Border security was the hallmark issue of the Presidency of President Donald J. Trump–as of his candidacy–that proudly foregrounded a specter of racial division. The promise to expand the fences that had been barriers along six hundred and fifty four miles of bollard, chain link fences, and even helicopter landing pads that were military materiel from Vietnam were to be expanded to a continuous wall by the man who, Ayn Rand style, promised he was master architect and builder of a border security system, in hopes to get the costly concrete wall he imagined would be perfect for the border built. He won election in no small part because of the assurance “I’m very good at building things,” first and foremost a wall to Make America Great Again. The President who disrupted conventions of government by provoking a government shutdown in 2019 resisted the prospect he would “give up a concrete wall” in government negotiations, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reminded the nation, and in visiting Alamo TX, on the eve of his departure form office, appeared to relish the presence of the slatted wall he wanted–he vowed “a steel fence” back in 2019–and to affirm the centrality of the southwestern border for the nation he was loath to admit he would soon cease to lead, if a true national emergency could not be provoked.
If the visitation of the border provided a recurrent site for Trump to affirm his candidacy, Presidency, and indeed to wield and exercise executive authority by appropriating billions on the construction of a border wall–without even knowing if it is effective–the border wall provided an occasion to affirm a uniquely distorted vision of the state.
Trump’s visit to the US-Mexico Border paid final homage to the achievement of building a border wall that was indeed of concrete and reinforced steel core seemed to create a shrine for an image of the border rooted in white supremacy, and no better site for such a shrine seemed to exist than Alamo TX. The very name of the border city in Texas few had ever heard of before it was designated as a site to salute the completion of four hundred miles of Border Wall near the Rio Grande Valley evoked a society based not only on the state’s funding of border defense, but a nation that was “founded, nurtured, and financed” on White Supremacy, as Ta-Nehisi Coats put it long before the Trump Presidency. In visiting “Alamo,” the outgoing President was not only visiting the border. He was affirming the centrality of the border wall as a monument to his followers, a memorial to border protection that was a dog whistle in its name. For the hybrid constellation of an “Alamo” along the Border Wall elevated the symbolic value of the southwestern border of the United States as if it were a battle-line to fight for the permanence of a color line long fundamental to American democracy, but long denied as a brutality of racist ideology naturalizing a social hierarchy in ways that were enforced by state power.
The Border Wall was an icon of the Trump Presidency, a prop for his public political persona as President of the nation, and a site of illustrating the commitment to the defense of borders, fulfilling the syllogism there are no strong countries without strong borders–or that, per Ronald Reagan, “a country that cannot control its borders is not a nation”–as if the border were going to vanish from the map. And when Trump visited Alamo, eight days before leaving office, in a choreographed speech, he elevated the Border Wall to a spectacle. The visit on the surface sought to reprise a bond with the American people around construction of a Border Wall, and which he was proud at having allocated–or wrangled–$15 billion that the U.S. Congress had never appropriated. Designed to slow migrants and smugglers from crossing the border, but a token of an expanded system of border surveillance from helicopters, river boats, aerostatic blimps whose radar systems are Customs and Border Patrol’s “Eye in the Sky,” and military jeeps, and an archipelago of incarceration in detention facilities that deny migrants rights. But the concrete bastions he visited on the Rio Grande affirmed the spectacle of border defense. “The spectacle proves its arguments simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition,” as Guy Debord argued, “by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed,” and the reaffirmation of the spectacle of the border seemed to ahistoricize and perpetuate the border wall as a defensive monument, refusing to obliterate and elide it from national memory, by eliding it with the border defense of Texas, before Texas was a state.
The visit to Alamo provided a fitting stage for the final lap of a “Promises Kept” tour, as it reprised the hostile border as a part of the American imaginary. Trump long claimed. that without borders. or border enforcement, “you don’t have a country,” as if a reinforced border was a needed affirmation of national security and identity and indeed–at least semantically–nationhood. He sought to summon dignity at the border, days after the fiasco of the insurrectionary staging of an assault at the U.S. Capitol, and warn then-President-elect Joe Biden not to destroy the wall lest he undermine immigration policies crucial to the nation, and erode the border to bring “calamity” to national security at the site he had long declared a national security threat. Seeking to both stop time, refocus national attention, and conflate myths of national identity at Alamo, the dog whistle of a defense of security at Alamo TX placed the border wall in the national mythos, to stay the prospect of these sections of concrete wall and levees from being dismantled, to keep alive the story of wall-building that he had long promised to the nation as he left office, casting it as a heroic effort of national defense and construction project that he had presented himself as the Presidential candidate as uniquely suited to create. To visit the completed section of the Border Wall near “Alamo” was to evoke the mythic nature of the crumbling wall of S. Antonio de Behar in San Antonio at the Alamo, the site of resistance of Texan Revolutionaries, still the model for many local militias and white supremacists, and recall the cleavage in society Trump invoked when claiming his impeachment would provoke a “new Civil War,” elevating his own Border Wall to the mythic status of an unsavory part of the collective memory of national defense.
In the final hours of the Trump Presidency, with only four hundred and fifty miles of the border wall built, lest it be reduced to Ozymandian fragments for visitors to look upon his Presidency and despair, Trump visited the poured concrete wall at Alamo, TX, as if to greet the final testament to the achievements of his Presidency and to unveil to the nation completion of the legacy of his Presidency, as if it were a final campaign stop. Visiting a small section of Border Wall mounted on concrete levees around the Rio Grande became an occasion to reprise his commitment to national security, and the culmination of a heroic struggle of border-building and defense of the nation’s territory. The heroic struggle seemed less so, in the shadow of the tragically empty theater of the Capitol Riots, but perhaps it was the memory of his legacy he felt most able to leave: it served to epitomize the difference of “us” from outsiders, in a way that might better play to the nation than the raucous display of angry identities of flag-waving separatists, and set the tone of framing an ongoing future Presidential campaign, praising the Caesar-like monument for which he had secured federal funding, and insisting it would never be buried in the public imagination.
Indeed, among the colorful flags waved with exultation on January 6, 2021 that incarnated a social body excluding the entrance of African Americans or migrants into the nation, from Confederate Flags to III Percenters, angry at any change inclusion in a social contract that had persistently excluded those marked by ancestry and melanin from the state, the prominence of flags waved at the combat around the inaugural stands by MAGA shock forces of militia groups who cast the nation as white treasured the mythic defense of Tejano lands by militia at The Alamo as a foundational historical precedent and basis for “keeping America great,” embracing the image of The Alamo as a war that was fought both for liberties and for racial hierarchy against Mexican troops–an image nurtured not by the state, but by the powerful cultural currency of The Alamo in Hollywood as a proxy for a race war.
Even if the 2020 Presidential campaign was effectively over, the values of white supremacy that had long forged the alliance of pro-Trump separatists and deniers were kept alive by what seemed a hastily engineered visit to the border town of Alamo TX. After an incompetently ineffective summoning of minions to interrupt the counting of electoral votes by Congress, and to create a legacy for his Presidency, visiting Alamo to affirming a border wall as a monument built to keep “undocumented” Mexicans out of the United States, destined to survive even if his Presidency ended: insisting on a specter of the dangers of cross-boundary migration for America, the visit seemed perfect stagecraft for asserting the timelessness of the border wall as a legacy of defending the nation’s borders at a new Alamo, as insistently as AK47s were historically conflated with the role militias to “repel . . . danger” in 1788, and its ratification in 1789 as guaranteeing a “Right to Keep and Bear Arms.”
On his final state visit, six days after the insurrection, Trump seemed to steer national attention from the danger of domestic terrorists ready to assault the U.S. Capitol in combat gear to a racial specter of invading migrants, criminals, rapists, and seekers of asylum, collectively invested with criminal intent. As Trump had long presented the border wall as a site of military engagement–perhaps even of armed forces–the visit to McAllen and Alamo provided a means of continuing to fight the same battle over national identity, but to fight it at the border wall. The President had concluded his presidency by disrupting conventions of governing again, by refusing to recognize the popular vote’s results and inciting a riot that invaded the U.S. Capitol by minions waving flags from the lost campaign, which they insisted was not over, amidst an inverted American flag of distress, which militia groups had been regularly raised in protests about counting votes and ballots with accuracy over the previous months in Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, and has been displayed in discontent at the outcome of Presidential elections since 2012.
The sense of distress of the inverted flag that one protestor held signaled, in no small part, fear of failure to complete a continuous wall of two thousand miles in the desert promised to keep undocumented barbarians out of the nation. And as the center could not hold, days after the riot or insurrectionary attempt to end the certification of the electors, Trump concluded his Presidency in what might be a valedictory visit to the border as a site of materiality, as if to prove that it could hold, if his presidency could not. The intent to mythologize the border as a material statement of state power, and as an imaginary of the nation, was underscored by the visit to Alamo, TX–
–that recast the visit tot he border wall and concrete levee of the Rio Grande River as an occasion of state, and indeed a military event, to identify himself with the commitment of funds reallocated for the military budget to commemorate the construction of four hundred and fifty new miles of brand new wall along the southwestern border. Did President Trump imagine that doing so would enshrine the monumental status of the border wall would be elevated to the image of national defense? Although many had scoffed at his purposeful diversion of military funds to create the wall, which was not allocated funds by the U.S. Congress as Trump had demanded, the visit sought to cement the border wall in a project of military defense, assisted by the striking historical memories of the battle between Texian revolutionaries and the Mexican government in what later became Texas, in a battle that first redefined the US-Mexico border. If the Battle of the Alamo was famously lost by insurgents, it was thel Lost Cause: the often recited memory of the loss as an affront and injunction anticipated nationalism, and would inspire the Texan Revolt that led to the formation of Texas as a Republic; the line of the Rio Grande that Texans compelled the captured General Santa Anna to order the Mexican Army to retreat in 1836 below, nearly ten years before Texas was annexed as a state, created a new “line in the sand,” now drawn far South of The Alamo, and in the border town of what would be Alamo, TX. Indeed, the Texas flag of a militia, with the bronze six caliber “Gonzalez Canon” Spanish munitions seized by Tejano revolutionaries conflated arms, right to enslave, and defense of the national border–reprising the 1835 battle cry of Tejano colonist militia as a defense of ancient liberties with modern militia’s defense of bearing arms, in one of the most popular flags sold online during gun control debates of 2015, and a popular patch for militia.
