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Showdown in El Paso: Trump and Beto’s Dueling Rallies and the Uncertain Future of the Wall

In the Lone Star State, a preview of the political battle to come

The O'Rourke rally was clearly a grassroots event. Despite the breathless TV coverage by reporters who caught up with him during the march to ask about his 2020 presidential ambitions, the handmade signs and linked arms made it clear that this was not a ready-for-prime-time campaign spectacle. (Photo: flickr/cc/whoisjohngalt)

On Monday night, while Donald Trump was holding his campaign rally at the El Paso County stadium to tout his plan for a border wall, about 7,000 citizens in the diverse, Democratic-leaning city marched in the streets, holding an ebullient celebration of the diversity, cultural richness, and, yes, safety, of their border town.

Former Congressman and progressive rock star Beto O’Rourke made a speech at the end of the march, which CBS broadcast live, apparently straight from someone’s shaky iPhone camera. O’Rourke extolled the virtues of his diverse community and denounced the cruelty and senselessness of the Trump Administration’s attacks on migrants and refugees.

“In El Paso, we are secure because we treat one another with dignity and respect,” O’Rourke said at the event. “We know that walls do not save lives. Walls end lives.”

The dueling events set up the political battle for the coming campaign season.

The O’Rourke rally was clearly a grassroots event. Despite the breathless TV coverage by reporters who caught up with him during the march to ask about his 2020 presidential ambitions, the handmade signs and linked arms made it clear that this was not a ready-for-prime-time campaign spectacle.

Trump’s speech, in contrast, was carefully choreographed, complete with treacly intro music (“Proud to be an American”), a diverse-looking group of cheering supporters visible behind the stage, and a podium bearing the presidential seal. Still, some of the unpredictable energy of the streets crept into the El Paso County stadium as well. Protesters repeatedly interrupted the President, who looked unnerved as he waited long minutes to resume his speech.

The dueling events set up the political battle for the coming campaign season.

The speech itself was a bit of a bust. After all the build-up about taking a stand on the border, Trump merely delivered a rehash of the State of the Union, along with a few plaudits for himself, his approval ratings, his amazing diplomacy with North Korea (“some day they’re going to appreciate us”), some quickly refuted claims about the crowd size at his event versus the counter-rally.

News about an “agreement in principle” between the White House and Democrats, which would avert a government shutdown before the deadline on Friday by giving Trump about one-fifth of the money he requested for expanding fencing on the border, and limit detention beds in ICE facilities, might have taken some of the wind out of Trump’s sails.

He was well into the speech before he even mentioned immigration. Trump attacked the “fake news” media for fact-checking his claims about violent criminals pouring across the border. And he declared the Republican mayor of El Paso “full of crap” for denying that his city was a cesspool of crime before the border wall went up to keep the Mexicans out.

He doubled down on his lurid claims that immigrants are responsible for thousands of rapes, murders, kidnappings, and drug crimes, and boldly told the citizens of El Paso that their own city is far more dangerous than the mainstream media, local officials, or even their own experience tells them.

The Trump supporters in the stadium went along with it.

After all, as Trump explained, rich liberals who favor open borders are hypocrites who “live their entire lives behind walls and gates and have guards all over the place. Me, too,” he added. “I want to be safe. And I want to make America safe, if you don’t mind.”

The crowd cheered.

Maybe the Trump supporters in the stadium also live in gated communities, and have an exaggerated notion of how dangerous their city really is. But the rest of El Paso, and the rest of America, does not seem to be persuaded by Trump’s demagoguery.

According to recent Pew research, a majority of Americans still oppose substantially expanding the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. And the closer to the border people live, the less likely they are to support the wall.

As Trump struggled to regain control during multiple interruptions in his speech, and as marchers in El Paso jammed the streets chanting “no more lies!” it began to look as though reality was creeping up on Fort Trump.

The crowd chanted “USA! USA!” to drown out the disruptions, but by the third time, Trump looked shaken. He may go home to declare victory in his diminished deal with the Democrats. Or he may double down on the phony border crisis—clearly his campaign theme for 2020—and shut down the government.

Either way, the wolves are at the gates. Chants of “USA! USA!” and “fake news!” can only keep them out for so long.

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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