The Enduring Appeal of Walls (for Troglodytes)

Berlin Wall

During the presidential campaign, Trump’s crowd-pleasing promise to build a “big beautiful wall” along the US-Mexican border was the signature idiocy of his run. From the very start the idea was laughably simplistic, wrongheaded, impossible to implement, and—ironically—sure to be ineffective even if by some miracle it did get built. Which is to say, a perfectly Trumpian idea.

And Trump didn’t stop there. It wasn’t enough to promise the Great Wall of America. Mexico was going to pay for it. Hilarious!

I’ll admit that, when it seemed inconceivable that he would win, I mused to friends that it would almost be entertaining if he did win, just to watch his supporters’ frustration when Trump found that promise impossible to keep.

Sorry for jinxing that, America. My bad.


Many column inches have already been devoted to the pragmatic problems (obstacles, one might say) inherent in trying to wall off our southern border: the irregular terrain, the mixture of public and private land, the insane expense, the sheer scale and scope of the endeavor, and on and on.

But the impracticality of the border wall is not really the issue. The issue is the absolute irrationality of the hysterical, xenophobic impulse that is promoting this incredibly pointless idea in the first place.

Illegal immigration is at historic lows. The undocumented immigrants already here constitute an indispensable element of the American economy, performing the menial, often backbreaking, low-wage labor that Americans won’t, often in the employ of the very people—the Trump family included—who consistently vote Republican and villainize them. Nor, contrary to what Fox News would have us believe, do we face anything like the refugee crisis that Europe is experiencing, let alone a marauding “caravan” of thugs and drug dealers along with the odd Al Qaeda infiltrator.

So Democrats should stop conceding this “border security” canard to Trump and the GOP. Every time Trump or one of his Republican flying monkeys screeches about “securing the border,” the Democratic response is always prefaced with an obliging concession that yes yes, border security is soooooo important. It even happened—repeatedly—in the great televised Oval Office smackdown where Pelosi and Schumer otherwise handed Trump his ass.

Can we stop this farce please?

At best, Democrats should say, “Yes, border security is important…..BUT YOU AREN’T TALKING ABOUT BORDER SECURITY!” It’s that last phrase that is always missing, the absence of which cedes Republicans points they don’t deserve.

Border security isn’t the issue here in the slightest. Yes, Virginia, we do have an immigration problem, but only in the sense of a broken bureaucratic system that has no mechanism for properly assimilating the desperate migrant people and their children who come to America seeking refuge and a better life, and for policing those among us who would exploit them. But what we don’t have—sorry Lou Dobbs—is an oceanic wave of murderous brown-skinned hordes swarming across the southern border to lace our water supply with meth and deflower virginal white womanhood.

No matter. Immigrants, legal and otherwise, do serve a crucial role for the GOP, in that demonizing and scapegoating a class of people—outsiders of some sort, invariably—is page one of the fascist handbook.

Accordingly, the wall is a solution in search of a problem, and a glaring example of the real issue, which is pervasive and virulent bigotry in this country, encompassing racism, xenophobia, nativism, and various toxic combinations thereof. That is the engine that drives the modern Republican Party (in the service of further enriching its wealthiest members), reaching its apotheosis under Donald Trump.

And that is why the wall has become its singular obsession.


Here’s the thing about walls. Throughout history they have promised an attractive, literally concrete solution to security, from medieval castle to continental superpower.

But they have never worked.

A wall or any other kind of barrier can serve a role, but it is not a panacea. A deer fence is good, if it’s high enough, and if your problem is deer. An offshore barrier is great in a hurricane, but there is always a storm so big that it can’t be stopped, and it’s useless if what you’re trying to keep out are birds, not rain.

The idea of a border wall is similarly ill-conceived.

It is a paradox of military affairs that it’s easier to defend than attack, but one nevertheless always prefers to be the attacker, as the attacker holds the initiative.  Any defense can be overcome with sufficient time, resources, and determination. As Tim Rogers wrote in Splinter:

“Build a 10-foot wall and I’ll show you an 11-foot ladder,” said Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson during a speech last September in North Carolina. “If somebody is motivated enough to leave Central America and travel the entire distance of Mexico and climb a 10,000-foot mountain, they’re not going to be deterred by a 10-foot wall.”