The “line in the sand” demanded no real logic or precedent or land claim. Its cartographic virtue lay in its simplicity: as a line drawn in the sand, traced by the drawn sword of Col. William Travis or by a Texian boot before infantry or soldiers, to incite them to battle, or even as a battle cry, the line required no real justification or legal precedent, or international recognition. This was not a line in the sand, but a wall in the sand, on a concrete pediment, dotted by American flags, lest we forgot who drew it, to sanction the cartoraphy of the border as a state affair, worthy of being the final public or private event of the Trump Presidency, affirming the crudest cartography of all: the line in the sand was invoked as the crudest technology of border cartography, and was the crudest of archeologies of the border, an assertion whose logic demanded no justification, but provided its own triggers of nationalism and national pride, and demanded no justification but could be unilaterally affirmed. A line in the sand could be drawn where the man who drew it, and determined as a line of defense.
As a myth, it demanded no formal explanation as a claim of sovereignty, but was affirmed by a simple signature, in a final signing statement bequeathing the legacy of the Trump era to the nation–a dog whistle, more than anything like a legal act. Was the cartography of the border an appeal to a mythical notion of national distinction, conjured to being to fabricate clear distinctions one wanted to call into being on a map? If this was a symbolic and performative act, the erection of the wall Trump sought to take responsibility and to celebrate, as well as to deny American reliance on immigrant labor, was designed to demean Mexican claims to sovereignty and elevating an oppositional ethnonationalism by building a wall along that line, in implicit reference ot the line drawn in the sand by the ragtag militia of defenders of The Alamo.
Trump seemed to salute the wall to turn his back on the abuse of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and rather to praise their service in to the nation as he toured the border wall on January 12, at the same time as over two million people were on the border, seeking to migrate across it, 60,000 having been returned to Mexico from Texas, to wait for their claims to be processed in camps. For Trump desired to recast the border wall as a historical achievement of Making America Great, turning a shoulder on the institutionalization of family separations, crowded and abusive conditions in ICE detention centers, and overwhelmed immigration courts. “Building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border [of the United States] is not a policy solution,” President Biden would soon proclaim on his first day in office, pausing construction work on the wall and calling for a reassessment of the legality of its construction.
In declaring a “National Emergency Concerning the Southern Boundary of the United States” in February 2019, Trump would diverted billions of dollars to the construction of the border wall, he fiction of the boundary that Trump sought to affirm in his visit, and had demanded in unilaterally fortifying the border as a subject of national defense, in treated as a National Emergency, rested on the need to “protect” American security, demonizing how migrants stand to “put countless Americans in danger.” shedding American blood and taking American jobs in order to redirect $8 billion to the border wall as a boundary that needed to be defended for national interests, without legislative oversight.
The legitimacy of the border was, of course, deeply engrained in our history and tied to our national mythos in ways that Trump was keen to exploit by staging his final signing visit to a section of border wall in a town called Alamo: as a Representative to Congress, Abraham Lincoln, later no stranger to the loss of life to determine national borders, detected the “sheerest deception” on the part of then-President James Polk in blaming the aggressiveness of Mexican soldiers across the Rio Grande as part of a campaign to admit Texas to the Union as state that would expand territories tolerating slaveholding: rebuking the mythic sense of the Rio Grande as a frontier of the nation, the barrier across which Spanish troops were forced to retreat in the aftermath of Tejano insurrectionists motivated by their loss at The Alamo, Lincoln doubted whether unquestioned acceptance of the Rio Grande as a frontier could serve as a basis to declare war: to rebuke charges that Mexican aggressors had crossed the Rio Grande to shed American blood, and rebuking the necessity of a national military reprisals against Mexico as inevitable–given that the determination of the boundary was contested. But the image of the “line in the sand” that gained incredible affective power as a statement of revolutionaries and in the Mexican-American war, provided the crudest of notions of the border’s stability and indeed of the border wall, not needing any precedent in law or in a mutual accord, but oddly naturalized into the landscape, at home within the construct of manifest destiny far more than in the legal record.
The fiction of locating the boundary line of the nation at the Rio Grande was a but a convenient invention, Lincoln had insisted back in the 1848, as it was, while asserted by Texans who looked to military treaties they had dictated for confirmation of their inclinations to take land, able to be manufactured as a sharp-edged mental construct of affirming value. The border of the Rio Grande’s course, Lincoln had observed, was claimed on paper by Texas as a western boundary for reasons of self-interest, but never internationally recognized as binding,–and had indeed never recognized by Congress as a question of American jurisdiction. Rather than accepting the groundless claim of a sitting President that “the soil was ours, on which the first blood was shed” in the Polk administration, eager to avoid a needless war, sending an army to fight with those Mexican resident who themselves never submitted to American sovereignty, Lincoln in 1848 found little in the historical record to accept the Rio Grande as the “boundary” of the nation, based on a unilateral declaration of the State of Texas, let alone as a binding basis for a cause of war between Mexico and the United States based on aggrandizement. Lincoln in 1848 sought to query the grounds for defending a boundary lacking mutual agreement as a boundary to be defended by American military. But the defenders of the Alamo, Travis, Crockett, and Boone, have been celebrated as patriots of Texas, and as defenders of a white tradition in recent years, as the Cenotaph in which their ashes were said to be translated in 1936 were defended by the Texas Freedom force, who in May 2020 urged members to “Defend the Alamo & Cenotaph if the need arises,” seeing the Cenotaph, as the statute of Col. William Barrett Travis, sword’s point touching the ground at his feet as he struck a pose of public oratory, on a plinth on the old Mission grounds, in Travis park, as symbols of national defense to be guarded against vandalism.
When Lincoln distinguished the international boundary line from where states claimed jurisdiction, he questioned the validity of unilateral assertion of a boundary line. Veneration of The Alamo elevated the drawing of the sand as a sacred event, a shrine for the defenders of the fortress, whose ashes in the Cenotaph have created a powerful monument to Anglo defenders, Travis, Crockett, Bowie and Boone, beneath the commitment to “never surrender-never retreat,” recently celebrated by the white supremacist militia as the “This is Texas Freedom Force,” that has urged members to “Defend the Alamo & Cenotaph if the need arises” in late May, 2020, standing guard over the Cenotaph and the statue of Col. William Barrett Travis, commander of Tejano troops who defended The Alamo, holding his sword’s point on the ground as he struck a posture of public oratory on the grounds of the old Mission. While the statue of Travis on a plinth deferred the final results of the stand–the all-out assault assault ordered at dawn by Mexican General Santa Anna left all one hundred and eighty nine defenders of the Mission grounds dead, its facade reduced to war-like visage of ruins–the heroic defense was embodied by the line in the sand, the poweful metaphor of boundary drawing to which the border town Alamo gestured. And although Travis’ statue voted to be relocated from the landscaped park that was once part of the Mission’s grounds, the confederate monument sought to be relocated in 2017, it still stands by The Alamo grounds.
In declaring emergency surrounded by U.S. Border Patrol members, the primary enforcers of the border with ICE, the very men who who become his personal agents since their early endorsement of his candidacy, and who he later visited at Alamo, TX, at the end of his term. Surrounded by the border patrol agents whose number had hovered about 2,000 until 1985, whose number peaked beyond 10,000 by 2000, Trump celebrated a border that circumvented congressional appropriations and the law, provoking a spate of lawsuits from many states and environmental preservation groups, extending the declaration of a state of emergency at the border in February 2020, and again renewing it, as he left office, two days before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 18, 2021. President Trump was confident, playing it by the numbers, that lawsuits against the National Emergency only emerged from “blue” states he did not need to win to be reelected, counting on the border imaginary to be preserved.
The visit to Texas was an attempt to bolster that border imaginary, to the site where the greatest “immigration enforcement” efforts against refugee influxes had begun with deployment of a large, flexible, mobile Border Patrol Task Force, then in the INS, in the most severe “border build-up” in memory: “Operation Hold the Line” deployed armed Border Patrol officers along the border, along the McAllen Sector administrating the Rio Grande Valley, as Operation Gatekeeper grew along 194 border checkpoints to construct the first section of border wall on the western border, introducing a militarized border oriented toward stopping or physically halting the passage of unwanted migrants and refugees. If the San Diego initiative of “Operation Gatekeeper” evoked a mock-pastoral metaphor of the “gate” to cast migrants as animals, and mask the violence of migrant deaths–1,200 migrants died trying to cross the border from 1993-96, when it was in force, with the greatest number where Operation Gatekeeper was in force, as many more were detained as criminals. In parallel, “Operation Hold the Line” emphasized the placement of Border Patrol stations along the border, to compensate for perception of no coherent federal vision for the border management, to replace standard practices permitting migrants to cross the border before they were apprehended and deported, mandating continuous presence at the border of Border Patrol. Stationing Border Patrol across the border began in the lower Rio Grande valley, by a model of Border Patrol echoing Tejano defense of the line “drawn in the sand” at the Alamo, was later deployed at El Paso as “Operation Blockade,” staunching all cross-border movement.
The image of the defense of a “border” that existed as a “line in the sand” tapped a mythos of the Texas revolutionaries who defended The Alamo, a site of an old Mexican mission–a stone complex constructed by Spaniards in San Antonio as a Franciscan mission hat had, mutatis mutandi, become a garrison, for all of its Franciscan origins, venerated for its defense by Travis, as a line able to be drawn between the intermingling of Mexican and Anglo cultures, the mixture so intolerable it had to be defined along an edge. In rallying a small group of insurrectionaries hoping to defend The Alamo, and to extend the “rights” to extend plantation systems into Tejano lands, William Travis had drawn the “mother of all lines” in 1836 in the sands before the mission complex, perhaps the archetype of all maps of the southwestern border: in drawing a line before the assembled rag tag insurrectionary Anglo troops he would lead against the approaching Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The line whose drawing is an archetype in all films about Texas gives narrative prominence to the defense along a line in American film, as if tracing an archetypal cartography as a topic of attention, tension, and crisis, that “visiting Alamo” seemed to seek to reprise for a President who was long in touch with television producers about choreographing his public appearances to present his political persona.
