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Images of the chaos unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border have become the latest Rorschach test in American politics.
Democrats and other critics of President Trump see our government moving from separating families at the border to spraying them with tear gas, including women and children seeking asylum.
Trump supporters and many Republicans see an invasion as illegal immigrants defy the normal rules for asylum-seekers, hurl rocks and other projectiles at Border Patrol agents, and attempt to violently breach the border.
“Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries,” Trump declared on Twitter. “Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A.”
The new Democratic House majority descending on Washington no doubt believes the president is overreaching on immigration, as he did when his “zero tolerance” policy led to children being detained separately from the adults they accompanied across the border.
By contrast, Trump sees not an illustration of his own cruelty toward immigrants and people of color but the Democrats’ latest embrace of immigration lawlessness. The party that would abolish ICE is now in the throes of those who chant “No borders, no nations, no more deportations.”
If Trump is right, he may be able to reboot one of his top campaign promises: the border wall. The conservative columnist Ann Coulter, author of both In Trump We Trust and Adios America—the book some have credited with identifying “the message that would convulse the Republican primary and upend the dynastic hopes of former-frontrunner Jeb Bush” by changing Trump’s mind on immigration—has begun tweeting unflattering updates on the wall’s progress. “Miles completed yesterday—zero,” Trump declared. “Miles completed since Inauguration—zero.”
Despite the steadfastness of Trump’s base, public support for the wall has come tumbling down since it became his signature issue. The Pew Research Center found that border fencing had the backing of about 46 percent of the American people between 2007 and 2015 before falling to 36 percent in March 2016. CBS News/New York Times saw a drop from 45 percent support in January 2016 to 39 percent in July 2017. The Rand Corp. detected a 10-point decline in pro-wall sentiment from December 2015/January 2016 to July/August 2016.
But Trump has prevailed in immigration stalemates even when his underlying position does not poll particularly well. The public generally favors legal status for those protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), yet it was the Democrats who blinked in a government shutdown fight over DACA.
Trump paid no obvious political price for refusing a DACA deal with the Democrats. Even the fallout from the family separation debacle was relatively limited. And if Trump’s pre-election opposition to the migrant caravan did not forestall the “blue wave” in the House, it was one of the issues—alongside Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s bruising confirmation battle—that helped keep red state Senate races firmly in the Republican column.
Perhaps this will be the end of Trump’s good luck streak on immigration. Yet some Democrats sense their own party is overreaching. “I mean, you want to change the conversation from the inhumanity of caging children to abolishing ICE?” no less an open-borders liberal than Congressman Luis Gutiérrez asked the New York Times. “They must have been jumping for joy at the White House.”
Hillary Clinton, who mused in a private speech about hemispheric open borders, recently fretted that similar immigration miscalculations were imperiling the progressive project in Europe. “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” she said.
Unrest at the border helps Trump make his sales pitch for the wall, even if House Democrats will be no more eager to fund it. This could set up a pitched battle, even if less symbolic measures like E-Verify would have a more practical impact on controlling immigration.
Trump may not be able to make Mexico pay for the wall as advertised. But the bill could yet come due for the Democrats.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.