Donald Trump isn’t sure The Wall exists.
At various times, he has said that much of it has “already been built”—not true. He’s said that Mexico is already paying for it, through a trade deal that has yet to be ratified—also not true, and flat out impossible, at that.
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Nevertheless, the president has provoked a partial government shutdown to demand Democrats cough up funding for a thing that, according to the latest in the New York Times, was invented as a mnemonic device to keep him focused during the 2016 campaign.
The Wall exists, and yet it doesn’t.
Philosophers and college burnouts have wrestled with precisely these sorts of existential dualities for generations. Descartes, of course, is famous for writing, “I think, therefore I am.” David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, wrote “Belief is nothing but a more vivid, lively, forcible, firm, steady conception of an object, than what the imagination alone is ever able to attain.” Martin Heidegger, the disgraced Nazi philosopher, wrote “Language is the house of being,” arguing that through our words and thoughts we manifest our inner consciousness—Trump’s efforts as such comprising a good chunk of the global news cycle.
This isn’t the first time in modern history that philosophy has become a better interpretative guide to the presidency than, say, the Washington Post editorial pages. One of the more famous quotations of the George W. Bush era even inspired a philosophy-infused joke on the left. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” an anonymous Bush aide told reporter Ron Suskind. “And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.” Democrats, only half-joking, began describing themselves as “The Reality-Based Community,” deriding the Bush administration’s existential hubris.
But with The Wall fight, Trump has taken existential questions into the Oval Office with new abandon.
Amid the current shutdown negotiations, for instance, he’s tweeted repeatedly the aforementioned claims that large parts of the wall have “already been built,” alluding specifically to its “already built large new sections”:
“People do not yet realize how much of the Wall, including really effective renovation, has already been built,” he wrote. “If the Democrats do not give us the votes to secure our Country, the Military will build the remaining sections of the Wall. They know how important it is!”
To what Trump referred in that tweet from December 11 is unclear—the Department of Homeland Security developed several prototypes for a potential wall design, but no funding has been approved for even a foot of new wall construction, a lack of action with which Trump’s displeasure supposedly caused the shutdown in the first place.
In 2006, then-President Bush signed the Secure Fence Act into law, which provided for the construction of just over 654 miles of new border fencing. But Trump had previously, disparagingly referred to current border protection as a “toy wall,” so his approving references to the debatably real form in which it may now exist suggest he has something else in mind.
The confusion poses a vexing question: Does President Trump literally think construction of the wall has begun already? Is he simply choosing the most convenient argument the political situation demands? Or is he experiencing a larger crisis of judgment and perception?
Let’s examine the tape.
Since the beginning of December, the president has been on a Twitter tear about the wall’s alleged construction (and alternately, the lack thereof). On December 3, he tweeted:
We would save Billions of Dollars if the Democrats would give us the votes to build the Wall. Either way, people will NOT be allowed into our Country illegally! We will close the entire Southern Border if necessary. Also, STOP THE DRUGS!
Just eight days later on the 11th, he approvingly cited the “newly built walls” that helped stymie his much-feared migrant caravan. Trump has made numerous misleading statements about construction of The Wall, going back to late March when the then-recently passed omnibus spending bill authorized $1.6 billion for construction and renovation of fencing along the border. Customs and Border Protection went so far as to misleadingly title a press release “Border Wall Construction Underway.”
But even considering the president’s track record of obfuscation on the issue, this past month has set a new watermark for confusion over the wall’s existence. When Trump makes conflicting statements about The Wall, they can be viewed collectively as a cynical ploy to boost his base’s morale in the face of his failure to accomplish what was meant to be a signature achievement.
But—if I’m remembering my dorm-room scan of Bertrand Russell correctly—they can also be seen as an uncorking of his ontological angst. They’re a reflection of a conflicted inner life, where there is a Wall and there isn’t a Wall, a fence called by any other name may cease to be a fence, and the concept of “new” construction is entirely relative, conditional on Trump’s classification itself.
Ontology, the philosophical study of “being,” gives us powerful tools with which to strip objects, people, and events down to their barest elements, examining their essential features to learn both more about them as discrete objects, and about existence itself in turn. Looking at Trump’s seeming uncertainty over whether the wall exists or not, we see a portrait of a man at odds with not just congressional Democrats, but that very concept of empirically measurable existence.
When I begrudgingly signed the Omnibus Bill, I was promised the Wall and Border Security by leadership. Would be done by end of year (NOW). It didn’t happen! We foolishly fight for Border Security for other countries – but not for our beloved U.S.A. Not good!
This December 20 missive from the president, sent just two days before the federal government would shut down, is a perfect example of the president’s wavering metaphysical belief in his Wall—and, perhaps, therefore himself. Where once only “remaining sections” were left to be built, possibly by military order, now there is a forbidding and total vacuum of “Wall and Border Security.” (“It didn’t happen!”)
Over the course of the following week, however, through his tweets the president portrayed The Wall as occupying a sort of dismaying liminal zone—incomplete yet nonexistent, an admirable work in progress that also represented a looming catastrophe.
….The United States looses soooo much money on Trade with Mexico under NAFTA, over 75 Billion Dollars a year (not including Drug Money which would be many times that amount), that I would consider closing the Southern Border a “profit making operation.” We build a Wall or…..
…..close the Southern Border. Bring our car industry back into the United States where it belongs. Go back to pre-NAFTA, before so many of our companies and jobs were so foolishly sent to Mexico. Either we build (finish) the Wall or we close the Border……
The crisis is encapsulated wholly in that last sentence. “Build (finish)”—Trump’s inability to classify the state in which The Wall may or may not exist has caused observers to either speculate about the political motives behind his rhetoric, or simply shake their heads and walk away in confusion. It could be that his previous triumphalism and spin has been tempered by fact-checkers, forcing him into equivocation, but past behavior makes this scenario unlikely.
The utterly inexplicable nature of his speech on the topic suggests a man in deeper crisis. Trump may be perceiving under his duress, to slightly adapt a concept from quantum mechanics, a Schrödinger’s Wall: simultaneously there and not there, conditional on a random quirk of perception occurring somewhere underneath his flaxen coif. That perception, however flawed it may be, becomes a feature of our own reality, as hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers can now attest.
Trump’s internal conflict as such has continued to play out on his Twitter timeline, nearly every day since. Most recently, he seems to have forsaken its existence once again with statements like “If we had a wall,” as well as laments over Democrats’ refusal to give him “a new wall” to protect against our “Open Wound” on the southern border. His previously championed “really effective renovation[s]” are lost in the mists of his tortured consciousness, with no end to the conflict in sight.
On some level, Trump’s contorted monologue regarding The Wall is funny. But on another it’s a compulsory existential crisis, to which the nation is subjected daily—trickling down and utterly baffling the empirically-minded who hear it. It’s no longer clear he understands himself, or his presidency, as entities distinct from his signature campaign promise.
To understand this is to understand why Trump not only won’t, but can’t capitulate and reopen the government without getting his money: Trump is The Wall. The Wall is Trump. One cannot exist without the other.