In a different cinematic key, outside the Trump canon of action films, John Sayles’ Lone Star referenced in the taunt of the owner of tire repair store in a border town who traces a line before his store to taunt the Anglo sheriff from across the border who is adamant in his cartographic convictions, “Bird flying south, you think he sees that line? Rattlesnake, javelina–whatever you got!–[once] halfway across that line, they don’t start thinking different. So why should a man?” The crossing by species of the border, especially at the rich and delicate habitat of the Rio Grande, stand in contrast with the lines that the American government has been increasingly insistent to draw, and that Donald Trump convincingly coupled to a display of national identity and a showpiece for Making America Great. Was it a coincidence that it was at The Alamo, according to the cheesy poster publicizing the Technicolor western epic written, directed and produced John Wayne, that the dangerous troops besieging The Alamo held Mexican flags, in what was openly mapped as a military confrontation at a border in terms of a race war, circa 1960, between latino extras and Anglo cowboy combattants, eager to hold their ground?
The image of the tactical defense of the walls of the old Spanish mission, since restored by the U.S. military as a shrine to national combat, has been memorialized in multiple dioramas emulating cinemascope as a historical struggle for identity, created in a recreationist model designed b Thomas Feely, has been recently expanded in a still more detailed diorama to incarnate the threat of Mexican troops flooding the walls of the citadel in San Antonio, showing at its central moment of dramatic tension the amassing of Mexican forces to breach the northern wall to show “how really doomed” its remaining defenders were as they remain to repulse the mass of armed Mexicans, placing 2,000 hand-painted pewter figurines in an dramatization of an action-packed version of this cartographically generational conflict, intended to replace the fifteen by thirteen foot diorama that already exists at the History Shop, just north of The Alamo. While such models are far from Alamo TX, the investment of the dramatic moment of history as an inspirational event–rather than a failed insurrectionary event–was channeled days after the Capitol insurrection, in Washington, DC, seemed to stage a dramatic pseudo-coup replete with its own historical myths, as if to affirm the inspirational value of the defense of the border as a national project.
Did the fantasy of a border that could be held again at The Alamo, or at least at the Rio Grande, create a powerful mental imaginary whose simplicity underlay the cartographic crudeness of the deep history of Trump’s border wall? Operations of controlling the border, as a fixed line, grew to hold an increasingly prominent place in the mental imaginary and mythos of border patrol agents near McAllen, as Border Patrol vehicles were increasingly stationed every hundred yards o the banks of the Rio Grande: as “Operation Blockade” reverted to “Operation Hold the Line” in El Paso, in the mid-1990s, it reflected the extension of the metaphor of a “line in the sand” at The Alamo to the entire border, and a basis for understanding the demand for “operational control over the international land and maritime borders of the United States,” borders that Trump would conflate with the identity of the nation. The expansion of Border Patrol Operations to stop migrant travel across the entire lower Rio Grande was amplified in the 2004 deployment of boats, fencing, and lighting along the banks of the Rio Grande to reduce migrants’ entrance across the border at a cost of $3.5 billion. The dream of instituting a “line in the sand” along the Rio Grande hoped that the invasive construction, amplified noise and lighting disturbed sensitive habitat and breeding behavior “temporarily” without adversity and “little permanent damage,” as if failing to consider the long-term nature of the “grand strategy” as it mutate into a multi-year project from 1997.
The expansion of both border patrol officers, 20,000 by 2010, mirrored the allocation of $7 million for steel fences across the border, which expanded to Trump’s public requests for $8 billion for a border wall likely to cost as much as $25 billion. The huge sacrifice to the nation of building the border wall existed not only in the squandering of funds, but the legitimizing of a mindset of criminalizing and detaining trans-border migrants–and discounting of migrants’ lives. Migrants detained during the Trump Presidency in holding facilities along the border or in detention centers were willfully administered without humanity or dignity by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement: detention centers were sites of systemic abuse, operating with impunity in a culture of “dehumanizing physical, sexual, and medical abuse,” in the eyes of one observer, left over-crowded as President Trump sought to make them monitory examples to migrants. “Look, this is tough stuff . . . I know we’d see a system that is overcrowded,” adding on Twitter, “Tell them not to come to USA– . . . problem solved!” “Where do these people come from?”
Trump asked with open arms at a pro-border wall rally in February, 2019, anticipating the Presidential challenge of El Paso’s Beto O’Rourke, stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment, but ignoring the daily violence at the archipelago of Detention Centers that were administered by ICE. The project of wall building however became a monument in itself, the logic of whose construction as a monument to the nation consigned to oblivion migrants’ fates by being recast and dignified as a military project, and a military struggle–an elevation of the building of the border wall to a struggle for national identity that was referenced in the reference to defending the border at the celebration of the completion of four-hundred and fifty miles of wall at an American border town called Alamo, where the line in the sand could be firmly drawn by blocks of reinforced concrete with a rebar core–presented as the completion of a promise long made to the nation.
The policy separation of migrant families at the border began in late 2016, before Trump was inaugurated. It was extended without public debate over the policy, however, and dramatically escalated in Trump’s Presidency. If the wall concealed America’s dependence on migrant labor, it also concealed the extent of this rampant abuse of human rights. The systemic family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border expanded despite documentation of its abuse–there are many cases of losing, abusing, and even killing children increasingly detained in centers in southeast Texas–but Trump tolerated and shouldered abuse as he had directed attention to the construction of the border wall that was financed almost two years ago, with the declaration of a National Emergency as Congress refused to apportion $5.6 billion he requested for its construction, but a fifth of his original request, with the assertion that the nation faced “tremendous dangers at the border” that demanded a border wall, seeking to secure the desired funds without the congressional approval by hyperbole, to use funds apportioned for military construction projects to redirect to a border wall he cast as a project for American armed forces as the funds were not forthcoming–but meeting legal challenge as only projects in which American armed forces were engaged didn’t demand congressional apportionment, and as, it was widely noted, border apprehensions were in decline. The steep increase in detentions at the border was cast as evidence of the need to build the wall, as policies of detention and increased numbers of those detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement created a sense of its increasing need.
But it was as true that the need for a wall as a shared cultural symbol grew to distract populations from the growing gaps of wealth, access to education, health care, and justice in the United States, and the growing wealth gaps between the super-wealthy and the rest diminished before the spectacle of the wall. The National Emergency was declared to secure funding for the border wall, concealing that the securing of the border was neither an emergency or a military operation, but a mythic redrawing of the border.
When President Trump visited Alamo, TX to review the border wall as his last and final public act as United States President, it seemed in a sense the end of an era. It was valedictory in its salute of the Border Guards who had first endorsed him for his Presidential run, and had turned into a sort of personal storm troopers of the executive wing, a set of armed men to attack and detain illegal immigrants as they acted to parol the borders. In visiting the border at Alamo, he seemed to reprise his promise to build an impassible border wall that would protect the United States–or a version of the United States–from the entrance of globalization. And the appeal that Trump had made as a presidential candidate of restoring national integrity and an illusion of American greatness began from the restoration of the values of The Alamo–a timeless a mythic defense of the United States at The Alamo, linking the border wall with a mythic project of national defense, even if the defense of The Alamo during by Texian Revolutionaries was not fought at the walls of the old mission by the American government. The visit to Alamo TX was an affirmation of the values of The Alamo of defending national sovereignty, and dedicating himself to the affirmation of sovereignty, as well as to whip fears of a return to an open borders policy he had tagged President Biden and the Democratic Party.
Was the myth of The Alamo not at the heart of the legend of national grandeur, rooted more in race than in nation? Rather than providing an outpost of the American government, the garrison of The Alamo that is linked with the start of the Texan Reolution was defended by men who have been retrospectively cast by white Americans as the self-annointed ancestors of Texians–they were the precursors and model of the current vigilante groups who have been encouraged to make citizen’s arrests of undocumented migrants. Varied groups, defining themselves as self-designated Patriots, took in upon themselves to seize land that was Mexican–and under Mexican sovereignty–to claim it as part of the United States. The “Come and Take It” flags first flown as a symbol of defiance to Mexican soldiers in 1835 provided a false originalism that flew as it was elevated in the insurrectionary Capitol Riots President Trump had not distanced himself for several weeks; the defiant Confederate flag affirmed Second Amendment rights, and the President’s own rhetoric of “taking back the country,” familiar among militia.
The ease with which Trump described the building of the wall was in 2015 was confirmed by the visit to the border Alamo, by staging a revisionary and selective history of the border wall rooted in national triumphalism and American flags. Trump had convinced the American electorate building a wall across a border of almost 2,000 miles, extending from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, across rugged topography was a piece of cake for someone so practiced in construction was itself a map-trick. Trump in fact possessed little sense of the practicalities of building in such terrain, and barely registered the scale of the problem save its effectiveness of a wall that would render the legal identity of the migrant opaque. Rather than dwell its logistics or practicalities, Trump had promoted the performative promise of constructing a border wall in his campaign–displaying pseudo-maps promising national security–whose simplicity lay in its denial of rights of migrant, a simplicity of evacuating rights by the border wall that was a subject of pleasure, an inspirational image whose financing he presumed that the office of the President would help waive established mechanisms of appropriating necessary funds.
The image of the fantasy wall bounding the nation, concrete punctuated by what seem hexagonal towers of surveillance, was attributed to “The People,” as a new embodiment of the nation, separate from international conventions or law.
The fantasy of the border wall that Trump was offered at a political rally for his candidacy was completed at Alamo. The evocative name of continued resistance, and refusal to give up, was evoked by the place-name alone of one town near where the border wall spanned Hidalgo County that popped as a trigger for transmitted memory far more than the other towns the section of border wall passed near Ft. McAllen–‘Mission’, ‘San Juan’, ‘Weslaco’, ‘Mercedes’, and Brownsville, a frequent stop of border visit, and popped out of the map for some time. Plucked from the map, its prominence drowned the fate of migrants or the protected areas the Trump administration sought waivers to cut through from 2017, wrangled by 2018 as regions the wall was only permitted to extend by declaring a National Emergency at the border; Customs and Border Patrol waived environmental regulations in the Lower Rio Grande, as regulations preventing construction of border wall in protected lands were extended to the western regions through 2019. Was the Rio Grande Valley not a model for the waiver of environmental regulations limiting construction that President Trump long sought to wrangle?
By late August 2019, the problem of extending the border wall and levees along the lower Rio Grande Valley still remained on Trump’s front burner, and the nagging question of how to extend these sections of existing border wall in a defensive line along the windy course of the Rio Grande near McAllen was a thorny question of securing needed exemptions.
