No Texan Is a Match for Trump. Not Even Beto.

EL PASO, Texas — The battle of the border was an epic desert showdown between two gifted politicians, each marshaling around 10,000 people, one blessed with the truth, the other pedaling lies. And yet, to Donald Trump’s mystifying credit, the lie survived to fight another day. We tell some tall tales here in Texas. But no Texan is a match for this president.

As day broke here in my hometown yesterday, it looked like after years, Mr. Trump’s lies about the border had finally run out. Amid his showdown with Democrats over his proposed border wall — which had already led to an unpopular 35-day-long government shutdown — Mr. Trump was coming to El Paso to make his case once again: “Build the wall.” The people of El Paso, with the local hero and presidential Hamlet Beto O’Rourke as their public face, had a response: “We’re safe not because of walls but in spite of walls. We’re safe not in spite of immigrants but because of immigrants.”

Ahead of the president’s visit, normally taciturn local politicians turned on Mr. Trump for falsely claiming in recent weeks that El Paso, the largest border city in America, was swamped by an immigrant crime wave until a fence went up. The English-language daily, El Paso Times, proclaimed: “Local leaders ready to tell El Paso’s story.” The Spanish-language daily, El Diario, more startlingly heralded, “El Paso, National Battleground.” The officially nonpartisan mayor, Dee Margo, laid into Mr. Trump on Twitter, outraged: “El Paso was never one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S.”

As Air Force One approached, winds whipped up to 50 miles per hour as people streamed toward the County Coliseum, formerly a site for livestock shows and rodeos, where Mr. Trump held what amounted to his kickoff rally for the 2020 election.

This is not Trump country. After all, he’d branded the entire border, where millions of Americans live, a violent wasteland. Business leaders groused that the president had been bad for business, endangering $70 billion in local trade with Mexico while scaring away businesses with tales of immigrant mayhem. The County Commissioners Court is on the record opposing a wall cutting through downtown. El Paso voted nearly 3-to-1 against him in 2016.

For a moment, it seemed the president would finally get his comeuppance here — a definitive and undeniable repudiation of his monstrous and unpopular pet project.

On the merits, Mr. Trump should lose the battle hands down. The crime rate in El Paso peaked in 1993. Then it fell steadily for years finally settling at about 370 violent crimes per 100,000 people. Lower than a city El Paso’s size, like, say, Boston or the national average.

Organized by some 50 local groups, the March for Truth gathered at least as many or even more people than Mr. Trump’s rally, winding its way to a field directly across from the County Coliseum. Some skewered Mr. Trump, sure; “Not today, Satan,” read one sign. But most people, like Cathy Benavidez, a retired social worker, came to defend their hometown’s reputation. “I’m just embarrassed by what Trump has said because it’s not true,” Ms. Benavidez said. Her hand-lettered sign said, in glitter, “Stop the wall, stop the lies, El Paso has always been safe.”

Mr. O’Rourke appeared in shirt sleeves, despite plummeting temperatures, but with his usual upbeat attitude. In a brief interview over the rising voice of a mariachi singer, he said: “This is El Paso so I want to take every opportunity to support the cause, the culture and the community.”

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President Trump preparing to speak at a rally at the El Paso County Coliseum on Monday.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

He helped bring out 10,000 supporters, according to local organizers, maybe as many as 15,000. Mr. Trump brought 6,700 to the old rodeo arena, according to the fire department, with a few thousand more stamping their feet in front of the parking lot Jumbotron. The truth — or at least the facts — made steady progress in El Paso.

But that didn’t stop the lies, like Mr. Trump claiming 35,000 people came to see him while just 200 went to see Mr. O’Rourke. There is nothing the president won’t lie about. He even encouraged followers to chant “Finish That Wall,” though there’s been no construction since he became president on any kind of wall he promised, just fences ordered up since 2006. I tried to count the lies during his speech but had to stop after 10. My Stetson is off: The guy is a gifted and gratuitously generous liar.

“Thanks to a powerful border wall in El Paso, Texas, it is one of the safest cities,” he insisted even after the uproar. And the crowd roared. Of course, I had parked my car by the 18-foot bollard border fence a block away; there was no wall, just like there were no 10,000 MAGA fans milling around outside.

But the truth is plodding, getting its pants on, one leg at a time, while a lie races halfway around the world, as the old saw attributed to Mark Twain goes. Mr. Trump’s tales of kidnappings and mayhem, too, are far more racy than the truth. El Paso has problems. The international bridges carry tens of millions of people, cars, trucks and rail cars each year; they’re not getting inspected. But that is tedious. I grew up here and El Paso does have a crisis: too much poverty and too little education. But that is boring.

Mr. Trump’s lies are dime novel, pulp fiction, heart-pounding, mesmerizing and that’s where they derive their power. Regardless, word came that evening that congressional negotiators would give Mr. Trump about $1 billion for more steel barriers, which he will call a wall and then declare victory. It will be anything but that.

The president’s biggest cheerleader, Lindsey Graham, is absolutely right when he says “the wall has become a metaphor.” And Henri Rafael, a Trump fan I met at the rally, is absolutely right, too: “A border wall is very much needed. But it’s not about the wall anymore.” His friend in a pink MAGA hat, Monica DeMoss, chimed in: “These people need to go out and work.”

The wall is about whatever you want it to be about: welfare, immigrants, race, class, socialism, you name it. It will never be an actual, 30-foot wall from sea to shining sea, as Mr. Trump once promised. He is, in fact, losing on the merits, bit by bit. But he will still get his monument: a metaphor that just as effectively divides the nation, even if a real wall never divides the border here, in El Paso.

I’ll hand it to the guy: No Texan could tell a taller tale.

Richard Parker is the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.”

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