How Donald Trump Played the (White) Race Card and Reshaped the Democratic Party
BY NINA BURLEIGH
“Today, we started a big, beautiful wall.” It was mid-February, and President Donald Trump was crowing at his first MAGA rally of 2019. There was no new wall, of course, and everyone in the border town of El Paso, Texas, could see that. But in the sea of red hats at the County Coliseum, the line was met with roars of approval. What mattered was that the president was owning the libs, undeterred several weeks after provoking, then caving over, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Before Trump rolled into town, El Paso’s sheriff was telling anyone who would listen that El Paso “was a safe city long before any wall was built.” Republican Mayor Dee Margo similarly denounced Trump’s claims during his State of the Union address that El Paso was riddled with crime until it put a barrier in place. Media outlets like the Associated Press published stats: El Paso’s murder rate was already less than half the national average in 2005, a year before the city’s border fence with Mexico went up, and for almost a decade before, El Paso was rated one of the three safest major cities.
But the crowd was there to hear Trump’s version. “Murders! Murders! Murders! Killings! Murders!” the president shouted, before turning on El Paso’s leaders. “They’re full of crap when they say it hasn’t made a big difference,” the president told the crowd. “Thanks to a powerful border wall in El Paso, Texas, it’s one of America’s safest cities now.”
The wall has always been pure Trump shtick. And, as the president heads into the second half of his term, the American public seems to be tiring of it. Border states are split over the topic. The government shutdown slammed Trump’s approval ratings and squeezed his beleaguered party in Congress almost to the breaking point. Still, Trump gave up only as one major international airport was closing terminals and Federal Aviation Administration unions and airlines warned of imminent safety concerns. And when he pushed ahead with a national emergency declaration to fund his concrete or steel-slatted barrier, less than 40 percent of Americans supported him, according to multiple polls.
But as with all things Trump, there is some method to the madness: The wall is not so much about policy and security as it is about politics and symbolism. Started by his campaign advisers as a rhetorical device to keep the notoriously off-script Trump on task, the wall elicited cheers, then rapture among conservative crowds: “Build! The! Wall!” There would, of course, be other plans: Ban Muslims, deport “bad hombres” and restore “law and order.” But nothing beat the wall, which served as not only a singular campaign promise in Trump’s self-described “war on illegal immigration,” but also the physical embodiment of the identity politics that defined his bid from the outset.