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Trump’s Wall Is a Symbol With a Long and Toxic History

The notion of a white republic is neither new nor a figment of the imagination of the neofascists of our time.

Trump standing in front of sample wall
President Trump inspects border wall prototypes in San Diego, California, on March 13, 2018. For the right, Trump's wall is not just a literal wall, but a symbol of racial domination.,Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Although we appear to have been spared another Trump shutdown, we have now been handed an executive power grab in the guise of a “national emergency.” This entire Trump-instigated crisis will remain directly connected in our memories to Trump’s obsession with the “Wall,” i.e., the toy that he has insisted he must have in order to allegedly guarantee the safety of the people of the United States.

Walls have a long history of symbolic importance, signifying not only lines of demarcation but frequently the distinction between zones of alleged civilization vs. zones of alleged barbarism. The phrase “beyond the Pale” — which has come to mean beyond a boundary, over the top, unacceptable or outside of reasonable standards — is just one example. The term originates in Ireland and refers to a piece of the island captured by England, within which the current city of Dublin emerged. The English did what they could to enclose this area, essentially setting up a set of fortifications and a ditch. For the English colonizers, “the Pale” was the center of civilization on an island that was viewed as nothing short of barbaric.

What is important here is that the ditch or Pale was not simply demarcating territory or even a hostile border. With the Pale, much like the Great Wall of China, there was an ideological notion that beyond that barrier lay a barbarian mystery. In the 1790s, Catherine the Great instituted a Russian “Pale,” which was an area for Jews, outside of which they would be subject to overt acts of repression.

The European invasion of the Western Hemisphere, and subsequent colonization, brought with it many walls. The Dutch colonization of New York, for instance, brought with it “Wall Street,” i.e., the fortified point of demarcation between the Dutch colonists and the First Nations. Throughout the U.S., cities after cities were formed on the basis of walled fortifications.

Thus, deep in the subconscious of much of the world exists the notion of the ‘Wall’ as the means to preserve civilization. Yet what always remains of interest is that walls are not created in each case between different populations. Take the border between the U.S. and Canada. Both countries like to pride themselves on having the longest non-militarized border on Earth. What is at stake is not only who is perceived as a threat, but also what populations are perceived as representing an existential challenge to the state in question.

This background is important precisely because of the racial imagery that is critical in any and all discussion of Trump’s Wall. The Wall was introduced as symbol for Trump’s alleged hard-line stance on immigration. Creating a wall along the border of Mexico that would be paid for by Mexico illustrated both whom the Wall was aimed at restricting as well as boasting of the supposed capacity of a Trump-led U.S. to bully Mexico into paying the cost.

The Wall speaks to both a conception of who and what the U.S. is supposed to be as well as who is welcome. Continued references by Trump and his acolytes made clear through their demonization of Latino, African, Caribbean and many Asian immigrants that what was at stake was not an immigration question but rather an opposition to nonwhite immigration.

All one needs to reflect upon to get the point is to recognize the blatant hypocrisy that is not only articulated but accepted by wide segments of the population. Trump and his acolytes never reference a criminal organization that has elicited much attention from law enforcement in the U.S.: the Russian mafia. The Russian mafia was never a matter for discussion during the 2016 Presidential campaign despite being based within an immigrant population. Instead we heard insult after insult against Mexicans and other Latinos as alleged sources of crime.

Another example is instructive. In the waning days of former Congressman Paul Ryan’s tenure, the Congressman made highly questionable efforts to increase the opportunity for Irish immigration to the U.S. Though there were several conservative critics raised a flag about this, the blatant double standard was neither criticized by Trump nor a source of major embarrassment for the Congressman in the mainstream. For all intents and purposes, it was deemed acceptable behavior.

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In the case of both the Russian mafia and the slick efforts to permit increased Irish migration, it was not as if Trump, et. al., felt in the least bit compelled to explain the distinction between their xenophobic attacks on foreigners of color and their silence or support for selective immigration. What they understood, but would only come close to saying publicly, was that this was a reflection of an assumption within their base that the U.S. is a white republic.

The notion of a white republic is neither new nor a figment of the imagination of the neofascists of our time. In the 1790s, legislation was adopted by the US Congress in the form of the Naturalization Act to define citizenship according to one being a free white person. This begged the fascinating question as to who would be deemed to be “white,” but we will have to save that for another essay except to say that over the more than 200 years since then, who was “white” has been a moving target and has shifted in order to address various political concerns of interest to the ruling elites.

“White,” regardless of who fell into that category, was to be synonymous with civilization and superiority. Thus, every immigrant population, to varying degrees, has sought to be knighted as white in order to save themselves from the hell of being condemned as Black or Indigenous.

A “Wall” or other barrier to keep out Russians or Irish would, in this time in history, be antithetical to the project articulated by the white, right-wing populist movement, of staving off what they perceive to be the existential crisis facing white America, i.e., the ruination of the U.S. by a growing mass of non-whites. There are no discussions, for instance, of whether Russian immigrants or Irish immigrants represent a threat to workers (and their jobs) in the U.S. From the standpoint of the political Right the threat is to the “color” of the U.S. and, as such, has never really been about the broad category of immigration.

Interestingly, in the post-Cold War world with the hegemony of neoliberal globalization, the imagery of the “Wall” has not been limited to the U.S. Throughout much of Europe, the “Wall,” in its many variants, has become a symbol for right-wing populist movements — including but not limited to neo-fascists — in their fight for national (read: ethnic) purity.