Yes, if we dropped everything else and devoted all our tax dollars and all our resources and deployed a goodly portion of our entire law enforcement community and our armed forces, we might be able—over several decades—to build and maintain a wall big and formidable enough to stop routine overland border crossings into the US via Mexico. Say, seventy feet high, topped with concertina wire, surrounded by trip wires, minefields, and moats filled with boiling lava, overwatched by armed guards with M-60 machine guns, surveillance satellites, and hunter/killer drones.

The immorality of such measures is self-evident in terms of disproportionality to the threat. It would also be an unforgivably immoral waste of money in light of America’s other pressing needs. (Kind of like India of the 1970s ignoring famine in order to build an atomic bomb.) More to the point, it would likely do nothing except inspire different forms of illegal entry via other access points and by other means. As it stands, a majority of undocumented aliens in the US entered legally and overstayed their visas. (Of those, the largest number come from Canada.

Give those facts, I support the notion of border fencing—or even “aesthetically pleasing steel slats,” as Trump calls them—at strategic portions of the southern border. I just don’t think a magical, continuous, impenetrable wall is called for, possible, or would even do the job for which it is envisioned.

May I humbly suggest that the ultimate solution to our immigration issues is to address the root causes of global inequality, oppression, and greed that drive the mass movements of people fleeing such troubles?

But that sort of nuanced, complex solution—one that requires thought, patience, and a belief in facts—finds little purchase in the dishonest, bare knuckles world of American politics, particularly when one of the two major parties is not interested in a real solution in the first place, only in whipping up its rabid base.


“Build the wall!” on the other hand, is a perfect tribal rallying cry, a ridiculous, effectively impossible fantasy reflecting the primitive, reactionary thinking of its adherents, not to mention their contempt for logic, justice, the rule of law, the reality of the national security situation, and simple physics. Watching a crowd of mouthbreathing Trump supporters shout it is like something right out of a Leni Riefenstahl retrospective.

The obvious parallel, of course, is guns. Like a wall, a gun is an appealingly simplistic, brute force solution to a threat. But also like a wall, it is not always the solution it promises to be, and in fact, is often lethally counter-productive.

Not being a pacifist, I am not saying there is never a time or place for firearms. (Omaha Beach is a good example.) But as I have written before, the knee-jerk mentality that a gun is always the best recourse—or any recourse at all—is wildly foolhardy, the product of fear, misplaced machismo, and the unrealistic wish for a quick fix. (See Why Can’t I Own an M-1 Tank? and Blood On Their Hands.)

The same goes for walls, although mercifully, being (mostly) passive in nature, they tend to be less actively destructive. But that does not make them any more useful when deployed in error or to no logical end.


Let’s review some of history’s most famous walls.

There’s Jericho, of course, brought down by some biblical bebop player.

There’s the Great Wall of China, which may have worked fine in 200 B.C.E., but now is little more than the name of a place to get good moo shu at the mall.

There was the Maginot Line, which stopped the Wehrmacht for all of zero seconds.

There was the ill-conceived Strategic Defense initiative—better known as “Star Wars,” but also dubbed the “peace shield” by its proponents—which was supposed to provide a kind of overhead wall (sometimes called a roof) against Soviet ICBMs. Whatever its ultimate value for Reagan bluffing in Reykjavik, it was never a viable idea in practical or strategic terms. Not for nothing was it derided as a “Maginot Line in space.”

In the present day, Israel famously uses a complex system of border defenses to protect itself, and more controversially, to extend its territory by means of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. Trump and Netanyahu are therefore locked in a mutual cheerleading pact, each pointing to the other to justify his own actions on that count.

But if you think the United States should aspire to the security situation of Israel, you’re welcome to it.

The most famous wall of them all, of course, was in Berlin, which—anticipating your complaint—was unique in that it was designed to keep people in not out, the laughable rhetoric of the DDR notwithstanding. But the East German government was partially correct: the Berlin wall was intended to keep people out, because the transit of Westerners to and from the Soviet sector would expose the communist lie about the workers’ paradise. That those migrants were wealthy and free (by Warsaw Pact standards), and the German citizenry behind the walls impoverished and suffering—a reversal of the usual dynamic in a walled city—made no functional difference. Either way, inclusive or exclusive, the impulse behind the Berlin Wall was the same as all the others: a resort to the most primitive of methods to restrict the free flow of human intercourse.

