'The Wall': Stone's Campaign Slogan That Begot the Shutdown
If the government shutdown is causing your paycheck to be withheld or you are adversely affected in any way, what you are about to read will make you even angrier. But keep reading for a practical lesson about the emotional power of words, especially when delivered by a showman.
When debate over “The Wall” on our southern border is finally resolved (one way or another), political scientists and strategists will study this divisive, polarizing issue at the heart of a record-setting government shutdown that started as a simple campaign concept.
After an early and wildly successful “road test” by yet-to-be-declared-candidate Donald Trump in January 2015 at the Iowa Freedom Summit, his words “I will build a wall” slowly morphed into Trump’s signature action phrase. Eventually, it became an integral part of his “brand” and a rallying cry that helped elect him the first president of the United States who had never before held political office or military rank.
The genesis of Trump’s wall — initially suggested in 2014 by his first chief political strategist, Roger Stone, a name now familiar from the headlines of the Mueller investigation — has been under-reported. And when reported, according to Stone, the facts have not been entirely accurate.
Many Netflix subscribers know that Stone’s colorful four-decades-long political career was the subject of a popular 2017 documentary "Get Me Roger Stone." In the movie, Stone is compared to Forrest Gump, the fictional character who found himself at the center of every landmark political and cultural event in the mid- to late-20th century.
In my May 2017 interview with Stone, he confessed that “Get Me Roger Stone” is “generally an accurate depiction of my life.” Now, during the shutdown, that Forrest Gump reference is applicable again with the wall issue dividing the nation, motivating Trump's supporters, infuriating his critics, causing mayhem, disruption, and financial pain.
Making an assumption, I said to Stone, “No one has talked to you about the wall” and he replied, “That is correct, they only have [Sam] Nunberg’s self-serving version.” (Keep reading for an explanation.)
That changed after I spoke with Stone by telephone this past Sunday. He took me back to 2014 when Trump was actively considering a run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. (Stone had been Trump’s key political adviser since the 1980s.)
“You have to recognize that Donald Trump does not operate the way a conventional politician would. He is very much his own man and a free spirit,” said Stone. “It was Donald Trump who decided to make illegal immigration a cornerstone of his platform and decided we needed a barrier on our southern border.
“All I helped provide was a rhetorical flourish, as it were, in that I understood that because he was a builder, Trump would have credibility by saying, ‘I will build a wall’ — he’s a builder, that’s what he does. And I also thought that once Trump road-tested it, people would react favorably — and they did. Therefore, Trump would have reason to repeat it — repetition being a key element in the art of politics.”
Then I asked Stone about a recent piece in Forbes, “Where the Idea for Donald Trump’s Wall Came From” by Stuart Anderson. In the column, Anderson quotes from the book “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising” by Joshua Green.
Anderson wrote, “Joshua Green had good access to Trump insiders, including Sam Nunberg, who worked with Stone. ‘Roger Stone and I came up with the idea of “the Wall,” and we talked to Steve [Bannon] about it,’ according to Nunberg. ‘It was to make sure he [Trump] talked about immigration.’ ”
Stone takes great umbrage with two of Sam Nunberg’s recollections.
The first was his saying that the wall was a joint idea (an assertion also chronicled in a recent New York Times piece). This conflict prompted me to ask Stone if he and Trump were alone when he suggested the idea of the wall. He replied, “I was NOT the one who suggested it to Trump. I am the one who thought it up. But, since Sam was traveling with Trump, I said, ‘Sam, suggest to him that he propose the building of a wall.’ Sam did, so Sam was involved in the mechanics of it.”
Second, Stone emphatically contradicts Nunberg’s contention that they talked to Steve Bannon about the wall: “That’s false, we never spoke to Steve Bannon. At the time [in 2014] Bannon was supporting Sen. Ted Cruz. Involving Steve Bannon is illogical, a complete invention reflecting Nunberg’s current employment as Bannon’s coat-holder."
Curious, I also asked Stone if he had anything to do with Trump’s rallying cry that “Mexico will pay for the wall.” Stone’s answer: “That’s all Trump.”
Not usually known for deflecting credit, Stone surprisingly said, “You can’t give me credit for coming up with the immigration issue. I only recommended a rhetorical device” -- adding, “which turned out to one of Trump’s signature issues.”
I laughed at the notion of “a rhetorical device” resulting in an epic government shutdown.
Our conversation then turned to how Trump used that rhetorical device during the 2016 campaign. Stone recalled (and practically quoted verbatim) a Jan. 31, 2016 New York Times editorial, saying, “Trump told the Times in an editorial board meeting, ‘When my rallies start to get slow, and I think people are losing interest, I bring up the wall and they go crazy.’ So he gets it.”
Based on the Times piece, I concluded that the wall was an example of showmanship, to which Roger replied, “Correct.”
The fact that the wall was used by Trump as the issue to liven up rallies is truly astounding amid the government shutdown’s fourth week.
When I asked Stone if the wall was initially just an “off the cuff idea” or “a major branding exercise,” he answered, “All those things.”
My final question was “Did you ever think that the wall would end up being what it is at this moment?” Stone replied, “What’s more important is not the wall so much, but the policy of sealing our border.”
To which I said, “The policy of sealing and protecting our borders HAS NOW become ‘the wall,’ the issue on which Trump is living and dying because he fears losing his base if he backs down.”
Stone argued that Trump's stubbornness is rooted in something else: "Sealing the border was the cornerstone issue he was elected on. What you call ‘pandering to his base’ I call keeping faith with the voters who elected him."
Stone emphatically said, “He shouldn’t back down, it would be an error to back down. The base in politics is everything. If you have no base, you can’t expand beyond your base. It is a good idea for him to stay the course and not back down -- a good idea politically and, more importantly, from a policy point of view.”
In the end, Stone admits, “We don’t know the final result.”
But this we do know: Powerful words and symbolic phrases such as “I will build a wall,” when suggested by a seasoned political adviser to an inexperienced candidate, can change the course of history — especially when that candidate is a skilled showman.