As a realtor, Trump was habituated in the construction of hotels and golf courses to move around regulations and obtain special clearances with the ease he might move across the globe’s surface, and as he flouted regulations and Congressional approval by declaring a National Emergency in February, 2019, to circumvent budgetary approval, allowing himself to flout regulations as in the past. As a real estate promoter, Trump had mostly used maps to skirt regulations, gain tax breaks, tax-forgiveness, or debt relief, to generate much vaunted “gross operating products” to “pay as little in taxes as possible.” Tax-avoidance is the major strategy of wealth preservation of the ultra-wealthy, and the range of tax breaks that Trump gained in what constitutes as public assistance benefit all fifteen buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire; circumvention of regulations of appropriation was the only way to achieve the building of the border wall, and was probably what Trump meant, if anything, when he argued that his expertise in building would allow the border wall to be publicly funded, even if he argued that deal-making skills would allow construction of a “big, beautiful wall” that no previous President had been able to deliver–and which demanded a voice outside the corrupt American political class.
The wall was a symbol of the popular mandate on which Trump promised to deliver, providing a monument of public safety no other president had been able to offer. The very narrative of its imminent construction had long offered a performative basis to save the Trump presidency, returned to several times as if it were a promise that was the basis of his alleged popular mandate and a demand for safety only he could meet or discern. If Trump clothed the construction of the wall and its funding in questions of border security, and the needs of economic and criminal security that he argued the lack of a border wall imperiled, arguing for the basis of domestic security to attract the broadest base, as an act of love–“you build a wall around your house not because you hate the people on the outside, but because you love the people on inside” (January, 2019), Tump was selling us a vision of domestic security akin to luxury living at a remove from the city’s sounds and diversity, concealing the economic dependence of the nation on immigration, and the violence of the border security apparatus, more costly, perhaps, if far less beautiful than the “big, beautiful wall” he promised.
Love? The wall emblematized an independence from international protocol or conventions, and human rights requirements, as a “line in the sand,” and was able to be drawn in the sand as the site to build the towering, opaque wall able to blot out what lies across the border, replacing the sovereign state with a model of border defense of earlier eras, eras predating sovereign claims we would recognize, and suggesting a Hobbesian state of nature. Trump saw the wall as, one might argue, a similar part of the landscape, able to blend seamlessly with its surroundings and necessitated by them.
–in a performance of sovereignty, rather than a sovereign discussion with other states: the border wall was long for domestic consumption as a spectacle, if it was argued, and presented, to be , and was involved in a mythos of the nation that was for domestic consumption, displacing claims of sovereignty in the ceremony of defining a dichotomous divide by fiat, on a reality show that was for national broadcast, rather than framed by a language of international law.
Trump staged his final visit to the border at Alamo, TX, seeking to savor the triumphant construction project he now cast as a monument of national achievement of what he had campaigned would be akin to the Eisenhower Highway System, funded by defense appropriations even if they unapproved by congress, but The wall provided a monument to the Trump Presidency, emblazoned with his name or his signature, as if in a gambit to claim that the structure deserved to be named after himself. He visited the poured concrete levees on the Rio Grande as a fruit of his presidency, the only concrete walls left of the entire border wall, which was vertical steel beams filled with concrete to replace fencing, but judged to meet the “operations requirements of the U.S. Border Patrol” in 2019–until, that is, they were found easy to be sawed through by a circular saw. Such “high security fencing” would cost 1.6 billion, but a fraction of the $25 billion Trump desired to allocate for border building, promising at the start of work “not only on some new wall, [but] . . . fixing existing walls and existing acceptable fences” very quickly. He had accelerated the pace of border construction in ways that seemed to be timed to the election, and had probably planned to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, win or lose the election, as a platform of expanding the need for allocating more funding to the wall. When he came to “highlight his administration’s work on the border wall,” the valedictory visit sent the message that he. had done his hardest to keep the barbarians on the edge of the empire on the other side of the border, and sought to transmute into the national memory.
All of this was far from the town of Alamo, and even father from the mythic imaginary of The Alamo that had assumed a sacred importance in many Americans’ collective memory that Trump was eager to transfer to the Border Wall. President Trump’s visit was to a site near McAllen, Texas, rather than The Alamo, but the questions of how they were related quickly rose to the surface of newswire accounts. AP and other news outlets quickly reminded the nation, as the White House had left it unclear, that the city of Alamo TX near the military base was, indeed, not The Alamo in downtown San Antonio. But Trump had long claimed to love the uneducated, and the faithful, and the possible geographic confusion seemed an opportune way to fulfill the mission of the trip to tally achievements by affirming the threat came from south of the border at his term end–and elicit continued fears that the failure to complete border construction projects would not Keep American Great less cross-border flows of population continued to be stopped, as important to the nation as the historic “border conflict” by the so-called “defenders of the Alamo,” who had in fact started an insurrection in Mexican province.
As if visiting an outpost on the border of the empire where he sought to protect barbarians from invading, days after having incited riots that had staged an actual insurrection, at a rally where the President claimed Democrats “threw open our borders and put America last,” reminding them at President Biden would “get rid of the America First policy,” he ceremonially visited the border as if to mythologize it. Trump arrived in full regalia, as if denying his loos, but as if visiting the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, as if it were a privileged site of national defense, near the river whose meander had long defined the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, and indeed was a return to the Rio Grande Valley he had already visited to discuss border security in January, 2019, and sought to confront questions of the need to seize privately owned land to do so by eminent domaine. If the border wall was to be tall, daunting, fitted with flood lights, sensors, cameras and an enforcement zone that was a hundred and fifty feed wide was a steep goal, Trump treated government shutdown as a small price for 450-500 miles of border wall on track to be completed by the end of 2020, promoting a border wall whose construction would be completed by March 2021.
It still existed, even if that moment in history would never arrive. And although the story was told of population movement across the border, another story could be told about the disappearance of the boundary that almost seemed imminent by the mid-1990s, even as anti-migrant feelings grew: the expansion of the transboundary cooperation along much of the border that responded to the growth of the border region to almost a billion inhabitants in the 1990s, through which increasing billions of exports moved yearly–$3.3. billion at the San Diego checkpoint alone by 1990–that led Border Mayors Conference to request a transboundary zone allowing free movement to all of twenty five miles, as the increasing economic importance of the boundary brought an increased interest in drawing a boundary able to define the exclusivity of the wealth of an imagined community of Americans from outsiders, as a porous border region seemed less in control of the United States government, and almost a separate nation.
The line between nations that Trump chose to emphasize along the river delta where Alamo TX is located and which Trump visited is one of the sole places along the entire US-Mexico border where steel panels appear, fully mounted on large concrete levees. As one of the rare sites where the concrete wall that Trump promised actually exists, it became an important backdrop to conclude his Presidency in a final photo op, as well as to rehearse a new national imaginary.
The visit to the concrete levees of the Rio Grande Valley that were mounted by concrete-core steel fencing were a display of Presidential authority on a line drawn in the sandy riverbanks far from the Alamo, as newspapers had to remind their readers, but provided a tableaux vivant of sorts, eight days before the end of Trump’s presidency, to defend the necessity of drawing a firm line in the sand.
The actual geographic distance between Alamo TX and The Alamo seems to have shrunk symbolically, if the car ride was still three and a half hours: Trump seemed to treat his visist as a retrospective view on the grand project of national redefinition on which he had coasted as he teared up in remembering the “great honor” after working so “long and hard” on the border wall as he found himself “here in the Rio Grande Valley with the courageous men and women of Customs and Border Patrol.” The encomium that he planned to the four hundred and fifty miles of wall built so far was an occasion of deep personal bonding with the built, akin to the ties Trump promoted to many real estate projects of construction over the years, on which he had affected the same deep tie by affixing his name in ways that we had understood as a promotion of his brand as much as a canny extension of self to a distributed global network. He had forged deep bonds to the wall, so it was difficult to decide where the wall ended and the candidate–or the man–began, as the monument he had promised so fulsomely from the declaration of his candidacy became a sign of the nation, a sign of national security, and a sign of the vision of national security that he, Trump, and only he could promise, akin to the visions of luxury lifestyle that he, Trump, could guarantee and promote.
The term that he had served out, and was now coming to a close, became an occasion to express, in mock humility, his gratitude for the very experience of having “gotten to know [the members of the Border Patrol] very well over the last four years,” praising the “incredible . . . really incredible” people at Border Patrol he had promised the wall to be built, and was now there to say he had delivered, and the promised were indeed kept. “We got it exactly as you wanted it–everything!–including your protective plate on top . . . for extra protection,” he noted, the real estate promoter returning as he surveyed the levees, and the reinforced concrete, ignoring the detention centers and the human lives lost in its construction, as well as the habitat destroyed, a concern which he was successful at having dismissed. The delivery of border wall concluded a transactional relation to the Border Patrol, as much as to protect the nation. Looking at the reinforced concrete structure with heavy slats, Trump channeled his identity as a builder that could be cemented with his status as an American President, explaining how it was “steel,” “concrete inside steel–and then its rebar–its rebar–a lot of heavy rebar inside the concrete,” channeling his inner engineer–“as strong as you’re going to get and as strong as you can have . . . . 100% of what you wanted!” The swansong speech promoting the achievement of an “extraordinarily successful building of the wall on the southern border,” of four hundred and fifty miles bookended Trump’s October 2018 speech at Calexico, CA, to commemorate the construction of two hundred miles of a “full wall system” looking suspiciously like a fence.
The border wall sections that had been commemorated for three years running revealed increments of two hundred miles by rolling out the border as a prop–a talking point, and a monument, more than an accomplishment. As monuments, each roll-out of border wall and affixed with the commemorative plaque crediting construction to President Trump staged a new era of border protection and defense. But the monuments to the militarization of the border wall and exclusion of refugees from the nation was based not on actual precedents, or a map, but gestured to a new national imaginary, and increasingly did so by comparisons to mythic events of the nation, rather than to actual events, migrant surges, or need.
