16 October

One Man’s Truth: What Were We Thinking? – The Wall

by Jon Katz

They say that Donald Trump’s border wall began as a gimmick, evolved into a symbol, and mushroomed into a culture war – on the surface, it was a wall against immigration, but eventually, something much deeper.

The wall is rarely mentioned in the 2020 presidential campaign; every once in a while, Trump lies about how big it is now.

I can almost picture it when it is abandoned, as it will soon be, a kind of eerie cultural American Chernobyl, reminding us of the darkest days of the Trump Era.

As is often the case with Trump, there are varied and confusing versions of what is happening with his beloved wall.

One hallmark of the Trump era is that truth and reality never really matters. It’s how things look and appear to be that counts.

By almost any measure, Trump’s border wall is his biggest triumph. No, it isn’t finished, and no, lots of illegals still pour-over, under, and around it, and no, Mexico didn’t pay for it.

He didn’t fix the immigration system, he obliterated it. The wall was just a prop.

In Trump’s world, these realities are all nits. They don’t matter.

Here’s what is known: The U.S. border with Mexico is 1,954 miles. The president’s barrier is one of the largest federal infrastructures in U.S. history.

The southern U.S. border has about 650 miles of barriers that take various forms, from tall fences to vehicle barriers made of railroad tracks. In mountainous areas and long stretches along the Rio Grande, there are no human-made structures.

Nearly all of the new fencing built by the Trump administration is considered replacement fencing, swapping out smaller, older, vehicle barriers for a more elaborate and costly “border wall system.”

Existing barriers cover 654 miles, 133 miles of barriers are being replaced, 300 miles of vehicle barriers are being converted to walls, 221 barriers will remain. The priority area for new construction spans 864 miles.

In the summer of 2014, writes Carlos Lozada in his new book What Were We Thinking; A Brief Intellectual History Of The Trump Era, Trump’s advisers, realizing that immigration would be a central issue in the coming primaries, wanted to give Trump an issue to focus on.

Trump’s advisers were smart to come up with the idea of a big wall Mexico would almost surely be bullied into paying for. They knew Trump saw himself as a great builder.  He would love to build a big wall. All bullshit and no reality. Nothing else had fired him up more than that.

What about pledging to construct a wall on the southern border, his advisers suggest,  and force Mexico to pay for it by cutting off all of its aid from the United States?

Trump loved it, especially the idea of constructing a major visible edifice to please the millions of people who resented illegal immigration, which many saw as taking their jobs and overwhelming their schools and raising taxes and taxing their health care.

Trump tried the line out in a Des Moines speech – months before he could announce his candidacy by labeling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug traffickers – and the crowd went wild.

So did the media, progressives, liberals, and Democrats. The idea of the wall lit up the skies.

A few years earlier, the Democrats had pushed for a wall, and the Republicans blocked it as too expensive and bad for business. Trump turned the border battles around.

Democrats had once offered to spend $30 billion to guard the border. Now, they offered nothing.

“Trump was hooked,” New York Times reporters Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear wrote in Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration (2019). “The wall would become a permanent part of his campaign machinery and a potent symbol for everything he stood for, taking on the totemic significance and shaping his presidency.”

It didn’t really matter to Trump, the people around him said, whether the wall would ever be completed, or if would work, that was beside the point. To fight for it, justify it, make the media and liberals crazy, and bask in the publicity, fury, and chaos was the point.

That was to become the political formula of the President throughout the Trump Era. Nothing made sense if it looked right. Government policy was just another reality show.

In the time of Trump, the idea is never quite about what it seems to be about. The traditionalists and bureaucrats’ heads started spinning and never stopped.

It was never about keeping immigrants out; it was all about keeping the base in. And it still is.

Trump has clung to this formula from the first, it helped him win his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton, but in October of 2020, it is bringing him down. Times change, which is too ephemeral for him to accept.

In 2016, Clinton was so unpopular that all he really needed to take her by surprise was his fired-up base. Lots of people stayed home.

But there’s a pandemic now, and Hillary Clinton is not his opponent and Barack Obama is not the president (although for no one appears to have told him that), and his base and the wall are not enough.

He is now just about as unpopular as she was, a truly epic irony.

The wall is an important symbol of the Trump Era, secondly only to the coronavirus pandemic. It is big and controversial, even bombastic.

It’s a sledgehammer solution to a complex, confusing, and ill-defined problem. There is no evidence that the new wall construction has halted illegal immigration, or made anyone safer or better.

They are still coming, using boats, ladders, ropes,  gliders,  small aircraft,  parachutes, power saws, even small submarines to get through. There are still about 1,500 miles of border with no obstructions at all.

They are building tunnels and scaling walls. For many, their lives are intolerable, any risk is worth taking.

But Trump’s base loved him for trying and loves him still. Many believe his undocumented claims that he has built “hundreds and hundreds” of new and impenetrable walls. Not yet.

The wall is also a classic Trump kind of issue: all black and white, no grey or shades. You are either with him or against him. He politicizes every issue there is, and once he does, Democrats take the bait and oppose whatever he is seeking to do.

It’s called partisanship, and it is damaging the country.

This division gives the base joy. They see Trump doing what they hired him to do: raise hell. Finally, a politician who does what he says he will do. Even if he doesn’t.

There is little argument among rational people that the southern border needs to be controlled in a much better way, but there is no consensus that the wall will fix the problem.

That doesn’t matter either, not to Trump or his followers.

The lift comes from the stance, from jeering at the system, from defying the elites.

The wall also gave structure and focus to the administration’s entire and all-encompassing immigrant project, a kind of bureaucratic genocide.

Once the government decides – with Supreme Court approval – that some people need to be shut out from entering the country, that there is no room in Trump’s America, that we are full and need protection from rapists and murderers, then whatever happens – separating children from their families, disregarding their claims of persecution and eliminating amnesty banning them on religious grounds, using a global pandemic as a screen – then it all becomes not only permissible but logical and inevitable.

The elites responded with an avalanche of poignant memoirs, outraged manifestos, heart-wrenching photos, stories, documentaries, penetrating and sober proposals, and a slew of novels about voiceless immigrants.

None of them impressed Trump or moved his followers or the cowed members of the Republican Party. The wall started going up.

Many of these works did show, and convincingly, that immigration is not as simple, one-sided as Trump’s wall would suggest.

For me, the grandchildren of immigrants, and a member of a large immigrant family, it was an effort to reshape America for the better while bring out its worst.

Speaking personally, I believe Trump, his followers,  the Republican Party, and the Supreme Court will never and should never be forgiven for supporting this black and evil chapter in American history.

It is impossible to calculate how much pain, suffering, and death Trump has caused, sacrificing the most vulnerable people to get elected. How much is the national soul worth to win?

Historians will ask again, “what were they thinking?” when Trump and his administration destroyed America’s previous immigration history and shut it down.

The answer was always clear: we weren’t thinking at all.

“The horror of child separation is not some evil perpetrated in a vicious civil war or a national campaign of genocide by a dictator in some far-off land,” wrote Jeff Merkley in America is Batter Than This: Trump’s War Against Migrant Families (2019. “It is here, in America. It is perpetrated by our government, with our resources, in our land.”

It turned out that America is not better than this; the wall and the immigration disaster is hardly even mentioned during the 2020 campaign and ranks below the economy, the pandemic, and health care as issues Americans are worried about.

The wall is going up in places, hovering like a ghost. How odd, it already doesn’t matter anymore. A country with an attention span like this is broken.

Trump himself has moved on, dropping his evocations of immigrants as rapists and murders, filling the void with Black Lives Matter, the phantom Antifa, and evoking images of Black protesters storming the suburbs and raping and murdering there.

Trump’s largely successful onslaught against the immigrants, wrote Merkley, “demolishes the notion that we are a nation that treats people fleeing persecution with fundamental respect and dignity.”

Demolishing notions has been a common experience in the Trump Era; at this writing, he’s demolishing the idea that we are an advanced civilization able to respond to climate change or a global pandemic.

The third world countries are all ahead of us now on the issues that matter the most. We are becoming a medieval nation, closed ignorant, and angry. And a laughingstock.

Lots of Americans had fun watching Trump disrupt our civic system,  but there’s buyer’s remorse too. We are just beginning to see how much harm has been done to us.

The Trump era has challenged us to think about how great America really is, or ever was, and whether it can or will continue with its glorious tradition of ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, and acceptance of immigrants and refugees from all over the world.

Democracies like that require careful maintenance and management, and much common value and acceptance. None of those things were apparent in the Trump era.

It’s calming, the idea that we will return to our former selves if we can only get rid of Trump and get a “normal” president elected. But is it true?

“It’s a soothing vision,” writes Lozada in his book, “that today’s misdeeds will be overtaken by time, demography, and the eventual recognition of lasting traditions. But diversity and acceptance are far from America’s only values, the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, or it may snap back in our faces.”

Xenophobia, says Erika Lee, a historian at the University of Minnesota, “has existed alongside and constrained America’s immigration for generations.

