Before Donald Trump announced his ultimately successful run for president in 2015, he was a blowhard real-estate magnate turned reality-TV host who couldn’t remember basic talking points about his own nascent campaign. Advisers knew he needed help, so in order to keep him on message regarding a key feature of his eventual platform — restricting immigration, particularly from Mexico and Central America — they settled on a mnemonic device: Having him tell people that he was going to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. “How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration?” Sam Nunberg, one of Trump’s early political advisers, told Roger Stone, another adviser, according to the New York Times. “We’re going to get him to talk about he’s going to build a wall.” It worked like a charm. By capitalizing on Trump’s penchant for bragging about himself and how good he was at building things, his advisers had ensured, to the best of their abilities, that their wayward candidate wouldn’t veer too wildly off script.
Then the device took on a life of its own. At Trump’s campaign rallies, “Build the wall” became a rallying cry, uniting his followers behind what many no doubt saw as a literal campaign promise despite its roots as a memory trick. Hardly one to reject popularity, Trump responded by making a nearly 2,000-mile concrete barrier spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border into a pillar of his national security platform. His commitment to this project — and desperate desire to prove he’s making progress on its construction in the lead-up to the 2020 elections — now boasts a ballooning list of costs, both financial and political. The stalemate stemming from his demands that Congress give him $5.7 billion to build part of the wall in December 2018 resulted in the longest government shutdown in U.S. history; it ended with him getting none of the money he’d demanded. The president has since been able to secure funding piecemeal as part of various emergency declarations, favorable court rulings, and spending bills — $3.6 billion here, $1.375 billion there — but has relied primarily on diverting funds from the military to bankroll what was, until this week, a roughly $11 billion project.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Trump plans to divert $7.2 billion more, bringing the total cost of the wall up to $18.4 billion and counting. No restrictions have been placed by Congress or the courts on how much the president can take from the Pentagon budget for the project, and he’s responded by siphoning off billions, leading to the delay or cancellation of several federal construction plans including road repairs, a waste-treatment facility, and schools for the children of servicemembers. The new funding is projected to allow the administration to complete 880 miles of wall by 2022 — a timetable that still doesn’t bode well for Trump’s promise to finish 450 miles by the end of 2020. “It’s hard right now to be able to say whether we’re still going to be able to meet that [450-mile] goal, but I’m confident that we’re going to be close,” Mark Morgan, acting commissioner for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in December. So far, about 101 miles of new barrier have been completed; at least 90 miles of that replaced already-existing structures, but Morgan insisted that it all be considered “new” anyway.
There’s plenty to ridicule about the president’s mad dash to produce results on a project that exists largely because he couldn’t remember what to say on the stump. He’s already had to downgrade his supporters’ expectations several times. What he framed initially as a concrete barrier spanning the entire border has materialized as a roughly 100-mile network of steel slats, fencing, and privately owned brush country and desert that many of its owners don’t wish to cede to the federal government, let alone the president’s racist vanity project. People smuggling drugs into the U.S. have been using commercially available power saws to cut holes in the newly constructed steel wall, passing contraband through largely unencumbered. And Trump has taken his reality-TV instincts to new extremes, unrolling a plan to use webcams to video record live feeds of the construction process so that everyday viewers can have visual evidence that something is, indeed, happening at the border. (This development has also rankled contractors who don’t want their proprietary techniques available for competitors to see, according to the Post.) But ultimately, any progress made on the wall — in whatever modified form it ends up taking — testifies to how seamlessly racist rhetoric can facilitate racist policy. The dilemma facing a president who promised to keep Mexicans out of America is that he must appear to be keeping Mexicans out of America. We now have a $18 billion bill and miles of flimsy and grotesque architecture to show for it.