Back in 1989 Bill Grover published a great book, The President as Prisoner. In that book, Grover argued that, regardless of who occupied the position of President, that person was likely to be seriously constrained by political pressures and institutional constraints. Politically, the president is constrained by powerful interest groups, especially the corporate lobbies upon which most occupants of the Oval Office have relied to get elected. Institutionally, the constitutional system of checks and balances meant that the President had to be sensitive to how other government officials could counter presidential authority. Grover’s conclusion was that it was unrealistic to think that a President could easily rise above the forces that limit American democracy. I took from this analysis the somber assessment that the President must learn to work within the limits of our highly constrained capitalist democracy. Sad but true. This is why I have, for years, advocated what I call radical incrementalism, the idea that radical political change is best pursued not all at once, but incrementally.
Thinking about radical incrementalism at the moment is a luxury. Instead, with Donald Trump in the White House, we must of necessity think about salvaging those remnants of our democracy that have not yet been worn away by the whip-saw of corporate-dominated mainstream politics being countered by right-wing, white-nationalist reactionaryism. Should we survive that buzz saw, we might be able to get back to debating things like whether the radical incrementalism of the public option under Obamacare is a better policy choice than Medicare for All, or whether when we say Medicare for All we mean with or without the neoliberal option of private plans that people can initiate with Medicare Advantage. For now, our focus must be more immediately concentrated on going to the barricades to protect liberal democracy from total erosion under Trumpism and its disdain for democratic laws and constitutional precepts.
The last few years have seen a running debate about whether the constitutional order, and the principles of liberal democracy, will survive the Trump era. Of late discussion has turned to how the system is limited in its ability to constrain Trump and how it has even made his dangerous regime possible. In fact, there is the argument that Trump is not so much a threat to our politics as a product of it.
It is true that politically and institutionally Trump has found himself constrained. He has complained loudly about not being able to run the government in the same unilateral fashion as he has his businesses. He ran a right-wing populist campaign that railed against the establishment and promised to “drain the swamp;” however, once in office Trump felt beholden to the power structure and ended up filling the swamp back up by appointing more than a few corporate lobbyists to his cabinet. In this sense, and despite his claims to exceptionality, Trump is not so unique. Regardless of his campaign, it seems Trump has ended up siding with the prevailing power structure. The phenomenon of President as prisoner persists.
Yet, Trump is also his own unique source of political consternation. In this he is a prisoner yet again, but this time in his own distinctive, self-defeating, way. The most recent political imbroglio over the government shutdown is a paradigmatic case. Trump has imprisoned himself within another of his irrational, narcissistic, ill-conceived temper tantrums – this time over his insistence that Congress fund his cherished Border Wall. Trump justifies the need for the Wall by saying there is a national security crisis with thousands of terrorists crossing the Southern Border. And Congress, for its part, will not fund the Wall for three reasons: first, because the claim about terrorists is a malicious lie, second, because the Wall it is unlikely to be an effective deterrent, and, third, because it is supremely unpopular with voters outside of Trump’s base of support. In the face of Congress’s refusal, Trump has allowed a partial shutdown of the government to persist for several weeks now, with devastating consequences – including the curtailment of needed entitlements and benefits in various programs. In response, Trump adamantly insists he will not re-open the government until funding of his Border Wall is included.
Trump’s refusal to fund the government has imprisoned him in the White House, both literally and figuratively. Literally in that it forced him to stay there over the holiday break, foregoing one of his many trips to his resorts. Figuratively in that it has locked him into an impossible negotiating position. Trump stayed in the White House in lieu of going to his winter home at Mar-A-Lago, sequestered there until he got his Border Wall. In an attempt to make Trump’s insistence on his Wall more believable in spite of its ridiculous implausibility as a meaningful form of border security, Senator Lindsay Graham recently called Trump’s border wall a “metaphor.” Metaphorically speaking, Trump has walled himself off in the White House in order to get his Wall. Trump locked himself up. His material Border Wall has symbolically imprisoned him.