“It exists and flourishes during times of peace and war, economic prosperity and depression, low and high immigration, and racial struggle and racial progress.

Trump didn’t create all this pain and hatred. He just exploited it and dug it up, like a miner who came across a vein of gold.

If Donald Trump loses this election, as seems likelier by the day, the wall construction will almost certainly stop. A Democratic administration won’t pay for it.

It will loom over our memory and consciences, the perfect reminder of the Trump Era, like a Statue Of Liberty from Hell, a testimony to the frailty and cruelty of human beings.

This big “impenetrable” wall built so far will remain and most likely be forgotten.

The pandemic is a much bigger and newer symbol, so is health care,  and the Democrats are all over both.

I nominate the border wall as the most fitting symbol of the Trump Era, its hubris, xenophobia, cruelty, and daring. The border wall, ironically, was the most powerful symbol of the dark heart of Trumpism.

It was his greatest success, his high watermark.

It was our greatest failure.


Donald Trump is running out of time. The highly FiveThirtyEight sample of 100 possible election outcomes finds that Biden wins 87 times out of 100, Trump wins 13 times out of 100.


  1. I’ve always thought building this wall was a harebrained idea. Humans can be very persistent when they are desperate. If someone is determined to enter our country from Mexico, they will find a way to do it – wall or no wall. The only good I can see that came from it was at least it provided a job for those who built it and for those presently guarding it. The Berlin Wall eventually came down and this isn’t the Great Wall of China. What a waste of time and money.

  2. So spot on. I too wonder, are we REALLY better than this? I believe it was the late Elijah Cummings who made that statement in a powerful speech during a recent congressional hearing. He truly thought we were. I wish I didn’t have my doubts, but when I see clips of the crowds at the rallies that revel in the cruelty of the rhetoric spewing from Trump’s mouth, I wonder. Trump losing the election will give me hope that we can slowly come back from the precipice that our democracy is teetering on. I try to understand the Trump supporters who say they don’t like his tweets or rhetoric, but they like his policies.. So you like child separation, tax breaks for the rich, taking away health care, reproductive rights, gutting environmental protection, voter suppression, the list goes on, and you get the picture. I find that I am not okay with people who are okay with it. I struggle to find common ground or shared values. Maybe I am too much of an idealist, but if I believe that our goal of this country should be everyone working together to make this a better place for all who live here then I am guilty as charged. I know it’s an old statement, but a country divided among itself cannot stand. It won’t be quick or easy, but I am going to be optimistic that we can start moving in a positive direction.

  3. Jon…
    These days in Arizona, any reporting on the wall seems due to negative events.

    Lately the wall is having environmental consequences. This year, wall construction and the use of explosives has caused damage in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

    Environmentalists are concerned that wall construction and placement will impede flow of the San Pedro river. The San Pedro does not rival the Mississippi (while hiking, I stepped over it), but it and the Santa Cruz Rivers provide riparian preserves in this dry country.

    Where private property abuts to the border, owners are concerned about placement of the wall, which could run through their property to where they couldn’t access part of their land without going through a locked gate. Still, some ranchers welcome the wall as protection against trespassing border-crossers.

    The most recent objectors are The Tohono O’odham Nation. The Nation encompasses ancestral lands on both sides of the border. This led to a special arrangement which permitted members to pass without incident between the two countries.

    But with wall construction, tensions are escalating. Last week, protestors disrupted wall construction at Quitobaquito Springs, a Tohono O’odham sacred water source where observers have noted a falling water level and reduced flow.

    This week, wall protestors blockaded a state highway near a Border Patrol checkpoint. They were dispersed or arrested by Arizona law enforcement using tear gas and rubber bullets. An Arizona Congressman has demanded an investigation of their treatment.

    The Tohono O’odham Nation’s leader said that the Department of Defense has not consulted with the Nation about how their actions will impact tribal lands, resources, and rights.

    Jon, I have lived in Arizona for twenty years. For me, these Tohono O’odham objections are unprecedented. Out here, the consequences are real.

  4. Remembering also the hundreds of species of animals that need to migrate back and forth across the border, many of them endangered. The wall is a poignant reminder of how selfishness and lack of empathy are an infection on the soul. Also remembering the hundreds of children sexually assaulted in our immigration detention centers during the Trump Travesty.

  5. I hope one day it will be a tourist attraction “Trump’s Folly” and people will bow their heads in sadness and prayer and vow to never let this injustice happen again in the United States. I know we are better than this.

  6. Jon, this column has amazing clarity. I can’t say why but after reading frequently I feel like a light went on after all this time.

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