Trump created a competition of crises: The border or the shutdown

We have a race between two presumed crises: border security and the government shutdown. The outcome will depend on which “crisis” escalates fastest.

In his first televised Oval Office speech to the nation on January 8, President Donald Trump depicted the crisis of border security in graphic terms: criminal gangs, drug smugglers and human traffickers. He barely mentioned the shutdown except to say, “The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security.”

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Warren says she made almost M from legal work over past three decades MORE insists that border security is the real crisis and the government shutdown is a phony crisis created by Democrats. But polls are very clear that the public holds President Trump responsible for the shutdown. After all, he took responsibility for it when he met with Democratic congressional leaders on December 11: “If we don't get what we want, one way or the other, . . . I will shut down the government. Absolutely.” 

President Trump's extortion tactics are widely condemned. A January poll by IPSOS for National Public Radio asked whether “we should keep the government closed until there is funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.”  Only 31 percent of Americans agreed. 

The result is gridlock. Gridlock is not a problem for President Trump because he only cares about his base. And his base is committed to sustaining the shutdown until he gets funding for his border wall. Nearly 60 percent of Republicans said Trump should continue to demand funding for the wall even if it extends the shutdown. 

In December, President Trump appeared ready to sign a stopgap spending measure that would have temporarily ended the shutdown without funding for the wall. That brought immediate criticism from major conservative luminaries. “Trump gets nothing and Democrats get everything!” Rush Limbaugh fumed on his radio broadcast. If the president signs the stopgap measure, Ann Coulter said, “Trump will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people.”

In a jolt to Republican senators who had voted for the stopgap measure, Trump refused to sign it. “My understanding was that the president was going to sign that measure but apparently he changed his mind,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Hillicon Valley: FTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' | NATO researchers warn social media failing to remove fake accounts | Sanders calls for breaking up Comcast, Verizon Bipartisan senators call on FERC to protect against Huawei threats MORE (R-Tex.) told The New York Times.

President Trump's commitment is not to conservative ideology. His commitment is to “winning.”

“Loser” is the worst epithet in Trump's vocabulary.  It's a special term of humiliation he uses to denounce anyone who disagrees with him. If he backs down in the shutdown controversy, he would risk being called a “loser.”  For Trump, that is intolerable.

Trump sees the immigration issue as the key to “winning.”  It's the issue that got him elected in 2016. He claims that the immigration issue delivered what he calls a “Big Victory” for Republicans in last year's midterm. Remember “the caravan”? The president clearly believes that “the wall” will get him re-elected in 2020. 

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But is border security the real issue for voters? Illegal immigration has declined sharply since the early 2000s. The flood of immigrants at the Mexican border today is mostly “asylum seekers” — families and children looking for safe haven. They surrender to border patrol agents as soon as they cross the border. In fact, most illegal immigrants are not people who sneak across the southern border. They are residents who overstay their visas.

Take the “dreamers,” who were brought to the U.S. as children. President Trump and his fellow Republicans have resisted efforts to grant them legal status. In fact, Republicans have tried to impose new restrictions on legal immigration. Which suggests that the real issue to conservatives isn't illegal immigration. It's immigration. 

Specifically nonwhite immigration. 

In a meeting with lawmakers early last year, Trump is reported to have said, “Why do we want these people from shithole countries here [meaning Haiti and Africa]? We should have more people from places like Norway.” In other words, white people.

Every wave of immigrants to the U.S. has produced a political backlash. When large numbers of Irish immigrants arrived in the 1840s and 1850s, it gave rise to the nativist Know Nothing Party. The wave of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century led to the second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. The election of Donald Trump was partly driven by the recent tide of immigrants from Latin America and Asia.  

Republicans today, led by Donald Trump, are making the same mistake they made 100 years ago.  The GOP — then, as now, the party of the Old America — was unwelcoming to new immigrants, many of whom were associated with urban Democratic political machines. Immigrants and their children became the base of FDR's New Deal Democratic majority that dominated American politics for the next 50 years.

In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Statesmen seek bipartisan solutions to big challenges Georgia ready for unpredictable Senate race MORE told a meeting of top Republican donors that if Republicans don't start doing better with Latino voters, it “spells doom for us.” For Donald Trump, however, the anti-immigrant backlash spelled “winning.”   But there are portents of impending doom. Trump celebrates the fact that Republicans retained their majority in the Senate last year. But Democrats picked up Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada, two states with growing numbers of Latino voters. 

If the wall ever gets built, it will be an enduring symbol of the Trump presidency: governing by dividing.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).