“What’s THAT?” snorted Yertle. “Say, what IS that thing
That dares to be higher than Yertle the King?
I shall not allow it! I’ll go higher still!
I’ll build my throne higher! I can and I will!”
“Said another official [of] the president’s desire: ‘He always wanted to go higher.’”
–The Washington Post, quoting a Trump official
* * *
In the age of a less-than-noble President, it can be useful to have a Court that cares about government intent—and during the most recent Supreme Court term, the justices provided a glimmer of hope. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a majority in Department of Commerce v. New York, affirmed a district court’s finding that the evidence in the record failed to support Secretary Ross’s explanation for including a citizenship question in the census. If intent can matter, then we think it is worth taking a step back and asking: what are President Donald Trump’s intentions, really? What issues truly matter to the volatile trust-fund (alleged) billionaire living in the White House?
We would speculate that most people, if surveyed, would answer that immigration has become the defining issue of Trump’s reign—a divisive subject characteristic of a divisive presidency, to put it mildly. Here are a few highlights: In Matter of A-B-, now-fired Jeff Sessions manufactured a legally questionable, diabolical, and brilliant decision that capsized decades of asylum precedent and erected additional barriers for asylum-seekers attempting to find refuge in the United States. ICE raids have separated families, to the disdain of the ACLU, the Washington Post, First Ladies, celebrities, and even “fucking Highlights.” And at the center of it all, fights over border-wall funding led to the longest government shutdown in history.
The first footnote of a recent Ninth Circuit decision sums up the country’s divide over immigration and more. Issuing an order pertaining to the Department of Defense’s “reprogramming of funds” for emergency border-wall funding, Judges Richard Clifton and Michelle Friedland felt compelled to explain,
When federal officials are parties to litigation, we usually refer to them collectively as “the Government.” . . . [but] the House of Representatives, which is part of the Legislative Branch, has filed an amicus brief opposing the Executive Branch’s position. To avoid confusion, we therefore refer to the President and the cabinet members sued here collectively as “Defendants.”
The government, in other words, is torn in half over immigration—much like the American people.
It is easy to get buried in the New World of immigration policy debate and litigation. Dozens of new practice guides, like this one, emerge to help immigration lawyers and clinics address the rapidly shifting landscape; federal courts scholars write amicus briefs for border-wall lawsuits to teach (part of) “the [g]overnment” the history of equity claims; and Highlights takes detours from its standard, summer fun activity pack. But, why has all of this become necessary? Does immigration matter so much to this President that he is willing to split the country and upend jurisprudence as we know it?
Most commentators, living in a land of logic, ascribe Trump’s motives to politics: candidate Trump made a campaign promise, it won him votes, and it remains as central to his re-election as it was to his election. But we suggest that this answer puts the cart before the horse. Donald Trump did not propose a wall in order to become President—he became the President in order to build a wall. “Trump Wall” is not a means to any other end—it is the one and only end. We would take a gander that, if Trump were allowed to write his name across the Great Wall of China, he would no longer care about immigration, a border wall, or even the presidency.
Trump’s political positions, among their many other flaws, have never been particularly clear. Since his election, journalists have feasted on his shifting stances and internal inconsistencies. But even prior to debates about specific policies, people speculated regarding Trump’s most basic views—disputing, for example, whether he was a Democrat or a Republican. While watching the 2016 circus, one of us often wondered (only half facetiously) whether Trump might have been the fiercest advocate of addressing climate change if he had accidentally tripped and fallen onto the Democratic side of the aisle. Candidate Jeb Bush called out Trump for being a Democrat longer than he had been a Republican in the decade leading up to the election. And, say what he may about immigration, there is at least some evidence that Trump does not care as much about removing immigrant workers and promoting American jobs as he suggests—certainly not enough to undergo the massive headache that border-wall funding has created. The only thing Trump cares about enough to fight this war is, quite simply, his legacy.
For decades, my (Jareb’s) grandmother has called Donald Trump a narcissist. When Trump was elected President, several scholars—such as psychologist Dan McAdams in an article in The Atlantic—suggested the same. We suppose it’s possible they were correct. When Trump was a candidate in 2015, his personal physician wrote that, “[i]f elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”—a statement that the doctor later recanted, saying that “[Trump] dictated that whole letter.” Once elected, Trump’s official medical exam listed him as 6-3 and 239 pounds—the same dimensions as Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Keuchely. Of slightly more relevance to the country, after the election, Trump insisted that the reason Hillary Clinton won the popular vote was that millions of people voted fraudulently—a claim that is ludicrous on its face. And last (but not least), Sean Spicer, Trump’s (first) White House Press Secretary declared that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” Not surprisingly, this deviated quite a bit from the consensus view, and we suspect that, like Trump’s doctor, Sean Spicer “didn’t write that letter.”
But every statement—even the thinly-veiled, Tinder-like statistics shoot beyond political strategy towards a legacy: the healthiest, most popular President ever. And what legacy does a narcissist with (allegedly) a billion dollars, a few skyscrapers with his name on them, and his own TV shows want more than anything? To be President, of course, as we have all come to realize. But now, we posit, he wants much more than a second term. There is (or presumably was at some point) Trump Tower, Trump Resorts, Trump Casino, Trump University, and even Trump Steaks. What’s missing is “Trump Wall”—nomenclature that, we are certain, Trump will unveil to replace “Peaches” if the wall campaign is successful.
What is “Trump Wall?” It would be a presidential monument bigger than Mount Rushmore—the largest, most defining structure in America. From outer space, when people see the United States, they would see Trump Wall. America would extend from Canada in the north to Trump Wall in the south. Trump’s intent might not be—and might never have been—to make America great: it is—and always has been—to make a great wall around America. “Make America Great Again” is not just a campaign slogan—it is an excuse to build. And if there was room for doubt, this article in the Washington Post—explaining that Trump is demanding extra money for his wall’s aesthetics—should quell that doubt for good.
Certainly, the wall would not be “Trump’s Wall”—it would belong to the United States. But one thing at which Trump truly excels is branding, and the wall fits the pattern of selfie “monuments” that he has erected. One of us (who is not a broke student) confesses to having lived in two different Trump buildings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The buildings were beautiful, they ran extremely well, and the staff seemed happy. Should we credit Trump with these successes? Well, it turns out that he did not own the buildings, even if he did own some apartments in them. Although he may have played a role in management, the buildings were “his” in name only. Yet the name was sufficient to establish the Trump brand—and therefore his legacy.
If we can learn anything from our experience with Trump the President, it is that we do not want his legacy to be ours. Four years is damaging enough, but eternity is slightly longer. So, while partaking in the policy debates and courtroom battles, it is important to expose the President’s true motives and thus undercut his malign pursuits. We each must act as one small child in a crowd, pointing and exclaiming, “The President has no clothes.”
* * *
There was once an evil king who, as evil kings do, stumbled across a genie in a bottle.
“What is your wish?” the Genie asked.
“I already have the most beautiful lands in all the world,” said the King. “I want them for myself always. I would like you to build a wall around my lands as high as the heavens. It should be impenetrable to all on the outside.” And the Genie made the wall, and the king was happy. Until it rained.