Trump’s speech before the concrete levees in Alamo TX seemed uncoded. He deliver hope and a prayer that the piece of national infrastructure would survive as a personal legacy. But the comparisons he made were deeply coded, from the billing of the wall as a project of national infrastructure to the gesture to celebrating the militarization of the border at a city called Alamo, which effectively placed the border wall on two imaginary maps, neither coinciding with the lay of the land or the geographic situation of the border wall as a project of massive environmental destruction of sensitive habitat, inhumane treatment of detained migrants, and disrespect or acknowledgement of a world of increased displaced persons and refugees. Trump had bizarrely compared to the Eisenhower National Highway System from his campaign of 2015 would survive as a personal legacy for national development and will ensure memories of the success of his Presidency defending national security. When Donald J. Trump had first refurbished a political identity, he not only added a middle initial to his name in the fashion of Eisenhower, but presented “America’s Infrastructure First” as in the mold of Eisenhower, promising a transition that echoed the commander of allied forces in hopes to “implement a bold, visionary plan for a cost-effective system of roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, and pipelines in the proud tradition of President Dwight D Eisenhower, who championed the interstate highway system”–as a basis for his credibility and perhaps legitimacy as a President. To be sure, the marquis project of a Border Wall System exhausted the budget and federal funds available. But in the way that Eisenhower mandated the highway system be federally funded as a national defense program in 1954, linking the need for roads to imminent the fears of nuclear attack, as much as for transportation needs, based on his experience in rebuilding Europe, the massive cost of the Eisenhower Highway System–which had unprecedentedly cost the United States $101 billion, far beyond the original federal bond that Congress had approved, provided the only comparable form of expenditure to the border wall that he had proposed. Even as the cost of the border wall had expanded,–and left President Biden noting that stopping the construction Trump had arranged by classifying it as a National Emergency might save the incoming administration $2.6 billion, freeing up needed funds for needed projects of national health, border barriers would have become the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation.
If being run by the Army Corps of Engineers, the visit to Alamo TX keeps alive the defense of the border and conjures the streaming of Mexicans over another wall, and the gesture to the improvised insurrection of The Alamo that might be effectively enlisted as a new model of service to an imagined nation. As he looked at the wall, the outgoing mused in his final days in office, unsubtly reminding his audience of the potential sacrifice to the nation of stopping the project, that the current wall was “as strong as you’re going to get and strong as you can have.” His audience new well that all bets were all off about building more wall in the Biden administration, and his words seemed to seek to rile up his long-term allies at Customs and Border Patrol, whose union had been the very first endorsed his presidential candidacy, excited by the priority he gave building a border wall in the first days of his campaign. For this real estate promoter turned salesman of a vision of the nation was most familiar with maps as a basis to evade building codes, zoning restrictions, or municipal regulation, by means of winning exemptions through wand-waving reclassifications that seemed a sort of grand opera of “deal”-making.
For Trump, such canny framing metaphors as a reference to infrastructure and a visit to Alamo helped to frame the project of the wall as one of national defense, requiring a reclassification of budgetary appropriations, and indeed fast-track prioritization as a project of national need. Both Eisenhower’s unprecedented achievement of infrastructure investment and the saber-rattling reference to The Alamo seemed to reframe the project in credible terms for a base, independent from the lay of the land or the practicalities and logistics of the border terrain: both metaphorical gambits removed the wall from the map, and mapped the border wall within a new logic of nation-building. Such reference to the Eisenhower Interstate, a model of expansion of infrastructure that had creeped up on the nation slowly, to become part of its national identity over time, had slowly created the expanse of national highways that fit with doubling of highwasy after World War I in the United States, as, the paved mileage of but 257,000 miles grew over time to almost 522,000, as the plans Eisenhower had laid were solidified as the Federal-Aid Highway Act would pave concrete interstates of 41,000 more miles–and adding 5,000 miles beyond Eisenhower’s mandated 41,000 miles of interstate provided, few have noted, a memorable event in Trump’s life, whose construction was elevated as a powerful model of what passed for public service in Trump’s youth. If Trump had ben celebrating the building of four hundred and fifty miles of wall, Trump framed the innovative nature of his future vision of a nation that was walled, by many more miles, as well as securing an image of the strength and identity of the nation that he had tried to cement. Eisenhower, famously, had mandated the project of the interstates during the Cold War as a project of national defense of the economy, in the event of attack, allowing federal dollars to flow to local projects. Was it only coincidence that Trump entertained audiences at his rallies, as if flying a trial balloon from August, 2105, “Maybe someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall,” he mused early in his candidacy, recognizing the power and unique privileges that the office of Presidency might bring. The fantasy became a near-actuality in his public platform as a candidate when by December of the same year he described the “Trump Wall,” in mid-July 2016, after he left the official campaign trail, promising a project of needed national infrastructure “someday named after me.”
The final days speech delivered with the dateline “Alamo” was hardly valedictory. It affirmed the section completed border wall as a great piece of infrastructure almost a personalized as a gift to the nation’s security. He cast his visit to the wall as forward-looking, for the right audience, as what might be a personal salute to his legacy of border defense, the trademark promise Trump made as an American politician, was not a retrospective but a final epideictic of the promise to Make America Great Again, elevating the conceit of a mythical defense against “illegal aliens” on the southwest border he had personalized as integral to the logic of his Presidency and the prime evidence of Presidential authority. Trump’s Presidency, he wanted to claim, might be remembered as a time of the building of a similar basis of the nation’s strength and architecture, as he sought to secure the centrality and preeminence of concrete wall-building to a vision of the nation. From his speech, one would think the wall had become a testimony to the strength of the nation in the Trump Presidency, and he championed the vision of the nation’s strength that he had long sought to promote, as if to celebrate and acknowledge a change in the topography of the nation and people’s relation to the nation, analogous to the highway system. It hardly mattered the drive to The Alamo was a couple of hundred miles, on Route 35 (three hundred and nineteen miles) or Route 37 (just short of two hundred and forty miles); the symbolic link of the wall to the nation was echoed, despite that quite considerable real world distance, to the map between a place symbolic of saving of a vision of national identity and a mission to defend national lands and liberties.
The link left salient during his speech was perhaps the greatest and most significant take away for the right audience, as it was its figurative intent: even in the light of failure of one battle at The Alamo, the fight was long, ongoing, and would in the end prevail as a new vision of the nation, and in the end, win out as a definition of the border in the national imaginary: if Representative Abraham Lincoln saw little precedent for the border to be drawn on the Rio Grande either in treaties or in law cases that showed recognition of the river as a mutually consented boundary line, save in the conceit of manifest destiny all abolitionists and Republicans disdained locating justifications of the border in God-given right to territorial expanse, Trump appealed to the very manifest destiny for which Lincoln demanded proofs in visiting Alamo–a “line in the sand” grounds to defend a nation, reprised as a myth of national defense in 1836, heroized by John Wayne in technicolor in the 1962 extravaganza Wayne starred, directed, and produced to promote Cold War principles of national defense.
While Trump had increasingly used history both strategically and purposefully as a distortion of bonds that tied the nation and its citizens, the heroic battle that the visit referenced was more likely the film version of The Alamo as a racialized struggle of white defenders against Mexican extras playing invading forces: the film, which itself downplays the location of The Alamo in Mexican Territory, and indeed the status of Texas as a Mexican state that belonged to a nation which prohibited slavery and enslavement, provided an iconic image of division that mapped onto Trump’s intent to divide the nation as he had devoted the summer of 2020 to address a broad and merciless left-wing attack to “wipe out our history,” conscripting numerous iconic images of the nation as props in his attempt to divide the nation by staging iconic patriotic tableaux to evoke a dogmatic use of historical memory.
The skill of wielding historical memory to further divides that was on show for most of 2020–from Trump’s bemoaning of attempts to “demolish our heritage” were long tagged along racial lines, from the defense of memorials and monuments to confederate soldiers, slave-owners, and anti-abolitionists he sought to preserve in our national memory, to the statues of colonizers as Christopher Columbus, who had introduced trade in enslaved peoples, to expand a sense of moral reckoning in response to social justice movements, opposing an official “patriotic” history against those who would “defame” our heritage, not acknowledging the erection of monuments to Confederate soliders belonged to a Jim Crow era designed to glorify segregation and disenfranchisement. Did the gesture of a visit to Alamo not situate the border wall in a context of defending a “line in the sand,” at the site of “Operation Hold the Line”? If this was not rationalized similarly, it was meaningful to members of the Border Patrol he visited there.
The President has long lavished attention on the projected construction of border as if inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. Without ever conceding the election–and indeed instructing those who supported his candidacy in 2020 to “never give up, never concede,” Trump appropriately visited the border city that was named after a spirit of independence revealed in the refusal of the armed insurgents of 1835 to ever leave the garrison in Tejano lands that they sought. to hold, as if to hold off the advancing Mexicans soldiers that were valorized as creating a needed “barrier of safety to the southwestern frontier” long, long before it was ever described as a border, back in 1836. If that struggle was remembered in its day as a battle waged, as Stephen L. Austin wrote, in a May 4, 1836 letter to Senator L. F. Linn of Missouri, “by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race,” preserving what was enjoined to be “remembered” in public memory as a purification of ethnic and racial contamination.
The preservation of the memory of these insurgents as heroes had led them to be extolled President Trump in a historical pantheon, among public models of American heroism in a fiery State of the Union address of May, 2020 that extolled “our glorious and magnificent inheritance” as an alternative history to that of civil rights. He had praised the “beautiful, beautiful Alamo,” urging that all school children in America continue to learn the names of the “Texas patriots [who] made their last stand at the Alamo–the beautiful, beautiful Alamo,” beside the name of pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock as a foundational myth of the nation that confirmed its Manifest Destiny, eulogizing the defenders of the Alamo beside Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock as Americans who “changed history forever by embracing the eternal truth that everyone is made equal by the hand of Almighty God.” Supported in their seizing of the Alamo-and the lands of Texas–by Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson, who saw the benefits creating a “slavocracy” extending plantation lands across the South; the New Orleans Bee 1834 lamented the racial degradation Mexico embodied in bemoaning “the unfortunate race of Spaniard, Indian and African, is so blended that the worst qualities of each predominate.” The visit to Alamo TX, named after the rebels whose leader had solemnly vowed “I shall never surrender and never retreat” seemed quite opportune as Trump sought to re-iterate the notorious vow he took January 6 to never give up and never concede.
The speech memorialized a refusal to concede or Alamo to make a final performance of border security before the Rio Grande, and to acknowledge the depth of his commitment to boosting border security. The very emblem of the Alamo was among the flags of current militia who had arrived for the January 6 riots, and a powerful emblem of the Texas militia groups who had defended the commemoration of The Alamo as a nationalist cause, verging on white nationalism. In returning to the Rio Grande Valley, Trump announced in the Texas border town of Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” he exaggerated as either in “construction or pre-construction” at pains to deny he had left the “wall,” the impressive centerpiece of his political promise to America, as scattered unbuilt fragments, after having rallied his candidacy behind the construction of a continuous concrete wall.
