targets of his angry base.

For the moment they're doing everything they can to avoid making that choice, while Trump is trying to ensure that they must. Something's going to give, and soon.



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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.