Alternative Fact of the Week: The imaginary wall

If Americans harbored any hope that President Donald Trump might turn over a new leaf in 2019 and resolve not to misrepresent the truth so much, their wishes were dashed quickly and completely on — of course — Twitter. Either on New Year’s Day when Mr. Trump was tweeting about how Democrats embraced “open borders” or (if you excuse such misrepresentation as political rhetoric rather than lies) when he was reiterating how Mexico would pay for it on Jan. 2, it’s pretty clear that the guy who racked up 7,600 false and misleading claims during the first two years of his presidency, according to The Washington Post, isn’t going anywhere.

And if deceptive claims on social media aren’t proof enough, President Trump was only too happy to restate many of them in his rambling pre-cabinet meeting chat with reporters Wednesday during which he made a misleading comparison with the Vatican City walls, claimed there were 30-35 million undocumented immigrants in the United States costing the government “$250 billion” annually and that former President Barack Obama built a formidable wall around his “compound” in Washington. For the record, Vatican City is not closed off by walls (anyone can walk into St. Peter’s Square), and of the sections that stand today, many date to the ninth century. The best estimate of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is around 11 million. As to what that “costs,” estimates vary wildly, but the most pessimistic peg it at $116 billion a year, though that is hotly disputed. And Mr. Obama doesn’t have a “10-foot wall” around his house in Northwest D.C. — he has a combination of a low-rise retaining wall and iron and chain link fencing, The New York Times has dutifully reported.

As we’ve noted so often before, “alternative facts” aren’t just about telling the occasional whopper, it’s about creating (and sticking to) a pattern of lies and then telling even more lies to bolster them — and then usually a few more to top it off. Mr. Trump’s wall fixation has generated more than its share of such prevarications heaped upon prevarications. And that’s one of the reasons why the current standoff over funding for the project, and the president’s choice to embrace a partial shutdown of the federal government, doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. How can two sides agree to anything when they can’t even agree on the basic facts?

At its core, the dispute over the wall isn’t about national security or curbing drug trafficking. It’s about a president feeling under siege who wants to rally his base once more around fear of dark-skinned invaders. Never mind the the flow of undocumented into this country is not at a crisis point or that many who enter do so legally and then overstay their visas, or that the $5.6 billion would have a negligible effect on a nearly 2,000-mile-long border. Better to point a finger at Paulo Virgen Mendoza, the 32-year-old accused of killing a California police corporal who pulled him over on suspicion of drunk driving on Dec. 26. What Mr. Mendoza did was horrific, and he may face the death penalty for it, but it is not typical of undocumented immigrants who, on the whole, are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the U.S.

Make no mistake, Democrats are capable of overstating their case against wall funding, too. The most recent example is their claim that the Trump administration has spent only about 6 percent of the money Congress has already appropriated for border fencing and repairs. But that calculation is based on a perspective that money isn’t “spent” until contracts are fully completed. A more reasonable definition ought to be when contracts are awarded and funding committed, in which case, it’s more than 90 percent spent. Now if congressional Democrats make about a dozen similarly misleading claims, they’ll be in presidential territory.

It’s no big surprise that the border wall kerfuffle generates the rhetorical equivalent of a 40-foot impediment to honest dialogue. It’s been doing so for years. But, as a certain newly-elected Republican senator from Utah has recently noted, the president shapes the character of the nation. “With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable,” Mitt Romney wrote in his recent Washington Post op-ed. “And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.” And while Mr. Trump and his supporters may see that as an attack, it’s also difficult to dispute. In fact, it keeps getting easier to prove.

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