Once upon a time, there was a wall. It was a big wall, although no one knew exactly how big. They knew only that it often grew 10 feet higher when Donald Trump gave a speech.
The wall was a powerful structure. It helped rally millions of voters behind Trump, lifting him to the Republican nomination. Once, Trump said that whenever his crowds seemed to grow bored or restless, “I just say ‘We will build the wall!’ and they go nuts.”
Mostly, the wall did what walls are supposed to: It divided people. It divided those who cheered its mention from those who wanted serious-minded immigration reform. It divided those who wanted to demonize immigrants from those who understood what those immigrants were fleeing and trying to find.
But not long ago, the wall began to change. First, Trump tried to camouflage it by talking about a “softening” of his immigration policy. Instead of emphasizing Mexican “rapists” or his proposed “deportation force,” he spoke about finding “something fair” for undocumented immigrants – which happens to be what most Americans want.
Meanwhile, some Trump surrogates suggested that maybe the wall was kind of a metaphorical wall. That included former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said at least some of the wall would be “technological” and “digital.”
When his supporters expressed alarm at this, Trump quickly backpedaled. “We’re going to have a real wall,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and he assured them that his “softening” on immigration was actually a “hardening.”
If all of that is a confusing tale, well, yes.
This is what happens when fiction meets non-fiction. It’s what happens when red meat one-liners – like “build a wall” and “deport them all” – meet the political and practical complexity of an issue like immigration reform.
It has always been easy to say that millions upon millions of immigrants should be sent home. It’s harder to find a plausible plan, one that acknowledges how most immigrants have been in the U.S. for more than a decade, meeting our country’s labor demands and bringing value to our economy and culture.
Simply put: You can’t have it both ways on immigration. On Wednesday night, Donald Trump chose his side again.
In what he said would be a “major” policy speech on immigration, he instead decided to rebuild his wall. He rehashed failed ideas like mass deportation and immigration quotas, and he rekindled inflammatory language that painted immigrants as “dangerous, dangersous, dangerous criminals.”
It was a speech that got a lot wrong, such as the United States dealing with “record immigration.” It also ignored that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than U.S. citizens.
It was, in the end, more fiction.
Once upon a time, there was a wall. It was simplistic and silly, an applause line that turned into a foundation for a flawed policy. It has both propelled Donald Trump and trapped him – a prisoner of the ugly, xenophobic fear he’s exploited.