I think we all know how that played out.

When I was stationed in Germany in the mid to late 1980s I visited both East and West Berlin frequently, right up to the month before the wall came down. (Some of my best friends were lucky enough to be present for the event.) At the time it was still an occupied city controlled by the major Allied powers, and American, British, and French soldiers like us had the right to travel to all four quadrants, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement instituted at the end of World War II.

Let me tell you, it was a surreal sight to see.

To watch a state so helpless to govern without that kind of unabashed brutality toward of its people, so terrified of the outside world, so bereft of humanity, that it would erect an enormous miles-long concrete monument to its own awfulness was unforgettable.

I sure didn’t think that thirty years later I’d be witnessing the rise of that same mentality in my own country.


While we’re on the subject, can we stop for a moment and note that this week a second migrant child—an eight-year-old boy—died in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol as a result of contemporary American immigration policy?

In the wake of this tragedy DHS did step up its medical protocols. (That sound you hear is the barn door belatedly closing.) But Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen also issued a statement that surely ranks as among the most dishonest and despicable ever released by the Trump administration, which is saying something. “Our system has been pushed to a breaking point by those who seek open borders,” Nielsen said. “Smugglers, traffickers, and their own parents put these minors at risk by embarking on the dangerous and arduous journey north.”

What a vomit-inducing lie. The only reason CBP is overwhelmed is because the Trump administration—at the urging of that odious homunculus and Hair Club for Men reject  Stephen Miller—instituted a “zero tolerance” / no triage policy for border crossers, to include asylum seekers, a policy that mandated detaining every apprehended migrant as well as taking children from their parents. To now cry that DHS is overwhelmed is the height of arrogance and dishonesty.

It is astounding to observe the yogi-like contortions of people like Nielsen and her bosses who seek to blame migrants for their own plight and for the jackbooted treatment that Miller has devised for them in our name. Chief among these is the battle cry that “They’re breaking the law!” by coming to the US without papers. This from people who won’t acknowledge that we stole this country from its original inhabitants in the first place.

That strict devotion to law and order miraculously vanishes, of course, when it comes to any of President Trump’s demonstrable lawbreaking, from felony campaign finance violations to conspiracy with a foreign power to defraud the United States, crimes which are greeted with a dismissive wave of the hand and the excuse that “these are minor violations” and that “everyone does it.” (Neither statement true, it ought to go without saying.)

It’s almost enough to make one forget Nielsen’s other howler of the week, her cavewoman-like pronouncement to Congress, “We need wall!” Perhaps, besieged as she is by the president, and now without the protection of her mentor John Kelly, she felt the need to demonstrate her neanderthal bonafides.

We don’t need to get into the Chinese finger-trap debate over “open borders,” an inherently deceptive phrase that the right uses to gin up fear within its base and beyond. It’s only common sense that any functional nation can and should have reasonable, civilized, yet effective border controls. Call me naive, but I think that can be done without turning the United States into an armed camp of nativist maniacs.

But as noted above, the Trumpian desire to build a wall, like the desire to ban Muslims from entering the US, to slash even legal immigration, and generally to betray the moral foundations of this country, is not driven by a legitimate crisis of any kind. It is driven by bigotry, nativism, and fearmongering plain and simple. Hateful though it is, some of that sentiment is at least genuine, and some of it cynical and employed only as a wedge issue for partisan gain, and I’m not sure which is worse.


After McConnell and Ryan patiently explained to him that they didn’t have the votes to fund the wall, Trump was briefly prepared to do the pragmatic thing and punt, for now…..until Coulter, Limbaugh, Doocy, et al said “jump” and he bolted from his seat, squealing “How high, milord?”

The right wing media and Vlad Putin must have a complicated custody arrangement for Trump’s testicles.

And so he reversed himself (no, you say!!!), dragged Congress back to Washington, and is currently holding his breath—and governance hostage—until he gets what he wants.

It was only weeks ago that Trump swore on national television that he would proudly own any shutdown and would not blame the Democrats.

