President Trump and his political team plan to make his yearslong quest for a border wall one of the primary thrusts of his re-election effort – trying to turn his failure to build such a project into a combative sales pitch that pits him against the political establishment on immigration.

Trump has declared a national emergency to secure the funds Congress has repeatedly denied him despite his own admission that the move is likely to get tied up in court. This decision has galvanized many of his supporters even as others on the right remain dubious and disappointed.

His campaign is fundraising off his showdown with congressional Democrats – portraying the opposition party as more interested in political games than the public’s safety. And faced with the fact that he has yet to build an inch of the concrete or steel wall he promised, Trump and his campaign have started relying on a rhetorical sleight of hand: speaking the wall into existence.

“Now, you really mean, ‘Finish that wall,’ because we’ve built a lot of it,” Trump incorrectly said at a campaign rally Monday in El Paso after supporters broke out in chants of “Build that wall!”

As he spoke, giant placards with the words “Finish the Wall” hung from the rafters, an unmistakable signal Trump’s aides say reflects the campaign’s growing push to convince the president’s supporters that the border barrier they imagined him building is already real.

These endeavors underscore the extent to which Trump and his allies are trying to make 2020 a repeat of 2016 – centered on a portrayal of the nation as under siege from criminal immigrants and other dark forces.

The strategy comes with serious risks. It largely assumes that despite Trump’s poor poll numbers and his setback in the midterms, he remains popular enough to rely on the same strategy that delivered him the White House through a thin electoral college victory even as he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes.

“The question is whether it’s going to be enough in the states he needs in 2020,” said Jennifer Duffy, a nonpartisan election analyst at the Cook Political Report. “In places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona, can it get the job done?”

Duffy said that if Democrats nominate a strong presidential nominee, Trump might find himself fighting “the last war” as the electorate adjusts to new choices and new debates.

Trump’s Republican allies remain confident and said his messaging in recent weeks – however bungled – is nevertheless setting him up for the 2020 presidential election, both in framing the wall as a motivating tool for his core voters and underscoring his commitment to border security.

“You can argue about the details, but strategically, it works,” said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally.

“The president wants Beto O’Rourke out there, in contrast, saying that walls kill people and we shouldn’t have walls. That could be a snapshot of the 2020 election,” Gringrich said of the former Democratic congressman from Texas, a potential presidential contender.

Critics say the president’s exaggerated claims about ongoing wall construction will ultimately backfire, undermining his ability to sell himself as a master negotiator who can work his will in Washington.

“The president has always survived by living inside a reality-distortion field,” said Tim O’Brien, author of “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald” (2005). “When things don’t go his way, he simply creates another narrative.”

Trump’s claims that the wall is well underway have intensified and become more descriptive in recent weeks as he weathered a record-breaking government shutdown over wall money and bipartisan negotiations to stave off a second lapse in federal funding.

“The wall is very, very on its way,” Trump told a conference of law enforcement officials Wednesday. “It’s happening as we speak … and it’s a big wall. It’s a strong wall. It’s a wall the people aren’t going through very easy.”

On Friday, Trump signed a bill that included $1.375 billion for fencing and other expenditures, a far cry from the $5.7 billion he previously demanded. That money also can only go toward building the type of barriers already in use, not the concrete wall Trump highlighted during the campaign and early in his presidency.

By declaring a national emergency, the White House is trying to bypass Congress and repurpose more than $6 billion from the Pentagon and other agencies to fund wall construction, but Democrats said they will try to stop the move legislatively and in the courts.

“What you’re seeing is the mother of all pivots. He’s trying to turn (being) outfoxed by Speaker Pelosi into a win by creating a rally cry for the re-elect campaign,” said veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy. “For his core base, it’ll ameliorate some of the criticism. But it won’t help him with general-election voters. He’s playing survival politics with his own base and using the illusion of success.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.