The collective struggle was ongoing and undying, in the post-Presidency of Trump, as the project of wall-building, he insisted, would continue in the appeals he had made in his candidacy, American flags draped behind him, to the flags behind him as he spoke at the wall he had guaranteed would be built, and the wall that would be a reason that folks had once sacrificed their lives. It is hard to imagine the huge costs of this project of wall building, and the expanse of an archipelago of detention centers that now existed along the border of the United States. (One might remember that it was in the Austrian border village of Braunau a son was born to the Customs Inspector Aloïs Hitler was born a future Führer.)
If a builder, President Donald Trump was long stunned by the prospect of building a border wall, and it seems to have been far larger and grandiose in his own mind than would ever be able to be constructed–or could be imagined to be constructed within budget across two thousand miles of open border. Before he spoke at the memorial for the 9/11 attacks on the nation, Trump described his huge admiration for the commemorative walls erected for the Flight 93 National Memorial, a 2018 visit to promote the building of the border wall half-way through his term, an opportunity to assure the public his long-promised “border wall” was being built, inspired by the towering walls of the memorial to those who died fighting Al Quaeda hijackers, as a “gorgeous wall” and promising that while he found the series of walls to be “perfect,” “I’ll be doing things over the next two weeks having to do with immigration, which I think you’ll be very impressed at,” as if to promise a border monument of awing size.
The odd elision of the monument to a terrorist attack with the border wall was notable–Trump no doubt could not spare the idea of linking the two, as it was his greatest plan for protecting America–but it suggests the deeply commemorative value that President Trump had long placed on a Border Wall. Describing the monumental commemorative structure as nothing less than an inspiration on which to draw for his own Border Wall, Trump engaged fantasies of monumentality and national power by which the President was increasingly seized in his final year in office, from the controversies of preserving statues to the performance of a national address at Mt. Rushmore, where he unveiled the fantasy of a National Garden of Heroes, including past Republican Presidents, Antonin Scalia, and perhaps, one day, no doubt, himself.
The monumental power of the border wall was an aspiration that Trump had long presented as a personal contribution to the nation, may provide a metaphorical structure for his envisioning of his presidency and his mission as an American President. The wall fulfilled the protectionist script that he has single-mindedly pursued as a monument to his presidential authority, and the crooked bargain that was the basis of his tie to the nation, creating along the southwestern border a racially charged monument of exclusion, whose promotion as a need of national security and able to meet a national emergency concealed its stunning price tag of $30-$70 billion. In mandating its construction “shall be physical imposing in height” and “shall be reinforced concrete” it created crude criteria of belonging that exercised violence against the landscape, as much as its inhabitants, demarcating belonging by a mythic sense of territoriality, as if it defined the legal entity of the nation, in place of an inclusive image of belonging, before increased national diversity whose non-white majority counties whose number had doubled since 1980, and the border region where whites are an increasing minority.
For in revisiting the border he had repeatedly visited to support the construction of a border wall–s times since August, 2017?–in his Presidency, President Trump took time to entertain myths about the border in attempts to reclaim the place of the southern border wall in the national discussion, but a tragic conclusion, also, to the collective cries for wall-building he had issued. If he had visited Yuma AZ, San Diego CA, and the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso in Texas, as well as Calexico and returning to Yuma once more, the return to the Rio Grande was an attempt to confirm that he had indeed contributed to the nation’s border security. This was a “monument trick,” akin to the public signings of sections of border wall that were completed by the signing of the section in the Rio Grande.
The shiny border plaques affixed as sections of the wall were erected from October 26, 2018–just before Halloween–marked the completion of border wall appeared with the benefit of military funding, as a monument to Trump’s Presidency and of meeting his promise to the nation, in almost a running narrative mimicking the border’s fortification to remind posteriety of Trump’s priorities. By January, 2021, his final border visit was both a reprise before the favored backdrop before which to perform his Presidential role, a final performance of sovereign authority, and a final in a series of attempts to remap the border in the public imaginary of Americans as integral to a vision of American sovereignty and power. If the border wall had been a long process of adjustment to the limits of eminent domain, environmental regulations of sensitive habitat, problems of mixing and moving tons of concrete at great cost to the desert, or local ecology, all wiped away by shiny plaques placed at intervals on the border wall, and now at Alamo, to fix the border wall in a national imaginary.
The visit to Alamo, TX flattened the imaginary of the border to a single fight–the Battle of The Alamo, often memorialized in paintings, living history, board games, video games, and, maybe most importantly for Donald Trump, in film–and a battle that could be won, as a “miraculous” battle fought in the long-mythologized walls of The Alamo, an old mission, in 1836, as a fight that would be righteously fought on the ramparts of a single wall against collective Mexican forces.
Despite the limits of completed “border wall” across the mountainous terrain, an expanse long defined by the Rio Grande’s course, an area of difficult building, and an area of especially sensitive habitat, President Trump devoted his final days of being Presidential to a visit to the Border Patrol officers at the border town of Alamo, TX–not to be confused with The Alamo in San Antonio, in an attempt to illustrate that the promise he had made to build a wall along the border was complete. Optics were long important to the construction of the wall’s sections, which he repeatedly visited in his campaigns, and which provided a rallying cry for rally crowds in the 2016 election–the run that first featured “Build The Wall!” as a collective cry of identitarian politics the level of “Remember the Alamo!”–and a backdrop used to jump-start his Presidency and to energize his 2020 campaign.
This Rio Grande Valley section of the border wall could be seen either as a construction project, akin to those on which Trump had broken ground in New York and Chicago as a real estate promoter with local politicians who had helped guide them–
Or as a quite complex necklace of wildlife refuges, parks, and wilderness areas in the Rio Grande Valley, whose banks were long nourished by loamy waters that regularly flooded the riparian areas of the region, making it a spot for the migration of birds, butterflies, and across the South Texas Wildlife Refuge Complex, a corridor for the travel of sensitive species.
Trump had repeatedly visited boder towns as Laredo TX, McAllen TX, Yuma AZ, Calexico CA, and San Ysidro CA in the past six years, and they provided a familiar setting and a backdrop for calls for greater security. The six Presidential visits he made to the US-Mexico border surpass visits of any earlier President since Taft first met Porfirio Díaz at the border in 1909, a century before Trump’s election. He had first visited Laredo “despite the great danger” of the region in 2015 as an obligation as a candidate and an illustration of his patriotic promise to Make America Great Again–“I have to do it, I love this country“–and after prioritizing the immediate construction of a “physical wall along the southern border” only five days after his inauguration, as if to confront a clear and present danger, multiple visits were later made by Trump surrogates, Mike Pompeo, Joe Arpaio, Paul Ryan, or Melania Trump, that magnified the border and a border wall as a Presidential order of business.
The wall was a basis to prioritize a promise to put America First, and an altar for pronouncing his intent to Make America Great Again. It was a basis to define the criminality of undocumented migrants as “illegal aliens,” to construct a revision of American immigration law, all by a system of remapping the border by a “physical wall.” So when he left office, or it seemed inevitable that he would have to leave office, reaffirming the “physical wall” he had mandated was a major order of business to confirm, and even if the wall was not as clearly present, he recognized the need to monumentalize its presence. Trump was a reactionary in returning to a national system of mapping, fending off global mapping tools that promised to erase borders in a network of global coordinates, Trump’s long campaign offered a way of effectively remapping the nation–or its national attention span. The insistence on the safety of the “nation” along this stretch of border wall over-wrote the many indigenous groups who lived on either side of the Colorado River or, as it was known locally, the Rio–so densely congregated in Hidalgo county, near Alamo TX.
If not much of the border will be covered by newly built wall by the time Trump left office, a considerable amount of currently disputed projects, in pre-construction or under construction, far outweighed the amount of border barriers already existing along the Rio Grande. Trump came to claim that they would be completed, in part preaching to the choir–the very group that had first endorsed his candidacy in 2016–that illustrate the deeply transactional nature of the Trump presidency, as much as the eagerness of switching attention from the disastrous publicity of the Capitol Siege that followed his last public appearance, and may tinge forever his Presidency with a deeply distasteful malodor of domestic terrorism, more than security.
But the visit to Alamo TX would exaggerate the process of construction–and the need for its continuation–in a useful rallying cry that could be resuscitated out of office, and indeed to affirm his dedication to the dream of a Border Wall he had planted in the nation, and indeed to restate its patriotic design. Indeed, the visit to Alamo conjured the illusion that the border wall was a straight line–the line that was drawn in the ground with unsheathed saber at The Alamo in 1836, even if the actual border at the Rio Grande was particularly serpentine and difficult to define, despite the accelerated construction of reinforced concrete levees in recent months. While The Alamo was never directly invoked in the border speech that President Trump delivered at the border that recited the “historic” accomplishment of his presidency to defend the border, and sealing the country from asylum seekers and refugees while urging “we can’t let the next administration even think about taking it down,” having spent $15 billion on the border security and construction, for a project he assured was “so important to our country nobody’s going to be touching it.” The pronouncements that came on the heels of the riots that he incited that had left five dead connoted a message about country and nation, concealed that the completion of 450 miles of border wall over four years–a dismal rate of just over a hundred miles of built wall a year, after having banked on the promise that “I’m very good at building things.”
Trump had of course vaunted expertise as a builder and negotiator to construct a border wall with minimum pain or cost. For the candidate even boasted that the cost of an anti-immigrant wall was but a “peanut” given the “fortune Mexico makes because of us,” assuring he would negotiate Mexico paying all costs of the border wall to Republicans averse to government programs. The negotiation of costs for the border wall had of course fallen through long ago, but he seemed to seek to affirm something of the majest of the “great wall” he had promised to built “very inexpensively” in 2015. The promise resulted in replacement of updated fences, with first seventeen, then twenty, miles of new border wall by 2020–and securing funds by the declaration of a “national emergency” of the arrival of immigrants. He seemed to celebrate with a sense of accomplishment, hardly haunted by the 2015 assurance “nobody builds walls better than me” or the promise, “I will build a great great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.” Both were consigned to the dustheap of history, but the Alamo visit was a search for some redemption.
As he had promised to construct a “wall” along the two thousand miles of border, because building was something that he “knew about,” the visit to the wall had to be spun as a form of victory. President Trump’s visit to a town named after the insurrectionists who defended The Alamo by the mythic line that Lt. Col. William Travis Barrett, a native of Alabama drew on the sands of the old Mexican mission with his sword, when he was only twenty-seven, ,dying in defense of The Alamo in ways canonized in printed accounts that since1878 have mythologized the line that Barrett drew before the siege of The Alamo as a heroic defense of the Texan Revolution: the “Revolution,” but the 1836 revolt was far more “Texian” than Texan, was a struggle to extend the pro-enslavement practices that dominated the southern states’ economy that were long prohibited in Mexico–and retrograde in the world–into Texian lands, at a time when enslavement was a globally retrograde–if in danger of spreading into Texan lands.
–but mapped a stain upon the nation, and not only for American abilitionists: while Mexico had prohibited the institution of slavery, the southern insurrections who fought, with Barrett, against Mexican sovereignty, were not only “revolutionaries,” but had envoiced a fight for the expansion of slavery, endemic to southern states but in need of expanding to Texian lands.
Barrett’s drawing of the line is however commemorated in San Antonio by a brass bar set in the paving stones of the mission, although its actual site remains unknown, evoked the line in the sand of the boundary of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalulpe, as if it had been drawn by the fort’s defender with unsheathed sword. Barrett’s rebellion, born from dispute with Mexico’s government over anti-slavery laws by fellow-southerners like Crockett and Bowie, as the Texas Revolution began, awaited reinforcements that did not arrive, Barrett’s commitment of himself to martyrdom became a spirit of defiance and dedication to country–
–as Barrett committed himself to martyrdom in immortal words of defending an imagined territoriality, “determined to perish in defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.” Barrett’s claim–“Victory or Death!”–was the basis for the first nationalist slogan of the Mexican American War, “Remember the Alamo!” expressed commitment, echoing Barrett, to “Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character.” One could, perhaps, forget that the border along the Rio Grande at Alamo, TX was far more sinuous and complex to construct without disturbing habitat and environmentally sensitive areas long bathed in river silt, or that the border was not simply a matter of drawing a “line in the sand.” Much as the border was not a clearly determined line but increasingly difficult to define along the changing course of the Rio Grande, even if concrete levees tried to stabilize its course, the “line in the sand” drawn at the Alamo was, if mythological, an attempt to draw a clear division of space where Texas indeed bled to Mexico, driven by land seized to expand the plantation economy.
Commemorating The Alamo embodied separatist white supremacist values in defense of a national imaginary fit the spirit of the recent Capitol Riots, but was a telling comparison of a man who had long tried to frame the conceit of the border wall not only in a need to protect the nation, but in a metaphor of national security. I had long dismissed as vanity the bizarre comparison of the wall as a project of national infrastructure comparable to the Eisenhower National Highway System survives as a personal legacy for national development, rather than as compromising national ideals. But the defense that Eisenhower had given the highway system was for national security in a time of movement of logistics and troops across the country by Cold War fantasies of scenarios of military engagement that the General who commanded Allied Forces in Europe well understood were critical to moving troops across the land. To describe the Border Wall in terms of rule and sovereignty, the characterizing of the Border Wall as analogous infrastructure long preceded the announcement of a national emergency of the border that would open access to Defense Department budgets to expand the border wall.
The analogy had helped elevate the border within a national memory that the reach to The Alamo–filled with associations of critical defense–long allowed. Trump long imagined the border wall would be a sight of national grandeur and historical memory. He had introduced it as comparable to how Eisenhower, mesmerized by the banks and multi-lane Autobahn he had witnessed in Germany as commander of Allied Forces, had commissioned 41,000 miles of interstates Eisenhower as the largest public works project of its time. But Trump must have realized the highway system had changed not only the national topography but all Americans’ relation to space in profound ways, as he had lived through it: surfaced road mileage almost doubled after World War I, 1914-26 from almost 257,000 miles to almost 522,000, the Federal-Aid Highway Act promised to pave 41,000 miles of interstates. Rather than personal vanity, comparison to the Eisenhower National Highway System survives as a personal legacy for national development without compromising national ideals.
Across varied Homeland Security secretaries, and even border patrol commissioners, the affixing of commemorative plaques continued in the Trump Presidency, as if to confirm the monumental status of each section of border wall. The signing trick confirmed the wall as an exercize of executive power, akin to the staged signing of executive orders Trump enjoyed. Before Trump took as President took to signing the plaques of sections of border wall, the comparison to the earlier infrastructure project elevated the border wall to a central place of the national map, and indeed to the memory of the border wall as a “Trump Wall” along lines he had even suggested during the 2016 Presidential campaign, which the President continued with abandon during the 2020 Presidential campaign by flying on Air Force One for pubic signings of improvised plaques with sharpies upon completion of 200 miles of border wall in San Luis, AZ in June, 2020, before the steel slats filled with concrete and rebar that he boasted “is really gonna be foolproof” for migrants. In the summer of 2020, trips to the border became a sort of trick to elevated the border wall as a national monument, as he continued to visit the wall for signing events and as he pledged five hundred miles would be completed as his first term ended.
Such photo opportunities grew overt he summer, and the President pointedly devoted his final days to commemorating completion of four hundred and fifty miles more grimly in a final appearance as United States President at the Rio Grande, returning to the theater of signatures of a weakened but still strong executive action in his very final days in office.
If the trick of signing sections of border wall was a And Trump’s visit was an affirmation of the place of the wall in the nation, as a visit to the border town of Alamo, evocatively named after the garrison defended by Tejano insurrectionists, seemed a place to commemorate the role of insurrection in the formation of a nation, in the days that followed the attempted Capitol Insurrection by a motley assortment of flag-waving white nationalists, far right movements, second amendment supporters, and historical recreationists waving Gadsden flags, Blue Line Flags, Confederate Flags, and Betsy Ross flags similar to those flying over The Alamo in public memory as in the John Wayne 1961 Technicolor film that was designed as a special project to relaunch his cinematic career. The idealization of the sacrifice of The Alamo that seemed an elevation of nation over all, was the sort of jingoist rhetoric that the border wall was long based on, and that Donald Trump had long relished promoting. The mythologization of The Siege of the Alamo as a confrontation between the United States and Mexico, and a conquest of the American west by the dedication of a group regularly heroized in border culture as a racialized conflict, fit the barbed taunt that President Trump had made before the Capitol Riots of the need to “fight like hell” if you want to “have a country any more.”
Eisenhower developed deep convictions of the benefits of better roadways after driving in an often perilous Transcontinental Motor Convoy from Washington DC to San Francisco in 1919, leading him to prioritize resurfacing; the nation by 1991 had completed paving of 46,876 miles of interstates in one of the largest infrastructure supported by a dedicated fund.
Trump’s image of the border depended not on traveling its 2,000 miles, but epic films of border fantasies–among them, John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” which cast defense of the border as a sacred mission and a border fortress as national shrine: “The Alamo” showcased defense of the mythic San Antonio garrison in the Texas Revolution as a mythic border whose defenders played a foundational role in American democracy.
While the cost of the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation are still being ironed out by the Army Corps of Engineers, Trump felt that the particularly complex Border Wall System by the Rio Grande could be a deeply personal legacy to the nation’s security that could be presented as a capstone to his basic campaign promise. After all, the notorious meander of the Rio Grande had created a deeply problematic basis for engineering a national divide: the massive geo-engineering of the flow of the river was chosen, despite the warning from 1857 by the surveyor general Major William H. Emery that if the river is chosen as the line for drawing an international boundary line, as rivers run by different meanders and in different beds, any change of course would mark a change in boundary and no mere “survey nor anything else can keep [the course of the river] from changing,” and constitutes “itself a more apparent and enduring monument of the boundary than any that can be made of art.” Despite awareness by surveyors of the famously shifting meander of the Rio Grande that made it a poor proxy for an international boundary-line even at its deepest point, the retention of the riverine course as an international boundary has been retained, despite the cartographic accuracy of the tracing of its shifting course from 1852 to 1907, and the need for steep levees to secure its path.
In taking the river as a fixed point to celebrate the border wall, Trump was conscious of the difficulty of defending the boundary, and hoped to celebrate the “completion” of a boundary defense difficult to preotect. Trump seems to have followed how the United States government, in search for a stable boundary, had pursued the attempt to rectify its natural meander as the International Water and Boundary Commission at the start of the century sought to remake the course of the river by the channelizing it to match the crisp lines mandated by boundary law, that continued aspirations to construct a concrete-lined channel in 1962, despite longstanding acknowledgment the course changes with flooding and rainfall. Trump’s visit appeared to celebrate that concrete levees might grant permanence to a riverine border, as if to transcend natural change that had complexified the idea of a riverine border, so difficult to determine by fluvial geomorphology known for over a hundred years–and in accepting the “deepest site in the river” as the basis to draw an international border, had bisected the watershed basin of the Rio Grande.
Essentializing the Colorado River as a “border” between states in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not ignore but rather accomdoated the shifting riverine course of the Rio Grande: rendering the fluctuating course of the Rio Grande–or Rio Brava–as the international boundary-line at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo from the Gulf of Mexico to southern border of New Mexico set the border as if the middle of the river’s course afforded a reliable proxy, before the fortification of a boundary as a transit line.
The attempt to fix the river’s course by the construction of a concrete-lined channel in 1962 sought to create a fixed line along the boundary, after the Rio Grande Rectification Project first attempted to remap consensus about the border line, projecting the system of levees, storage dams, and reservoirs to create a rectified channel that would be the “border” in place of the meander of the river–which had created problems of dividing jurisdiction over population and cross-border movement–in the first of a series of attempts to reconcile the projected drawing of the border, then set by a series of monumental cenotaphic obelisks, to mark the permanence of a line, in the face the Rio Grande’s fluctuating course, dependent on seasonal rains–straightening a one hundred and fifty-five fluvial meander from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico by contracting it to an eighty-six mile concrete banked channel.
The accords which opened the process of creating concrete levees that stabilized the river acknowledged inherent difficulties of determining jurisdiction of local settlements near the border lest as the river migrated, towns and land claims shift nationality, creating problems for border protection and dissonance in how two systems of law and legal authorities abut–a number of parcels were redraw jurisdictional lines, as increased avulsion pushed the river south, shifting land claims into “American territory” and stranding some Mexican settlements north of the border.
If some recourse to drawn maps might help establish outposts of some Americans to the south, at stake were the position of what would be future border towns on the Rio Grande, like Alamo TX. For Alamo was an outpost of American jurisdiction on the river founded in the early twentieth century, that did not exist when Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, but became a proxy for Americans to defend territoriality in the face of international law, after the United States had rejected the recommendations of an International Boundary and Water Commission was viewed as harming American interests, exacerbating existing international ill-will.