Trump has become imprisoned in the Oval Office not so much because corporate elites constrain his democratic impulses. Instead, in his insistence on the Border Wall, Trump is a prisoner to his gnawing need to cleave to his white nationalist base as the only people he can count on for his political survivability until 2020, when he hopes to be running for re-election. His political messaging increasingly reflects the assumption that his base insists on the Wall as a way to keep nonwhites out of America. The Wall remains the signature promise of Trump’s white nationalist campaign, and it is apparent that he feels compelled to comply with it. It is “democratic” in that sense – but only in the most horrifying way. Trump cannot afford to go back on his racist campaign promises.
There is much irony in the idea of Trump trapped in his own metaphor. Evidently, the Wall was not his idea but given to him early on in his presidential campaign by people like Roger Stone as a “mnemonic device” because it was easier to remember than statistics about illegal immigration. Then, once the crowds at his rallies started responding so effusively to each mention of the Wall, Trump became deeply committed to it. It did not matter that the idea was not his, that he had no idea whether it was really needed, or that he lacked even a single realistic idea of how to get it. It was something he had to insist on, just like saying Mexico would pay for it. Trump had trapped himself in his own campaign rhetoric with no real understanding of how to make it into credible public policy.
Admittedly, Trump seems comfortable being constrained on this issue, in no small part due to his own long-standing racist inclinations. He does not mind demonizing asylum-seekers at the Southern Border or even ripping the children away from their parents. Increasingly, the material Wall has become a symbol of his entire presidency; one dedicated to securing the white privilege of his supporters. Oddly a dematerialization of the Wall has begun to occur as well, noticeable in a recent shift in rhetoric. As the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen has noted, recently the definitive “the” in “the Wall” has begun to disappear, replaced by talk about the need for “Wall,” as if it were a condition or a sensibility. Homeland Security Secretary Kristen Nielsen testified before Congress saying “we need wall.” She did not call for “the” Wall or “a” wall but wall, just wall – like saying we need more security. The Wall stands in the political imaginary for security, but the security of whom? Trump’s political signaling suggests it is the security of white people who are threatened by nonwhites coming across the border and diversifying the Nation. More wall means more security, metaphorically speaking, in this case for Trump’s white nationalist base. The Border Wall now operates as not just a mnemonic device but as a condensation symbol representing Trump’s White Privilege Presidency. Talk of “more wall” now operates as a symbol gesturing in a white nationalist direction.
The potency of this symbol for the white nationalist base is unmistakable. For a time, Trump had been willing to forego his insistence on Wall funding and to keep the government open without it, willing, that is, until right-wing hate-mongers dramatically started declaring nothing less than the demise of his presidency. Then, as if he had received an urgent political alert, Trump quickly switched his position and swung into action, putting the government into shutdown and holing himself up in the White House. Trump’s own politics imprisoned him there in increasing isolation. He did it to himself. And now he knows no way out.
Trump’s desperation has led him to go so far as to threaten to declare a national emergency so that he can use the military to protect the southern border. While the legality of this move is suspect, how it funds the construction of the Wall is even more questionable. If this desperate act of political posturing fails, Trump may have to concede defeat on this issue (which some have suggested will ironically ruin his chances of re-election). Some Republicans have already started to predict his demise.
Further, even if Trump wins, he may lose. His insistence on holding out for Wall funding as a political gambit might please some of his base, but others concerned about policy will be less satisfied. Some of his biggest supporters for immigration restrictions feel that the Wall is a dangerous distraction . They see it as an ineffective deterrent and worry that Trump might get his wall only by legalizing Dreamers or agreeing to other immigration liberalizations.
In the end, Trump’s Border Wall imprisonment ensures that even though he ended up in this position in order to maintain the support of his base he can never appeal to a wider coalition. He has now mortgaged his Presidency to an idea opposed by most of the electorate, and his re-election is all the more unlikely given this petulant act of political desperation. Trump is yet another example of the President as Prisoner. One imprisoned this time not only by politics, but walled in by a bad metaphor and a bad temper.
Sanford F. Schram is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College.