In an insightful discussion of Donald Trump’s epic, Castro-length address to CPAC last weekend, Ron Brownstein offered this particularly interesting observation:
The speech demonstrated yet again that he’s more comfortable positioning himself as the lone sentry manning the watch at “midnight in America” than as the optimist who has delivered “morning in America,” as Ronald Reagan memorably put it …
As a preview of 2020, Trump’s CPAC speech once again showed how closely he is likely to echo the central arguments of conservative populists, from Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan. Like those predecessors, he portrayed his preponderantly white followers as caught between disdainful elites and dangerous minorities. Trump lambasted “the failed ruling class” that he claimed has betrayed working Americans with free-trade deals. He described college campuses as biased against conservatives, and he insisted that “Hollywood discriminates against our people.” And as he has done since his first day as a national candidate, Trump warned darkly of immigrants coming to steal Americans’ jobs or menace them with crime …
As he summoned all these dangers, Trump simultaneously portrayed himself as the one force that could block them. As [Public Religion Research Institute’s Robert] Jones described it, Trump offered himself to his supporters as “a kind of wall,” a resolute barrier against the forces of social and economic change.
This last comment helps explain why Trump has been so obsessively fanatical about emphasizing his border-wall pledge despite plentiful evidence that the public doesn’t support it. The wall isn’t just “a wall,” and it’s not just an emblem for fears about immigration: It’s a symbol of fears about every kind of fear Trump supporters, actual and potential, might harbor. Trump’s faith in the political potency of those fears is so strong that he’s all but sacrificing the usual advantages of incumbency at a time when the country’s not at war and the economy is doing well. “Trump may have synthesized the essence of his reelection strategy in just three words toward the back end of his two-hour harangue,” said Brownstein: “‘I’ll protect you.’”
For all the endless predictions of a Trump “pivot,” or at least a recognition that swing voters (however sparse) exist and matter, he’s giving every indication that he’s reprising his 2016 message and making his incumbency an act of defiance of the baby-killing secular socialists, activist judges, criminal immigrants, and traitorous CEOs he suggests are still in charge of the country. Instead of proudly defending his accomplishments (though he will always throw some boasting into his communications), the 45th president is running again as a bulwark against otherwise inevitable and terrifying change.
This adds a new resonance to the “Finish the Wall” slogan that has adorned signs at Trump’s recent rallies. This isn’t just a nod to his on-again, off-again claims that a border wall is already in existence, or is nearly completed. The wall has already entered the largely symbolic land of fantasy, as my colleague Jonathan Chait recently observed:
As time goes on, just as a child’s imaginary friend becomes more elaborate and fully developed over time, the wall will surely acquire more specific attributes. It will be strong and powerful, beautiful yet forbidding, possibly even festooned with solar panels. In truth, nearly everybody who wanted to believe in the wall in the first place will believe it exists.
But more importantly, the wall can live on without physical manifestations because it has become a metaphor for Trump himself, who is holding back the multicultural hordes and needs more time to throw them off the ramparts definitively with another four years of conservative judicial appointments, ICE raids, tariff barriers, insults to international and domestic elites, attacks on Planned Parenthood, battles with the hippies of California, and yes, conflicts over immigration policies. He just needs that second term to finish building that wall.