On Oct. 10, President Trump’s White House released a short video of wall construction at the U.S.-Mexico border with the attention-getting title: “What A Real Border Wall Looks Like.”
In the video, an armed Border Patrol agent walks before 30-feet-high metal beams being installed along a 15-mile stretch, in the “El Centro section” of California. The agent states the new-style wall will keep smugglers and violent intruders from reaching American citizens.
Whatever one thinks of Trump and his three-year-old administration, two achievements are evident: They are preoccupied with enemies and they are masters of invective.
Wall construction on the U.S.-Mexico border joins, consequently, conspiracy theories and ad hominem attacks — e.g., demonizing, shaming, degrading, damning, taunting, ridiculing and dismissing political opponents.
A portent of the method was evident in May 2015, when Trump appeared on the popular daytime television program “The Today Show,” and menacingly wondered why Barack Obama had not released his “full” Hawaiian birth-certificate.
“I’m starting to think,” Trump said, “that he [the president] was not born here.”
Not long after, Trump, then a presidential candidate, warned Americans of a Mexican immigration plot.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. "They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems [to the U.S.] … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
The following year, shortly after Dec. 2, 2016, when a young married couple, described by The Los Angeles Times as “self-radicalized” Muslims, killed 14 people at a public health center in San Bernardino, Calif., Trump again took to the air waves. Reading from a prepared statement at a South Carolina rally, he called for an end to Muslim migration to the U.S.:
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until the country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on!”
On July 5, 2016, following a year-long FBI probe into Hillary Clinton’s private emails, FBI Director James Comey exonerated the former secretary of state at a press conference. Comey said the bureau found the secretary guilty of “extreme carelessness” but no criminal conduct. Trump twitted: “The system is rigged!”
Soon after, he began calling the former secretary of state “Crooked Hillary.” At his rallies, he encouraged his manic supporters to chant: “Lock her up, lock her up.”
These instances are the tip of an iceberg. Following his election, Trump amplified his dislike of America’s role in the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) by accusing its members of “raping” the U.S. by not contributing enough to the joint defense alliance. In a televised international press conference, he accepted Russian President Putin’s claim that Russia didn’t hack into the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, dismissing the collective findings of American Intelligence services.
Closer to our current moment, on May 29, 2019, special counsel Robert Mueller gave a press conference, where he emphasized that his investigation’s final report did not “exonerate” Trump.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not a commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller stated.
Trump, who declared himself exonerated when the report first appeared, now said, “Mueller is a true Never Trumper,” and his lawyers are “some of the worst human beings on Earth.”
Taken as a whole (and including the White House’s dismissal of impeachment proceedings), we can conclude that Trump’s “wall building” has entered the nation’s cultural fabric. We should ask ourselves, then, what the hell are we walling out?
My list is a work in progress. But one thing I can identify: Confidence in ourselves and each other.
Trump’s wall-building (actual and metaphorical) weaponizes our attitudes, substitutes reaction for deeper thinking and investigation. The president nullifies a middle ground; he ratchets up people’s fears; he agitates, riles and rouses people by telling them everything they trusted (the press, the intelligence services, international allies, the political process, the humanity of immigrants and refugees and the federal government) are deceptive, unreliable and rigged against him and against us.
Is it possible to build a wall between the American people and their institutions and traditions? Can a wall can be built between the nation and reality itself? Unfortunately, the answer is: Yes!
Leslie Kelen, Salt Lake City, is a child of Holocaust survivors and the author/editor of five books, including "This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement,: