It isn’t about the wall. Outside of Trump’s rallies, nobody really wants it very much. Most people who live near the border don’t. Many Republicans in Congress don’t, but are backing Trump for the sake of party unity. Even Trump didn’t push it until he was pushed by rightwing provocateurs.

For two years, Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, and it wasn’t a priority then. They were more focused on cutting taxes for their rich donors and putting two radical rightwingers on the Supreme Court. As recently as a month ago Trump seemed indifferent about whether the wall got funded. Then Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and others called him “weak,” and that changed everything.

There’s really two things going on: Trump’s picking a fight to show he’s a tough guy, and he thinks he sees an opportunity to attack and weaken the Democrats ahead of the 2020 elections.

On paper, that doesn’t make sense. The 2018 midterms were a referendum on Trump, and he lost decisively. Polls show half of Americans oppose his wall and only a third support it. The latter are mostly his loyal fan base. In short, he doesn’t have the country behind him on this issue.

But Trump, who has little use for facts and isn’t known for bowing to reality, is a man who deeply trusts his gut instincts. He didn’t expect to be president; trusting his gut and playing to his base got him there, and he’ll continue to rely on that formula. He’s made no effort to broaden his base or build a wider coalition.

So where does this leave the country? In a very bad place. The two sides are playing to not lose face, and make the other side lose face. Whether Congress can impose checks on a president who lusts for power and has little use for constitutional restraints is the ultimate game piece.

What’s the solution to the shutdown? There may not be one. Both sides have staked out positions from which retreat is very difficult. There’s no win-win scenario, only win-lose scenarios. Trump likely sees his political survival depending on winning this fight, and with investigations and impeachment hanging over his hand, he’s like a wounded animal at its most vicious. Democrats won their House majority by promising to stand up to Trump, which leaves them no backup room, and they’re emboldened by Trump’s unpopularity and having a majority of the public behind them.

This much is clear: This is no normal political negotiation. Don’t expect Trump to trade things Democrats want for wall money, because that would undercut his standing with his base. If the Democrats caved in and gave Trump what he wants, especially if they get no concessions in return, that would be seen as a Munich, paying ransom to a kidnapper, meeting the demands of a hostage-taker. It would violate our values; most Americans want people to stand up to bullies, and dislike anything that looks like weakness.

Trump should lose. He wants America to be white, and offers no place for people of color. He let Puerto Rico languish because it’s an island of mostly brown people, and now he’s scheming to tap Puerto Rico recovery funds to build his wall. He’s a racist, and has turned his wall into a symbol of racism.

But that doesn’t mean he will lose. The long saga of human history shows us that power over human societies tends to flow to bad people. Evil isn’t inevitable, but doesn’t go away by itself and must be fought, sometimes strenuously and at great sacrifice. If this were about border security, it would be easy to resolve, because we all want a secure border and controlled immigration into our country. This is a battle about racism, a fight for our country’s soul. Who wins matters.


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