The hypocrisy in Europe is no less apparent than it is in the U.S. During World War II, for instance, significant European refugee populations went to North Africa during the course of the war to seek safety. In the aftermath of the war, entire populations were uprooted and/or had to be restored to areas from which they had been expelled or forced to flee. In today’s world, however, right-wing populists in Europe warn of the alleged threat to Europe from Africa and Asia — particularly from Muslims — brought on by immigration. While it is certainly the case that in Britain the alleged immigration threat includes xenophobic attacks on Eastern Europeans, the lion’s share of the focus has been on immigrants from the Global South. This has taken the form of what the French Marxist Etienne Balibar described in the 1990s as “neo-racism.”

Balibar distinguished between the traditional racism that alleged the open inferiority of certain populations with the “neo-racism” that emphasized the alleged incompatibility of populations. Proponents of neo-racism, such as the Front Nationale in France, claim not to be racists at all. Instead they and their allies across the continent argue that refugees and immigrants from the global South are incompatible with the alleged Christian values and practices of Europe. Thus, the need for a “Wall.”

The “Wall” has appeared in many countries and is advanced in others. Hungary is now notorious for its right-wing populist regime and its heavily fortified border aimed at keeping out immigrants from the Middle East, particularly those fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Of course, there is also the illegal wall created by Israel, allegedly to seal itself off from Palestinian assaults, that in reality is aimed at obstructing the possibility for Palestinian sovereignty. The “apartheid wall,” as it is known in the region, both seizes land that the Israeli government wishes to annex, and constitutes an ideological image of “civilization” on one side and chaos/barbarism on the other.

One factor that makes the xenophobia of Europe so contemptible is the historic responsibility of Europe for the ongoing crises in Asia and Africa. Britain and France, for instance, took advantage of the stupidity of the Ottoman leadership’s decision to enter World War I on the side of Germany, in order to break up the Ottoman Empire. The secret Sykes-Picot Treaty between Britain and France created national boundaries in the so-called Middle East, where they had not existed, bringing about countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, the Palestine mandate, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, all of which had been provinces or parts of provinces in the former Ottoman Empire. Many of the tensions existing in the region are directly the result of the deals associated with World War I, including the notorious Balfour Declaration, with which the peoples of this region have had to live ever since. The refugee and immigrant populations turning to Europe are the manifestations of the chickens coming home to roost.

Right-wing populist movements have constructed broadly accepted myths, however, that blur historical reality and shift the responsibility for the refugee and immigration crisis away from Europe, and particularly its ruling elites, and place it on the peoples of Africa and Asia. They, like their allies in the U.S., play to the fears among the so-called non-immigrant “white” population that their lives and livelihoods are collapsing because of the “barbarian” threat from the South. It is not only an alleged threat to living standards; the threat is described in more apocalyptic terms, as a potential destruction of the entire “way of life” of white Europeans. Thus, whether in Hungary, Switzerland, France or Poland, we hear an ongoing chorus of voices that cry out to place restrictions on populations that cannot be absorbed.

The answer: the “Wall.” But we should be clear that the “Wall” for the right-wing populist movements, whether in the U.S. or Europe, or for that matter, in Israel (and the occupied territories), is not necessarily or mainly a specific fixture. It is, rather, permission to criminalize those alleged illegitimate populations that are being portrayed as polluting the bloodline of the respective countries. While there may be a specific fixture, e.g., a high wall or impassible barbed wire fences, what is more important is the ability to apprehend those deemed unacceptable; to crush cultural and religious manifestations of the supposed illegitimate populations; to place restrictions on the entrance of such population, as well as the duration of their stay; to increase surveillance of suspect populations; and, in some cases, to create or permit paramilitary formations in order to discipline/intimidate the suspect populations.

As a result, the debate over the “Wall” must be a debate about race. And, in the U.S., it must also be a debate about the legacy and ramifications of U.S. foreign policy, which is deeply entwined with matters of race. The debate cannot and should not be framed in terms of open-borders vs. border restrictions. It is a debate about race, history and regional hegemony.

What do we mean by history and regional hegemony? The bulk of the population of the U.S. has remained silent since the 19th century when the U.S. expanded westward and annexed northern Mexico and the lands of the First Nations. It remained silent when Hawaii was seized. It remained silent when Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines were grabbed. It remained silent in the face of invasions of Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. It remained silent when the U.S. supported one dictator after another in Latin America. It did not object to the U.S. intervention in Salvadoran Civil War and went completely blank on the genocidal war in Guatemala, supported by the U.S. government. And, although there was some opposition to the U.S. support of the contras in Nicaragua, the attitude of too many of us has been simply: If no U.S. troops are dying then there is no problem.

Migration to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico is qualitatively different from migration to the U.S. from Europe because it represents populations that were the recipients of horrendous U.S. policies since, at least, the U.S. annexation of Texas, and the subsequent U.S. war of aggression against Mexico. Yet, with the exception of various immigrant rights groups in the U.S., we are not permitted to have this discussion about U.S. foreign policy because it is portrayed as allegedly “anti-American.”

In both Europe and the U.S., we must transform the discussion about the “Wall” into a discussion about repair and accountability. The discussion must focus on why people are migrating and what role we, in this case those of us in the U.S., have in why they migrated in the first place. We must also force ourselves to remember that refugee and migrant populations are not a new phenomenon in the history of the world. Moreover, in the current moment, with the combination of an environmental catastrophe — largely generated by nations of the global North — and a neoliberal economic system that has been destroying whole economies, plus wars that are frequently fueled by nefarious forces in the Global North, the refugee and migrant crisis will not only refuse to diminish, but will more than likely increase.

The task for those believing in justice, then, is to take the crisis on directly and not fall prey to evasion or ignorance.

Copyright, Reprinted with permission.

Bill Fletcher Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us!: And 20 Other myths about Unions.

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