It’s been a busy time for border wall aficionados. Seems like every day, there’s a new dramatic development.
The House passed a bill that would pony up nearly $1.6 billion for the first stretch of President Donald Trump’s pet project.
Then there was the release of the transcript of Trump’s crazy pay-for-the-wall conversation with the president of Mexico.
And the release of a government report that estimates the Department of Homeland Security would have to screen 750,000 applicants to meet the president’s target for new Border Patrol hires.
And the discovery that Trump’s sudden announcement about barring transgender volunteers from the military was actually all about getting money to start building the ... barrier. (Sometimes you get tired of saying “wall.” It comes up so often, we should create synonyms. Fortification of the Future. Donald’s Divider. Keep working on it.)
The merging of transgender rights with barrier-building was certainly a surprise. Republicans in Congress had been working on a defense spending bill, to which Trump managed to attach the totally nondefense-related money for a Large Panel Between Us and Mexico. But final passage was being held up by social conservatives, who were trying unsuccessfully to add an amendment barring the military from paying for gender reassignment surgery.
To appease them, Trump raced out and tweeted that after “consultation with my generals and military experts” — which of course had never happened — “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
You will notice that the House argument was about whether military health care should cover a particular medical procedure, not whether transgender volunteers should be banned from the service. It’s possible that Trump, whose lack of attention to detail is so enormous it’s a wonder he ever remembers to breathe, didn’t focus on the exact issue at hand. Or maybe he just thought the best way to resolve the problem was with as much sweeping discrimination as possible.
The vision of what the president wants in a wall keeps shifting. At first it was a 2,000-mile-long, 50-foot-tall concrete monolith. Then it became maybe a little shorter, and something with solar panels. Lately he’s talked about making the wall transparent, so Americans passing by won’t be hit on the head with “large sacks of drugs” being tossed over from the Mexican side.
Trump also wants to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol officers, which the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general estimates would require the screening of 750,000 applicants. The jobs, it seems, can be both demanding and extremely boring. Clearly, the only answer would be to bring in foreign workers. As our president said when he was explaining why Mar-a-Lago keeps getting special visas to hire cooks and cleaners from abroad, “It’s very, very hard to get people.”
On the plus side, attempted illegal border crossings appear to be down. This is partly due to an improving Mexican economy but also partly due to a perception in Mexico that America is now a country governed by a crazy man. So give some credit where it’s due.
For Trump, the whole wall thing is just red meat for the troops, his most surefire applause line. It’s not clear he thinks building it would do any good, but he certainly believes it makes him look good. Last week we saw transcripts from his call to Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico. We will remember it forever for some of the deeply Donald comments. (“I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den.”)
But Trump was fixated on his promise to make Mexico pay for the wall — not actually making it happen so much as making Mexico say it would happen. Or that “we will work it out.” Or just not mentioning that Mexico was never going to put up a dime. (“... you cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”)
So it’s all about image. Maybe he sees himself going down in history as a great builder like Dwight Eisenhower (interstate highway system) or DeWitt Clinton (Erie Canal) — except that instead of helping people move faster, he would stop them from moving altogether. More like Qin Shi Huang, creator of the Great Wall of China. Trump closes his eyes and imagines tourists in 4017, coming in droves to admire the amazing, tall, transparent Great Thingie of the Mexican Border.
The chances we’ll ever see this $20-billion-plus project completed are minimal. But just keeping up pretenses will mean an enormous waste of money and effort. Maybe we could make a deal like the one Trump was trying to urge on the Mexicans. Whenever the subject of the wall comes up, we would all agree to say, “Hey, you never can tell.” In return, the president would devote that first $1.6 billion to infrastructure repair.
If he promises to leave the transgender soldiers alone, we could add, “It’s a heck of a metaphor.”
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.