It could be a mirage.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

Trump's Big, Beautiful Wall. Well, Not a 'Wall,' Exactly ...

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The wall is the central metaphor and reflexive policy refrain of Donald Trump's campaign. The wall is national security, keeping out terrorists. The wall is immigration control, rebuffing undocumented immigrants. The wall is a crime fighter, repelling rapists and thugs. The wall is a trade barrier on cheap imports, and it's a blockade on the illegal traffic of drugs.

In a dangerous world, Americans are safe within the wall.

The 2016 Republican platform, adopted in Cleveland, embraces Trump's "big, beautiful, powerful wall" in all its glory. "The border wall must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic," the platform commands.

The language matters, said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Hillary-Clinton-friendly Center for American Progress. 

"It’s no accident the platform refers to 'vehicular and pedestrian traffic.' The existing physical wall -- distinct from the sensors and the like that make up the “virtual” barrier -- is composed of vehicular barriers (large concrete barriers) and pedestrian fencing (the tall fence pieces). So referring to vehicular and pedestrian traffic places us squarely in a physical wall along “the entirety of the Southern border.”

So it's official: a vast, rambling physical structure spanning the entire length of the Southern border.

Or maybe not exactly. "It’s a wall," former Texas Governor Rick Perry told journalist Peter Hamby recently, "but it’s a technological wall, it’s a digital wall."

Technological? Digital? A friendly little "Wall-e"?

A physical wall is simply not going to happen, said Perry, who spoke at the Republican convention and is supporting Trump. But maybe Perry doesn't really have the inside scoop from Team Trump, having called the Republican presidential nominee a "cancer on conservatism" during the primaries.  

Alex Jones is a radio host and conspiracy theorist who has had Trump on his show, and considers Trump sympatico. Conspiracy theorists, of course, have a tendency to see things that aren't there. But Jones can't see Trump's wall at all. “The border wall is just a metaphor,” he told the New Republic. “It’s ridiculous.” 

Perhaps Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York knows where the bricks and mortar are buried. Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump. He threw a lifeline to Trump at a time when other Republican officeholders were trying to sink the television star.

What does Collins say?

“I have called it a virtual wall,” he told the Buffalo News in May.

That's right, a big, beautiful, powerful wall that you carry around in your iPhone. Or a pair of goggles. Or just your head.

Jawetz gives a more exact description. "As you may know," he e-mailed, "the virtual wall is a concept that has been around for a number of years and, frankly, describes what we already have. Between the sensors embedded in the ground, the tethered aerostats overhead and the manned and unmanned aircraft flying through the border region we have a good sense within a fairly short period of time of when people are crossing and where they’re heading."

A wall that "describes what we already have" sounds perhaps inadequate to the task of providing a comprehensive, definitive solution to such a vast array of complex American problems.

But the virtual reality doesn't end there. Collins called Trump's plan to remove millions of undocumented immigrants "rhetorical deportation," in which “they go out that door, they go in that room, they get their work papers, Social Security number, then they come in that door, and they’ve got legal work status but are not citizens of the United States.” 

The GOP platform begs to differ. It calls for no amnesty for undocumented immigrants and mandatory E-Verify, a combination that would have the practical effect of systematically driving undocumented immigrants out of work. Immiserated and unemployable, they would presumably leave their American homes and self-deport in search of work elsewhere, disrupting entire U.S. economic sectors in the process.

So which is the correct description of Trump's policy? The GOP platform's economic brutality, or Collins's elaborate bunkum?

Will Trump deport millions? Who knows?

Will he build an actual wall? Who knows?

Trump's campaign increasingly looks like a product of virtual reality itself.

((Updated with Alex Jones reference in the 10th paragraph.))

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net