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How Is Trump's Insistence On A Border Wall Playing To His Base?


It's tradition for a commander-in-chief to call troops deployed abroad on Christmas Day and to thank them for their service, and the president did just that. But during the conversation, he also found some time to talk politics.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I want to wish everybody a really Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year. Just remember: the people in our country, we're very proud of you. The country's doing well. We have a little bit of a shutdown because we believe in walls and we believe in borders and we believe in barriers. And you know, we have a special country. People have to come in through the legal process, not just walk in; we have no idea who they are.

GREENE: The president mentioning a shut down there. Well, the partial federal government shutdown has entered its fifth day this morning. And there doesn't appear to be an immediate agreement in sight over the president's demand for money to fund a border wall. How is this playing with the president's base and his supporters? Well, Jim Antle is the editor of The American Conservative magazine and joins me this morning.

Welcome to the program.

JIM ANTLE: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So why is the president so dug-in here?

ANTLE: Well, I think this has become one of the president's core campaign promises, having a wall built along the U.S.-Mexican border. And I think because he has delivered on a number of more conventional Republican agenda items, it's because of particular importance, to at least some of his core supporters that he deliver on that, sort of in the same vein as George H.W. Bush's read-my-lips tax pledge. Now, we remember that Bush 41 did not in, fact keep, that promise. And it was to the detriment of his 1992 re-election prospects.

And I think that Trump and some in the White House are concerned that, given on this is probably their last chance to achieve something on this front before Democrats retake the House, that they might be in similar trouble in 2020 if they're not perceived as at least fighting the good fight on this.

GREENE: But what gives here? I mean, if you're saying this is as serious as read-my-lips for President Trump, I mean, is this shutdown going to go on for a long time? It just doesn't seem like either side is going to budge.

ANTLE: Well, that is the real problem, I think, for the president - is that there is no obvious way out. You know, there is always the possibility, of course, that there will be some kind of fencing that is acceptable to a critical mass of Democrats and acceptable to enough Republicans that gives him some kind of face-saving way to declare victory without really delivering much on the wall front. The problem with that, of course, is that the symbolism is important to the Democrats, too. So giving the president even a symbolic victory on this is not really what a lot of people who voted Democratic in the 2018 elections wanted to see. And it's not what a lot of Democrats want to do. And he needs enough Democrats in the Senate to vote with him for any resolution to this shutdown to take place.

GREENE: You talk about the important symbolism for the president here. Let me ask you just about the substance. I mean, as you talk to voters who support this president, are they open to spending money on things that would secure the border other than a wall? I mean, are there other options the president has, you know, to do some face-saving, as you put it?

ANTLE: You know, in my view, substantively, the wall is not the best way to achieve the immigration objectives that the president laid out in his campaign and since he's been in office. I think that targeting the employers of undocumented immigrants - mandating the use of E-Verify, reviving the use of employer sanctions - would be much more effective than building the wall, although some sort of fencing in certain parts of the border can be helpful. I mean - but you do, at this point have - half to a majority of undocumented immigrants are coming in legally and overstaying their visas, and a wall really won't do very much for that.

But I think that the wall became such an important part of the imagery of the Trump campaign. And the president himself has said that when he saw the attention spans of his rally audiences beginning to wane, he would lead a build-the-wall chant, and that would get everybody engaged again. So I think that the wall has - for both the president's detriment but also, to some extent, to his political benefit, at least with his core base - has just become of outsized importance here.

GREENE: Who stands to lose more if this shutdown goes into more days and weeks?

ANTLE: Well, obviously I think a big problem for the president is that he took such a proactive stand in saying that he would own the shutdown - said that on television in a way that could very easily be turned into advertising clips, said that he'd be proud to claim that mantle as long as the shutdown was over immigration control. And that might have, in the short-term, been been good at rallying the troops, at least among his base. But when you get to the voters beyond the base, it's going to be very hard for Trump to then pivot, as he's tried a bit to do on Twitter, and blame the Democrats for the shutdown and avoid blame himself. So over time, I think this will be branded as the Trump shutdown, and the pressure will mount on him to back down, in some sense, and reopen the parts of the federal government that are closed.

GREENE: Jim Antle is editor of The American Conservative magazine. Thanks a lot.

ANTLE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.