Opinion | The Wall Is a Symbol of Donald Trump’s Neediness

It’s funny that we are still talking about the physical features of what President Trump wants or will settle for on our country’s southern border — about whether it will be concrete or steel, solid or slatted, a fancied-up fence or, in Nancy Pelosi’s hilariously acerbic dig, a “beaded curtain.” Because it’s not really a wall that Trump is after, if indeed it ever was. It’s a victory for victory’s sake. It’s a show of his might. It’s proof of his potency.

The longer his stalemate with Democrats in Congress grinds on, the clearer that becomes. Seldom has a president’s ego been this tender, and seldom has it required so much shoring up. There’s not enough concrete in creation for that job.

Network executives had little choice but to grant him prime time on television Tuesday night so that he could make his case for the wall to Americans under the guise of a crisis that’s his own doing. He has never made such a request before, so it’s not like this particular grandstanding is habitual.

And had the networks refused him, they would have handed him a cudgel in the culture wars that he would have used the same way that he governs — shamelessly, putting his ludicrous claims of martyrdom above any national interest. Better for the networks to go along, with a plan in place to check his assertions rigorously and call out his lies immediately.

Even this deep into a presidency of such incompetence and amorality, he deserves a hearing; that’s how the rest of us demonstrate the very respect for traditions and norms that he refuses to show. But he doesn’t deserve an unfiltered one. That’s the road to autocracy.

Trump isn’t selling something that the country really needs, and that’s why he and his allies have to lard the pitch with lies. According to The Washington Post Fact Checker, there are more bogus claims and hallucinated menaces when he talks about immigration and the border than when he talks about anything else.

He insists that would-be terrorists see a porous southern border as a welcome mat, but that’s bunk: Most try to get into the United States by plane and are apprehended at airports. He wildly inflates the amount of crime committed by undocumented immigrants and just as wildly overstates the effect a border wall might have on the country’s opioid crisis.

When it comes to the border and the wall, his willful estrangement from reality is so profound that network executives and newspaper editors spent part of Tuesday in strategy sessions about how to respond to his inevitable barrage of falsehoods. Should there be a crawl of words on the bottom of the television screen that correct him in real time? Could fact checkers work speedily enough to post rebuttals online within minutes of his misrepresentations, before they took root? This is where we find ourselves. Other presidents have been untrustworthy, and others have had to be called out on it. But not like this. This is surreal.

It’s a function of, more than anything, his ego, his vanity, to which the television networks, furloughed federal workers — all Americans — are hostage. He’s not remarkable among presidents in having a high opinion of himself and in desperately wanting others to share it. A robust measure of arrogance and some degree of neediness are what make the grind of the campaign trail and the glare of the media bearable. All presidents want to rack up triumphs that make them look and feel large. But none in my lifetime has spun so many fictions in the service of that. None has been so naked in his hunger for that heft.

To live with his resounding defeat by that “nasty woman” in the popular vote, Trump had to invent the specter of millions of illegally cast ballots. He never did produce any evidence of that. To not feel eclipsed by President Barack Obama, he claimed there was a media conspiracy to undercount his inauguration crowd. But photographs don’t lie. Not the way a president does.

The day after his inauguration, in a visit to the C.I.A. headquarters, against a backdrop of stars that symbolized men and women who had been killed on the job for America, he used his remarks to tally his appearances on the cover of Time magazine. “I think we have the all-time record,” he said, but “we” as usual meant “I.”

There’s no occasion unsuitable for bragging, no mission more vital than the exaltation of Trump. When, over the recent Christmas holiday, he at last paid a visit to a combat zone and spoke to American troops in Iraq, he seemed less intent on thanking them for their service than in having them thank him. He dwelled on a pay increase that they had received and claimed — erroneously — that they had gone without one for 10 years, until he came along.

“We got you a big one,” he said. “I got you a big one. I got you a big one.” I. Big. That’s the Trump credo in two words.

And that, at this point, is the point of the wall. I. Big. “It’s like a manhood thing for him,” Pelosi reportedly told House Democrats in a closed meeting last month. “As if manhood could ever be associated with him.”

Now we’re all yoked to it, this crazy, self-affirming monument that’s a barrier only to reason and responsible government.

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Frank Bruni has been with The Times since 1995 and held a variety of jobs — including White House reporter, Rome bureau chief and chief restaurant critic — before becoming a columnist in 2011. He is the author of three best-selling books.  @FrankBruni Facebook

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