The Wall is Trump’s ‘Read My Lips’ Moment

By | 2018-12-23T21:40:07-07:00 December 22nd, 2018|
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A major reason that George H. W. Bush was elected in 1988 was his pledge, dramatically enunciated at the Republican National Convention in August of that year, not to raise taxes. Congress will push me to raise taxes, said Bush, and I’ll say “no”; they’ll push again, and I’ll say “no”; and they’ll push again and I’ll say to them “read my lips: no new taxes.”

It was a nice performance. The “read my lips” wheeze is of course the most famous bit. I’m sure it was scripted, as was the amusing play on “resort.” My opponent says he’ll only raise taxes as a last resort, said Bush, “but when a politician talks like that you know that’s one resort he’ll be checking in to.” Throw that speechwriter a bone!

A pledge not to raise taxes is something that is easy to check up on. You look at the weekly pay packet and count the drachmas. If there are fewer now than before, you can bet your local IRS agent that the hand of government is reaching a little deeper into your pocket than before.

The Democrats understood this. And although Dems, as a class, enjoy spending other people’s money, the more the merrier, they don’t necessarily want to be seen as the ones who are pilfering the pelf. They’d take all of your money if they could get away with it, but they wouldn’t want to be blamed for that government-sponsored larceny. Much better, from a reelection perspective, to contrive to shift the blame on to the Republicans.

Given that ambition, George H. W. Bush’s promise was an irresistible challenge. “Read my lips,” he said. OK. We read you loud and clear. And if we can browbeat you into capitulating, even as a “last resort,” to our demand that you raise taxes, then we’ll have you by the short and curlies. We’ll play that video where you made the promise on an endless loop on the lead up to the 1992 election and crush you.

And so it came to pass. It wasn’t fair. Bush didn’t want to raise taxes. The Democrats strong-armed him into it. Then they turned around and said he had broken his promise. Not nice, not nice at all. But it was just business as usual in the world of politics, especially Democratic politics.

Bush could have resisted. He could have vetoed the tax bill. He could have shut down the government. He could have been the dispenser instead of the recipient of pain. Contemporary versions of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi would have screamed bloody murder. The media would have pilloried Bush and called him mean names. People would say he was being grossly irresponsible, that he was sowing chaos, that he was hurting thousands of government workers.

George Bush was a gentleman. He didn’t like it when people called him mean names. He was offended when the media ganged up on him and said he was a terrible person. So he caved. He didn’t want to. He said he didn’t want to. He probably thought about saying he did it only as a “last resort.” Doubtless the memory of politicians checking into that resort stopped him.

There is a lesson in Bush’s pursed lips for President Trump. Bush was elected in large part because of his promise not to raise taxes. Similarly, a major reason that Donald Trump was elected was his promise to build a wall on our southern border. The wall was just a synecdoche for border security and an America-first immigration policy. But it was a vivid, concrete (no pun intended) manifestation of that determination. It was, politically, the sine qua non of that policy.

President Trump has kept an astonishing number of his campaign promises, from his Scalia-like judicial nominations to moving our Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. He has begun hacking away at the stifling regulatory environment built up by the administrative state and he has inaugurated a much-needed renovation of the United States military. He has cut taxes (though not enough) and eviscerated Obamacare. He has, just a few days ago, announced that the United States would be pulling out of Syria and there are plans, at long last, to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. Promises made, promises kept.

But there is one critical promise he has, so far, been unable to keep. The wall. He has to build the wall. It was the cornerstone of his campaign.

Again, the wall, like lines in the Constitution if you are a left-wing jurist, has plenty of emanations and penumbras. It means robust border control. It means an America-first immigration policy. It means lots of things.

But the wall is the indispensable objective correlative of those things. Donald Trump has to build the wall, and he has to be seen to have built the wall. If not, he will lose in 2020.

The Democrats know this, which is why they are moving heaven and earth—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, with Virgil, “flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo” (“if I cannot bend the heavens, I will move hell”)—to prevent the wall.

It’s a dangerous game of chicken. Who will blink first? On Friday, we learned that the impasse on the issue had shut down some “nonessential” parts of the government. I think there are a lot more parts of the government that are “nonessential” and should be shut down—permanently—than are generally recognized, but that is another story. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is adamant: Donald Trump will not get the wall. He should give it up.

If Donald Trump were George H. W. Bush, he would be thinking about checking into that resort about now. But clever readers will have noticed something important: Donald Trump is not George H. W. Bush. He does not care if Chuck Schumer says mean things about him. Wolf Blitzer’s or Don Lemon’s or Rachel Maddow’s or Anderson Cooper’s little tantrums do not disturb his sleep or his enjoyment of a Big Mac. He does not mind it when Bill Kristol or Max Boot or Jennifer Rubin tweet savage things about him. The two self-appointed pastors in the Church of NeverTrump, Pete Wehner and David French, preach their sermons from pulpits Donald Trump does not attend.

A week ago, at their reality-show like White House meeting, Trump told Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that he would take responsibility for a government shutdown if they refused to fund the wall. “I will take the mantle,” he said to Schumer, “I’m not going to blame you for it.”

Take a look at the video link above and note Schumer’s body language when he hears the president say that (at about 10 minutes). He grins and rocks back and forth. “Oh boy,” he seems to say, “Now we’ve got him. He’ll shut down the government at Christmas time and everyone will blame him. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.”

I am surprised at you, Chuck. Didn’t you know better?

First, most people don’t care—actually, they rather like it—if the government shuts down. Second, Donald Trump is not going to back down over this. As he just tweeted, the government will be shuttered for a “very long time” if that’s what it takes. “People don’t want open borders and crime.” And third, who is getting blamed? Not Donald Trump. As Hugh Hewitt noted, “It’s all on Chuck Schumer. Period.”

It’s a Bishop Berkeley moment: to be is to be perceived. Schumer is the perceived owner of this drama, Hence he is the owner.

The border wall is Donald Trump’s “read-my-lips” trial. For a brief moment last week, he seemed to waver. But it seems now that was mere appearance, a feint, not reality. He has dug in more firmly than ever. One way or another, he will get the wall. If it were up to me, I’d take the advice of a friend and begin by mining the border, but no one has asked for my opinion. We probably won’t get the mines. We will get the wall.

Maybe Trump will order the Army Corps of Engineers to build it. I have no doubt that another friend is right that, should that happen, the Ninth Circuit or some other anti-American judicial redoubt would intervene and forbid it. Trump should then study the conflict between Lincoln and Chief Justice Roger Taney and ignore the injunction. In any event, Trump will get the wall. He has to. Therefore he will.

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Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

About the Author:

Roger Kimball
Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball lectures widely and has appeared on national radio and television programs as well as the BBC. He is represented by Writers' Representatives, who can provide details about booking him. Mr. Kimball's latest book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press, 2012). He is also the author of The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee). Other titles by Mr. Kimball include The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (Encounter) and Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age (Ivan R. Dee). Mr. Kimball is also the author ofTenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (HarperCollins). A new edition of Tenured Radicals, revised and expanded, was published by Ivan R. Dee in 2008. Mr. Kimball is a frequent contributor to many publications here and in England, including The New Criterion, The Times Literary Supplement, Modern Painters, Literary Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Public Interest, Commentary, The Spectator, The New York Times Book Review, The Sunday Telegraph, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and The National Interest.