President Trump’s fictitious border crisis is a central element of the political narrative he has constructed for his white-nationalist base, and it’s one he can’t easily back away from.
Photograph by Sarah Silbiger / NYT / Redux
On Friday morning, Donald Trump walked up to a lectern in the White House Rose Garden to make an announcement of monumental importance that clearly couldn’t wait a moment longer. “Before we begin,” he said, “I’d like to just say that we have a large team of very talented people in China. We’ve had a negotiation going on for about two days. It’s going extremely well.” Then Trump brought up North Korea, Syria, and the state of the U.S. economy. Finally, he moved on to the business of the moment: a desperate effort to put the best possible face on the humiliating defeat that he suffered on Capitol Hill over funding for his border wall. “We are going to be signing today, and registering, a national emergency,” he said. “And it’s a great thing to do because we have an invasion of drugs, an invasion of gangs, an invasion of people, and it’s unacceptable.”
He didn’t leave it at that; he doesn’t know the concept. Instead, he sought to justify his action by trotting out some of his old lies about undocumented immigrants, and some he’s added to his repertoire more recently. “We have far more people trying to get into the country today than probably we’ve ever had before.” (The number of interdictions at the southern border is running at roughly half the level it was a decade ago.) The crime and drug problem in El Paso is “a hundred per cent” better since the construction of a border barrier. (El Paso has long had one of the lowest crime rates of any city in the country.) Federal prisons are full of illegal immigrants. (Even setting aside people being held for immigration offenses, undocumented immigrants make up a tiny proportion of the federal-prison population.)
Trump’s description of the situation at the border is almost entirely fictitious, of course, but in one sense it is real. It’s a central element of the political narrative he has constructed for his white-nationalist base over the past three and a half years, and, as he helpfully sought to explain, it’s one he can’t easily back away from at this stage. “I ran on a very simple slogan: ‘Make America Great Again,’ ” he said. “If you’re going to have drugs pouring across the border, if you’re going to have human traffickers pouring across the border in areas where we have no protection, in areas where we don’t have a barrier, then it’s very hard to make America great again.”