One of the best-known of Donald Trump’s many campaign promises in 2016 was that “he” would build a “big, beautiful wall” along America’s southern border with Mexico to prevent illegal migrants from “shithole countries” crossing into the United States. And the best thing about it? The Mexican government was going to pay for it. Not entirely surprising to anyone with even a little sense of reality, the Mexican government was not completely sold on the idea, perhaps because it had not been consulted beforehand.
As a German, I know something about walls. After all, for decades in the postwar period, Germany was divided into two states — the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — separated by a beautiful and highly efficient wall. Ironically, one of the great icons of American Republicanism (the party, not the constitutional order), Ronald Reagan, at a moment of complete mental blackout, thought it would be a good idea to tear down the wall. Or so he called upon his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a well-known speech held in West Berlin in 1987.
The Berlin Wall was built in the early 1960s, first in Berlin, then along the whole of the inner border between East and West. It was a great wall, a monument to the ingenuity of West Germany’s government to get its counterpart in the East to build an impenetrable barrier preventing millions of desperate, poverty-stricken Easterners from invading the West in order to take away jobs from hardworking West Germans and take advantage of the FRG’s lavish social welfare benefits. And the best thing? The East Germans built the wall and the East German government paid for the whole shebang.
Now, that’s what you call the art of the deal. Unfortunately, in 1989, the party came to an abrupt end. On November 9, the wall was demolished, Easterners flooded the West, bringing with them not only xenophobia and racism, but an entitlement mentality which has cost and continues to cost unified Germany billions of euros. Not for nothing, around a quarter of West Germans wished, according to representative surveys, that the wall were rebuilt.
Of Wall and Facts
Trigger warning: Those of my readers (if there are any) who have been brainwashed by Fox News and the Murdoch empire, be warned. My rendition of what caused the building of the wall across the two Germanys is fake news, or better, an attempt at irony. West Germans always loved their sisters and brothers on the other side of the border, always yearned for the day the two parts of the country would be reunited. The East German government never intended to build the wall but was forced to do so in order to keep Western imperialists out of East Germany’s workers’ and peasants’ paradise and protect the great socioeconomic advances the GDR had made under the wise leadership of the East German Communist Party. Or so the story went.
Now, to get back to the main topic of this article, what about Trump’s wall? First, some facts. The border between the United States and Mexico extends over more than 2,000 miles, around two-thirds of which consists of the Rio Grande River. Only about 700 miles are on land. Even before Trump took office, most of the land border between the two countries was fortified by fences, thanks to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As Obama stated in 2009, “I think the American people, they appreciate and believe in immigration. But they can’t have a situation where you just have half a million people pouring over the border without any kind of mechanism to control it.”
Both Bush and Obama were pro-immigration. Both understood, however, that a significant number of Americans were not entirely sold on the idea. Surveys show that Americans are generally well-disposed toward immigrants, certainly better disposed than Europeans. At the same time, however, there are also considerable concerns. In 2018, about half of respondents thought that immigrants represented a burden on local communities “by using more than their share of social services” — a proposition supported by three-quarters of Republican respondents, compared to merely a bit more than a third of Democrats. The extension of border fortifications along the US-Mexican border was supposed to alleviate the anxieties and fears of those hostile to immigration while soliciting support for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy.
Immigration reform never happened. Instead, one administration after the other tinkered with a system, increasingly seen as dysfunctional, particularly with regard to the question of undocumented immigrants, without ever seriously addressing the misgivings of large parts of the American public. This allowed Trump to promote an extremist solution to an issue that had been smoldering for decades. This was largely in line with a larger political agenda aimed at transforming the republic into a form of ethnocracy, defined as a “government or rule by a particular ethnic group,” in the US case by Americans of European descent, or what is generally known as white supremacy.
In the Trumpian nativist narrative, the wall was of central importance. Better still, it had the appearance of a relatively simple fix to a highly complex issue, which goes right to the heart of American identity and self-understanding. It might be appropriate in this context to recall the inscription etched into the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This is the claim. Reality has always been somewhat different. Over the past several decades, Americans have been increasingly less than welcoming to the world’s poor huddled masses, particularly if they happened to come from south of the border. Again, this is nothing new. Not long after the establishment of the republic, American pamphleteers charged European governments with dumping their poor onto the shores of the new nation.
Ironically enough, while the wall was a central selling point in Trump’s 2016 campaign, Americans were less than convinced. In a Gallup poll from January 2017, a mere quarter of respondents thought it was “very important” that Trump kept his promise to build a wall along the Mexican border. This was way below repairing infrastructure, reducing income taxes for all Americans, raising tariffs on foreign imports and deporting illegal immigrants who had committed a crime. Each one of these issues had majority support. In short, most Americans could care less about Trump’s big, beautiful wall, perhaps out of recognition that walls are hardly ever beautiful. In fact, they are just depressing, as anyone who had visited Berlin during the Cold War can attest.
This might explain at least in part why the wall never really got off the ground. In fact, during the roughly four years of the Trump administration, only 15 miles of new barriers were built. The rest were repairs and replacements of already existing structures. None of this has come even close to a big, beautiful wall. Nevertheless, the illusion was being kept up, making for some rather grotesque displays along the southern border. They remind one of the last remnants of that other great, beautiful wall on exhibition for curious tourists to admire a few hundred meters along a river in what used to be East Berlin, the former capital of the GDR.
The wall is just one, albeit an eminently symbolic one, of the many unkept promises scattered around Trump’s four years in office. Not that he failed to remind his adoring fans of his determination. The pinnacle, at least with respect to the wall, was probably his proud statement a year ago at a rally in Pittsburgh that his administration was “building a wall in Colorado,” a “beautiful wall, a big one that really works, that you can’t get over, you can’t get under.” Presumably, the wall was supposed to keep those crafty New Mexicans from stealing jobs from the good people of Colorado, or perhaps their marijuana. No wonder, New Mexicans came out in favor of Joe Biden; but then, so did a majority of voters in Colorado. Apparently, Hannibal Lecter was right, gratitude does have a short half-life.
Perhaps Donald Trump should have taken seriously what American voters expected from him. It might have dawned on him that repairing America’s infrastructure was significantly more important for most voters than building a wall in the middle of nowhere. One year after Trump assumed his office, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) accorded America’s infrastructure a grade of D+. For those not familiar with the American grading system, a D+ is not good. Students that get a D+ are awarded the grade for showing up in class. In 2019, the ASCE estimated that the US needed “to spend some $4.5 trillion by 2025 to fix the country’s roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure.”
The Trump administration did little to nothing to reverse America’s infrastructure crisis. As one commentator put it in 2019, Trump’s claims were just that, getting “Americans nothing. No money. No deal. No bridges, roads or leadless water pipes.” As Marie Antoinette might have put it, let them take private jets or helicopters.
Under the circumstances, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that last week, Donald Trump lost his bid for a new four-year term. As a result, he might never see the completion of his life’s work, that big, beautiful wall, a tribute to man’s determination to accomplish the seemingly impossible, to do the right thing, against all odds, even if it is completely ludicrous. To quote that great inspirational movie from 1978, a time when things were still hunky-dory and even the most outrageous college dropout could aspire to become a distinguished member of the US Senate: “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part! We’re just the guys to do it.”
Unfortunately for Trump, a majority of American voters were unimpressed and decided that one more wall in Colorado was one wall too many. And, to heap injury upon injury, once again the Chinese, with their Great Wall, have gotten the better of Donald Trump.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See his profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).