The chief problem that I have with Trump’s border wall is not its cost (although any such expense is, in my view, wasteful) – it’s not the material out of which the wall is made – it’s not the fact that a border wall is a poor means to achieve its supporters’ ostensible goal of reducing the number of “illegal” immigrants in America – it’s not the threatened use of inexcusably excessive executive discretion to get the wall built – it’s not some of the absurd lines used to make the case for the wall, lines such as that ‘we don’t have a nation without secure borders’ (Was the United States not a nation until the 1920s?) – it’s not even the terrible symbolism of such a wall.
The chief problem that I have with such a wall is the fact that it will be a frightful monument to today’s hysterical belief that America has something to fear from non-Americans – and particularly from dark and swarthy non-native-English speakers who are materially much poorer than are almost all native-born Americans.
Primitive, nativistic fears have become acceptable among a larger number of Americans. Trump’s border wall will be a monument to those fears. We Americans – allegedly so confident, so capable, so courageous, so proud, so committed to freedom, so fond of our individualism, so good, so generous, so noble, so wise, so special – are behaving today as if we are existentially threatened by poor, hard-working individuals who want to make better lives for themselves – individuals who, to make better lives for themselves and their families, are willing to work hard at cleaning our toilets, repairing our roofs, scrambling our eggs, mowing our lawns, and hauling away our trash.
Such fears are among the most ancient that have haunted humanity. They are responsible for countless wars and genocides. And these fears, obviously, always seem reasonable to those who are gripped by them. Also apparently reasonable are each of the steps taken by ‘leaders’ to address these fears – steps starting off small. (‘Surely you can’t object to our reasonable plea that Jews merely wear yellow badges?’) Yet when one small step toward treating other human beings as something less than human – as people different and less deserving than Us – is taken, the next step in this direction also seems small.
My sense is that a large number of my fellow Americans have lost their grasp of reality. Descendants of immigrants themselves, they fear immigrants. Enriched by trade themselves, they fear trade with others.
A large number of my fellow Americans appear to be shaking in their shoes, worried that people born in Honduras and El Salvador will, when in America, destroy our way of life. They are not like us! A large number of my fellow Americans appear to lie awake at night quaking with anxiety that low-wage workers in China – still very much molested, bamboozled, and harassed by the Chinese state – will suck away our prosperity by making us commercial offers that millions of us find attractive. (Indeed, I regularly receive e-mails from people who seem to believe that it is precisely because the Chinese state molests, bamboozles, and harasses the Chinese people, as well as non-Chinese who do business in China, that the Chinese people pose a unique economic threat to us and our free(r)-market system.)
This swelling fear of others is ugly and unjustified. Yet it is now approaching fever-pitch. Those burning with this fever think myself and others who warn against this fear to be either mad or traitorous.
These times are – to describe them mildly – unsettling. And I fear that they will get worse before they get better. I fervently hope that my prediction here is mistaken.