the wall

The Insurmountable Obstacle to a Compromise on Trump’s Wall

The wall is a symbol, not a solution. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

As America’s government shutdown enters its sixth day, the debate in Congress has turned metaphysical. Now, it looks like 420,000 federal workers will have to get by without paychecks until our nation’s (philistinic excuse for) philosopher kings reach agreement on that age-old, ontological question: What is a wall?

As the New York Times reports:

[T]he impasse over funding a wall at the southwestern border has highlighted the debate over effective border security, with a breakthrough possibly hinging on a semantic argument: What is a wall?

…While a final decision has not been made, Ms. Pelosi will most likely seek a swift vote on the legislation the House spurned before funding lapsed: the Senate’s stopgap spending bill would provide funding through Feb. 8, according to a House Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations…Whether Mr. Trump signs the bill might depend on whether he and Democrats can agree to disagree on what a border barrier is called. Democrats have accepted fencing in the past. Mr. Trump has taken to intermittently calling his barrier a wall or “aesthetically pleasing steel slats.”

At first blush, this impasse over what divides a wall from a fence might look frivolous. But the semantic controversy is rooted in a substantive one. Simply put, the reason Congress can’t agree on what Trump’s wall is is that Trump can’t (honestly) say what it’s for.

Of course, the president has offered many dishonest rationales for his signature policy idea. He’s posited the wall as a means of keeping large numbers of Central Americans from seeking asylum in the United States, blocking dangerous narcotics from entering the country, and reducing illegal border crossings.

But building a giant wall across the southern border is not a rational policy solution to any of those (putative) problems. The migrant caravans that Trump loves to demonize don’t aim to sneak across unguarded borderlands. Rather, they tend to march (in conspicuously large numbers) right up to heavily guarded ports of entry because they believe they have legal grounds for seeking asylum in the U.S. Reforming domestic and international laws on the rights of asylum seekers — and/or devising some kind of “Marshall Plan for the Northern Triangle” — would be plausible responses to Trump’s stated concerns on “caravans.” Stacking concrete in the desert is not.

Similarly, illicit drugs typically enter the U.S. through the most heavily guarded segments of the border. As the Drug Enforcement Administration explained in a 2016 report, the most common method for smuggling narcotics into the U.S. involves driving them right through legal ports of entry, camouflaged with legitimate commercial goods. There is no reason to think that a border wall would meaningfully disrupt the North American narcotics trade, let alone stem the tide of opioid overdoses that is the former’s most baleful consequence. In fact, some analysts suggest that Mexican cartels relish the prospect of America diverting limited border-security resources toward wall construction (and thus, away from more effective means of monitoring and deterring illegal activity along the border). Cracking down on China’s exportation of fentanyl — and increasing access to medication-assisted addiction treatment — are plausible responses to Trump’s stated concerns on illegal drugs. “Aesthetically pleasing steel slats” are not.

In truth, a giant wall isn’t even a rational means of combating illegal border crossings. The legal and logistical difficulties of building a massive wall across rough, privately owned terrain are immense. Doing so would therefore require exorbitant investment of money and time — and thus, the cooperation of future presidents. For these reasons, among others, even the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) — one of America’s leading restrictionist organizations and an early backer of Trump’s candidacy — would prefer to see the president invest in alternative forms of border security. In its defense of Trump’s position in the shutdown fight, CIS stipulates that “a border wall is likely not the highest priority fix for border security nor the most effective,” before arguing that “failure to win on wall funding yet again threatens to seriously demoralize the Trump base.”

The mismatch between Trump’s official concerns about immigration and what his signature border-security proposal would actually achieve reflects a simple truth: Donald Trump did not propose the construction of a border wall because he wanted to minimize illegal immigration, but rather, because he wanted to establish himself as the most hawkish nativist in the 2016 Republican primary. In that context, the wall’s impracticality was a feature, not a bug; the proposal’s sheer idiocy kept mainstream Republican candidates from embracing it — and thus, from capitalizing on its symbolic potency. Trump’s wall wasn’t a viable means of deterring illegal immigration, and that made it a viable means of differentiating the mogul from his “Establishment” rivals.

And therein lies the reason that Congress can’t agree on what constitutes a “wall.” It’s hard to say what any object is, if you don’t have a clear sense of what it is for. A stack of concrete is a wall, if one presumes that it’s meant to block movement across space; but it is a pedestal, if one presumes it’s meant to form the basis of a statue. If the unambiguous point of Trump’s wall were to deter illegal crossings at stretches of the border that abut major American municipalities (which is to say, in areas where there is a halfway plausible technocratic case for the efficacy of physical barriers), then it would be much easier for Congress to determine whether a given proposal qualified as “Trump’s wall.” Lawmakers could research whether a given border barrier would be likely to meaningfully reduce illegal crossings into San Diego. If so, that barrier would be “Trump’s wall,” if not, it’d be something short of that.

But the point of Trump’s wall has always been symbolic. The policy was “designed” to give visceral expression to the far right’s xenophobia — and thus, to trigger the libs, flummox the “cucks,” and authenticate Trump’s solidarity with the GOP’s perennially betrayed nativist contingent. The wall is meant to serve as a monument to red America’s triumph in one front of the culture wars. As such, the wall can never be realized through a grand, bipartisan bargain.

Earlier this year, Democrats offered to support $25 billion in funding for Trump’s wall in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. Ostensibly, this should have been a no-brainer for the president; after all, he officially supported allowing DACA recipients to remain in the U.S. legally. Chuck Schumer was offering total surrender on Trump’s signature issue, at the price of a concession that wasn’t really a concession. But the president turned him down.

And not without cause. After all, the moment Democrats decide that a given iteration of Trump’s wall is neither unacceptable nor demoralizing, it ceases to serve its core function; which is to say, it ceases to be Trump’s wall.

The Insurmountable Obstacle to Trump’s Wall