Paging Captain Renault: Trump is blaming the Democrats.

Even without that airtight video evidence, Trump’s attempt to pin the blame on the Democratic Party is comical. The GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress (to say nothing of a growing majority of the federal judiciary), yet it blames Pelosi and Schumer for governmental dysfunction?

The pettiness of Trump’s Christmastime shutdown—equal parts self-destructive and just plan destructive—is shameless, not to mention his wanton disregard for the general welfare he swore to protect. Its only point, of course, is to please his disciples by showing his symbolic commitment to the wall, even if it means amputating their collective nose to spite their collective face. How many federal workers—Trump supporters included—will go without paychecks at Christmas and beyond because of our infant-in-chief’s temper tantrum?

The shutdown is especially galling in light of the fact that the Trump administration has spent only a tiny fraction of the $1.7 billion already allocated for border walls. And to what end? As McConnell and Ryan conveyed to him, and as every other sentient politician knows, Trump does not have the support even within his own party to fully fund the wall, and he’s not going to be in a better position when the Democrats take control of the House on January 3, 2019.

But of course Trump Nation has generously overlooked other, related promises…..chiefly, that Mexico would pay for the wall, an assurance our fearless leader deployed almost daily on the campaign trail. So why is the American taxpayer now being asked to pony up $5 billion dollars to fund it? (The $5 billion figure is itself a joke, as the wall would cost much more—three to five times as much according to reliable estimates.)

I have previously addressed Trump supporters’ immunity to their hero’s blatant flip-flopping (The Death of Hypocrisy), a blindness best explained in terms of a literal cult (Drinking the Flavor-Aid). So at this point it’s not at all surprising that they are unmoved his bald-faced failure to extract penny one from Mexico, or to be embarrassed about it, any more than they are by his aforementioned lawbreaking. But it remains a towering monument to the bullshit slung by this consummate flim flam man.

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi cut Trump down to size by quipping that the big beautiful wall is not only not being paid for by Mexico, but has now been downgraded to just “a beaded curtain.” Ouch.

Trump thought Christmas Day would be a great time to tweet some more about his would-be wall, including the boast that it would require an Olympic athlete to scale it. (Attention: Mexican Olympic team.) For sheer absurdity, that quote was right up there with the town hall in New Hampshire in 2015, when Trump was gushing about how no one would be able to scale his theoretical wall, and was suddenly struck with the fatal flaw in his plan:  “Once they get up there there will be no way to get down….Well, maybe a rope.”


And so here we are as we await the arrival of 2019. Nativism is an old and poisonous strain in the American bloodstream, and—apparently—it never goes away. It lives side by side with our self-flattering image of our country as a nation of immigrants, a melting pot that welcomes all, exemplified by the big green lady in New York harbor.

Masha Gessen, who knows a thing or two about fleeing repression, recently said that she finds it openly offensive when progressives cite the value of immigrants as part of their pushback against Trump’s xenophobic policies. The reason we ought to let these people into our country, she argues, is not because we benefit from immigration—although we do—but because it’s the right and humane thing to do.

She is correct, of course; Masha is rarely wrong. But that idealistic argument is not likely to find much purchase in a country such as ours that is demonstrably rife with bigotry and selfishness, where even the tangible benefits of immigration are not enough to convince millions of people to open their minds (let alone their hearts) on the topic of what Fox would call “fucking foreigners.”

Given the mess Trump is making of the US of A, it’s a wonder anyone wants to come here any more at all. Andy Borowitz presciently foresaw this way back in 2014, when he wrote, “GOP Succeeds in Making America a Place No One Wants to Sneak Into.”

Mission accomplished, guys. To borrow a phrase.

And now, for want of a border wall, the entire US government has ground to a halt.

So what’s the way out of this idiotic game of chicken that Trump has forced on us, given his juvenile sensitivity to humiliation? Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Waldman suggests what might be the best possibility:

(I)f there’s a glimmer of hope, it might lie in Trump’s willingness to describe any result, even the most abject defeat, as a spectacular win for him that was only possible because of his limitless brilliance. As depressing as it is, that’s what we might have to count on.

Tune in next week when Nancy Pelosi prevails, Trump folds, and then declares victory. And Republicans across America believe him.








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