Decoding ‘Build the Wall’: What Liberal Critics Miss

This was recently published in NACLA Report on the Americas, in their excellent new issue on confronting the Trump government in Latin America. If you can access it, read it here:

Donald Trump’s border wall, if it is ever built, will of course be a monument to arrogance and folly. And obviously, it won’t “work”—that is, it won’t achieve the White House’s officially stated goals of restricting immigration and drug trafficking. Unfortunately, that’s the best thing about it.

Trump’s executive order mandating the construction of a border wall decries “aliens” as powerful vectors of crime and terrorism, a “clear and present danger” to national security. In response, liberal critics have lately emphasized  that the border wall is a waste of money and resources. The MIT Technology Review asks us to “set aside the questions of whether it’s wise to put a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border” in making a persuasive case for its exorbitant cost—some $40 billion USD, far more than the estimate of $12-15 billion USD that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has pledged to allocate for the project. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a liberal, D.C.-based NGO focused on human rights in the Americas, observes that building 413 more miles of fencing—the portion of the land border with Mexico not yet walled in by Clinton and Bush-era “border security” initiatives—would cost $11.37 billion USD. Another liberal wall critic, Robert Reich, at Berkeley, showed all the humanity of the average economist when he wrote on his blog in January 2017 that border crossings are down because Mexico “is producing fewer young people.”

It seems certain that the wall will be wasteful and useless—what’s less clear is whether this actually matters, at least to Trump and his right-wing allies. What pragmatic and economic arguments against the border wall miss is that its major objective is symbolic. And in this respect, the wall’s real target audience can be found in the exurbs and suburbs of Trump country, far from the Mexico-U.S. border.

Like any other political slogan, the Trump campaign’s battle cry of “Build the Wall!” is both a claim—about the chanters and what unites them—and a demand, about what they want their leader to do in their name. The claim, in this case, is primarily cultural, even though it pretends to be geographic. The chant unites the chanters in a community of race and language. Those inside the wall share a pure American nationality, uncontaminated by anyone perceived to be “Latin American” or otherwise “foreign.” They are hardworking, English-speaking, and, the slogan implies but does not need to say outright, white. The wall, in other words, is as much about who it keeps in as who it supposedly keeps out.

From this claim follows the demand. What the chanters want, and what Trump’s executive order mandating the wall provides, is an official validation and a material manifestation of this ethno-national fantasy. This is all the wall provides—but it’s a lot.

Indeed, the developer-turned-president himself seems to recognize that the major point of a border wall—perhaps the major point of borders at all—is in the spectacle of the thing. As he emphasized repeatedly on the campaign trail, the wall will be “big,” and it will be “beautiful.” And as he once tweeted during the presidential campaign, “A nation WITHOUT BORDERS is not a nation at all.” The presidential executive order Trump signed in January elaborated that the border wall is intended to preserve the nation’s “safety and territorial integrity”—it’s telling that these are separate values. Safety doesn’t follow from territorial integrity: “territorial integrity” is an ideological value, not a pragmatic one.

The dream of an impermeable cultural boundary with Mexico is also older than Trump, of course. The border with Mexico effectively existed nowhere but on a map until 1911, when as Rachel St. John recounts in her history of the border, Line in the Sand, the first section of a border fence was completed—to restrain wandering cattle. It was not until the Clinton era, in the wake of NAFTA, the drug war, and the rising jingoism of the nationalist Right that those fences were replaced by something you could call a “wall.” Trump’s presidential executive order to finish the job Clinton started also commanded federal agencies “to repatriate illegal aliens swiftly, consistently, and humanely.” Treat “aliens” as if they are human, not cattle, the president demands, even as the wall implicitly advertises an old point once put more bluntly on signs posted in border towns decades ago: “No dogs, no negros, no Mexicans.”

Further back, in another imperial era, before so much as a cattle fence separated Mexican and U.S. territory—indeed, before “U.S. territory” existed in its current form—the Trumps of the nineteenth century would have called their wall-building fantasy “Anglo-Saxonism.” The claim for the “Anglo-Saxon republic” had the distinction of stating more directly what “Build the Wall!” only says obliquely: the United States was a country destined to be ruled by European whites, and America, in turn, was a hemisphere destined to be ruled by those United States. In angry response to U.S. Anglo-Saxonism, the Colombian poet José María Torres Caicedo coined the term “Latin American” to defend the dignity of Spanish America. This is what simply pragmatic cases against the border wall don’t address, but which the wall distinctly does: the very idea that “Latin American” and “American” are distinctive cultural identities in the first place—an idea that is a product not of geography but of ideology.

There is one more compelling argument for the wall’s practical ineffectiveness, however, as Todd Miller has argued in NACLA and elsewhere: the wall is already here. Drone surveillance, increased Border Patrol manpower and, yes, many walls already police the border. Trump is simply doing what he does best: throwing up a gaudy façade with his name on it. “Nobody builds walls better than me, believe me,” Trump liked to tell the audience at his campaign rallies. To this end, the federal bid guidelines for contractors hoping to build the border wall stipulated that “the north side of wall (i.e. U.S. facing side) shall be aesthetically pleasing”—the south-facing side need not be, since the wall’s audience does not live there.

The existing border wall bears another level of imperial symbolism, one so startling in its historical symmetries that it almost seems like the invention of a rather heavy-handed left-wing novelist. Much of it was constructed out of surplus helicopter landing mats from Vietnam and the first Gulf War, the recycled waste of older imperial adventures. Compared to these, one could argue that the border wall has thus far been distinguished by relative thrift.

When we oppose the border wall, therefore, we have to ask ourselves what exactly we’re opposing. Is it the militarism and nationalism of Clinton’s wall, or just the extravagant tastelessness of Trump’s? The pragmatic arguments against the wall may be correct enough, but merely pointing out Trump’s hypocrisy has hardly worked so far. What’s more, arguing against the wall for its profligacy raises some uncomfortable questions. Would this xenophobia be more tolerable if it were only cheaper? And what case can be made against the border wall that shouldn’t also be made about the border itself?


This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in NACLA Report on the Americas 49. Find the published version here, if you can access the paywall:

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