Or was it only that? Something deeply personal was going on for the builder of Trump Tower who was trying to frame a political brand that transcended nature. As President, Trump acted Presidential by treating the border wall as a basis for sovereignty, almost as a form of absolutist understanding of presidential authority in a personalized manner, imagining the border wall commemorate his image of American sovereignty and adopt his name–as the Eisenhower Highway System celebrate the acknowledgement of the nation’s interstates as a form of national defense.
The dissonance of the concrete banked levees with the path by which silt and mineral deposits were carried to the banks of the Rio Grande is evident in the complex of wildlife refuges along the “border” that will fail to map onto the rectification of a line or wall.
In the actual South Texas Wildlife Complex, the expanded concrete levees would interrupt protected sensitive areas, and be built north of the meander of the Rio Grande, if at time abutting its waters, that seemed to privilege the rhetoric of a feared “flood” of migrants over the seasonal flooding of the river that long enriched riverside “resecas” by water bearing loamy soils, that imposition of dikes, levees, and dams for water diversion had already substantially reduced, by expanding the sheer concrete of a border wall just above its banks, in close contact with multiple wildlife refuges and preserved sensitive habitat for protected species–habitats that would be disrupted by the inroads of huge construction projects, road systems, and noise pollution that the prosposed border wall wold bring in the Rio Grande Valley.
Perhaps the visit was in fact occurring not at the border wall, but at the site of the namesake of the border town he visited–Alamo, TX–and the place of The Alamo in the historical imagination as a final line of defense of Texian revolutionaries against Mexican sovereign claims. Trump claimed he intened to curtail “illegal” migration from the start of his first candidacy, prioritizing “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border,” five days after inauguration, as a pivot in immigration policy to “get back control of our borders.” The claim was removed from any actual map, but it seems fitting the final visit to Alamo TX celebrated a border wall in an imagined and real geography, more than on a map. If the visits to the US-Mexico border became a basis to perform his identity as a President, with little familiarity of the situation on the ground, one couldn’t help but think that in he relished the visit shortly after the Capitol Riots to return to that interface between real and imagined geographies of the border. The press conference in Alamo, if a purported review of its progress, was part of a “Promises Made, Promises Kept” tour that would have been less oddly dissonant if it was intended to mark the start of his second term: it was a visit made as if nothing had happened; the election not lost; the Trump era not over.
Trump’s visit to the border was a final salutation to the very issue that had began Trump’s political career and seemed to be equated with his sense of sovereignty: it was also marking a possible farewell to a vision of an imaginary of the border and of border sovereignty. There is no such thing as a state, as Trump had it, without a border, and the border had been sacralized as a claim to sovereignty in the Trump administration. If the Trump administration had expanded border wall contracts on private land in a Declaration of Taking in the Rio Grande, however, some fourteen incomplete projects of border wall construction left to a Biden administration provided an occasion to affirm a personal promise and pledge to Customs and Border Patrol as if they would be preserved against the specter of illegal population movement that he had painted as a deep danger to national security. While Texas congressman Filemon Vela of Brownsville hoped that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi would with Senator Schumer “draw a line in the sand and oppose money for even an inch of border wall construction,” Trump rallied a different border imaginary of ‘a line the sand’ in visiting Alamo, a line which he drew with a Sharpie on the Border Plaque, rather than on the Texian sands with a sabre, symbollically affirmed his Presidential authority and identity, as he was leaving office and entering civil society, with little sense of what was ahead.
The sense that Trump lost sight of the broader context of his mismanagement and disengagement from the actually pressing threat of COVID-19 that had engulfed the country on his watch was apparent only if you pulled back, placing the crises he had manufactured at the border in the unprecedented threat of a pandemic which he had also cast as a problem of border policy.
The building of wall along both privately owned and environmentally sensitive areas was the focus of a major push in the final months of Trump’s presidency, perhaps far more than the nation’s health. But the ceremonial visit was an evocation of an old west, and a defense of border sovereignty, channeled more by the visit to an evocative place-name–Alamo, TX–more than whatever he said at the border. The visit to Alamo, TX was not to the stretch of border wall that was built along during his Presidency, but marked a site of total war with the land situated as prominently in our national memory as the legend of The Alamo and its defense. Trump returned to the theme of order and showcased the future need for national order at the international US-Mexico border, rather than the process of Presidential impeachment or the insurrectionary siege of the Capitol by members of his base, with the encouragement of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and other supporters of second amendment rights. The visit to the border was a final salute, the waning of the Trump Presidency confirmed, if not admitted, to salute the expansion of border security that the promoter turned politician had long promised would curtail migration. The stretch that he visited was, indeed, one of the most difficult to plan and execute, it was central to the new vision of the nation his presidency offered.
The level of difficulty of the new system in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas would tear through wildlife at fifteen individual stretches, often impacting private homeowners and across challenging topography that often needed waivers to cross protected habitat of endangered species, to replace earthen levees and fencing deemed insufficient as an obstacle to migrant travel. In its place, Trump wanted a poured concrete base, and eighteen-foot high barrier, underground fiber optic motion sensors, 120-foot towers, and flood lights to illuminate the “enforcement zone” a hundred and fifty feet south of the wall.
The border, more than the White House, had become a prime site for the performance of sovereignty and staking sovereign claims. The border wall was a prop to realize his own claims to sovereignty if not as a sovereign ruler, the affirmation of the border became in the dying embers of the long twilight of the Trump Era, an attempt to reclaim his own tattered claims for sovereignty and status as a sovereign ruler. The triumphant visit to the border town of Alamo TX tried to turn discussion to how he had remade the border to force migrants and smugglers to be apprehended by agents of U.S. Border Patrol, and relish the expansion of border security and a system of surveillance, to turn discussion from the horror of the breaching of the Capitol building that he encouraged days before. Trump was elected on a promise to Make America Great Again, and, far more comfortable with retrospective views on the past of excluding people from America than future-facing ones, and the visit to the city of Alamo, TX was an affirmation of a mythic community, at a border town whose name channeled the mythic defense of borders–having gained its name, in 1905, after the Spanish American war and the articulation of American hemispheric dominance.
The evocation of a visit to Alamo may have suggested a the sacred sovereignty of the border, akin to the triumphal facade of the old mission, reprised so often in films, historical paintings, school books, and beer breweries, so that it has become an icon of nation, and of Texan history. The tough commitment to the transforming the border from a line in the sand to a monument of American greatness that he had repeated as his most popular line of applause to the delight of audiences at rallies from the first rally in Arizona in 2015 as a pledge to restore order to the southern border that had gotten “out of control situation” was reprised in the naming of his final media event as President at Alamo, TX, and the image of “total chaos” at the border by which he had long baited audiences to endorse by acclamation anti-migrant policies, and shifting police officers, Department of Defense funds for national security, and added security structures to the border. The site he visited was a place he wanted to inspire love of nation, the visit to a town in the Rio Grande Valley named “Alamo” magnified a hokey form of nationalism to illustrate his claims of holding ground. Even the completion of two hundred and twenty miles was praised by the President “the most powerful and comprehensive border wall structure anywhere in the world” in June, 2020, using his standard “truthful hyperbole” to go for a figurative broke by making mythical claims.
Speaking before levee border barriers, rather than a restored church facade where early Tejano settlers declared their independence from Mexican rule, Trump might have been channeling the rising tide of global immigrants he had warned against as a candidate, in declaring war against undocumented immigrants from June 16, 2015, or the rising anti-immigrant tide he fostered across America, encouraged by detaining 50,200 undocumented in prisons, including 4,000 children: but the ahistorical reference was more likely to the ground that was stood by Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie, in the garrison where Lt William Travis allegedly drew a line–a mythic border-drawing that is still commemorated by a bronze bar before the old mission, which houses a shrine to the holy trinity of “Alamo heroes” that the San Antonio archdiocese commemorated for the American imagination in a plaque whose form vaguely echoes the iconic restored limestone facade. The ideas of place were, as Bruce Selcraig noted, “largely formed by movie images of John Wayne, eternally valiant in the role of Davy Crockett, defending a sprawling fortress on a vast Texas prairie in 1836,” removed from history in the American imagination of the American west and the border, an unmoored marker of Manifest Destiny and hemispheric dominance, verbal taunts of Mexican-Americans in Texas, and United States, a racial baiting transposed to military fronts in the Spanish-American War to “Remember the Maine.” The Texas Rangers, a group claimed as ancestors by current right wing militia, had defended the Tejano residents at the same time as they sought runaway slaves and those escaped from plantations, to build a local economy of a slave state in former Mexican lands where slavery was forbidden.
If the Texas Revolution was, in fact, common property as a multicultural defense by free blacks, slaves, Indians and Anglos with Tejanos and Europeans, the retrospective recasting of the “line in the sand” as drawn between Anglo defenders of a Republic and Mexican soldiers defending tyranny was famously recast by John Wayne a a race-based battle, in ways that Trump’s Presidency had long channeled, emulating how since the 1950s, textbooks had prepared images of the defenders of the Alamo as white settlers, and the shrine held a prominent place in White Supremacist fantasies of America which men like John Wayne eagerly promoted by the myth of volunteer soldiers who defended the flag that they patriotically raised over the fort as it was bombarded by Mexican canon. The appeal for reinforcements Travis sent stirred the fantasies of American students, and western history boosters. Travis sought help as “I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna!” and affirmed that if the enemy demanded complete surrender, “I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man,” and so long as “our flag still waves proudly from the walls . . . I shall never surrender or retreat.” The conceit of territorial defense came requesting reinforcements “in name of Liberty, of patriotism & every thing dear to the American character.” A list of Texian “martyrs” at the Alamo appeared in the March 24, 1836 Texas Register, by the early twentieth century Joaquin Millier praised their determination as a martial moment when “Travis, great Travis, drew sword, quick and strong;/Drew a line at his feet . . . ‘Will you come? Will you go?/I die with my wounded, in the Alamo” as an answer to “insolent Mexico.” (Whitman in 1880 promised he would speak of “martyrs” from the “mother, condemned for a witch,” and “the hounded slave that flags in the race,” adding only “I tell not the fall of Alamo./Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,/The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo,” but praised “the glory of the rangers” as he cited the “murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve” reinforcement for those who retreated to the square.) The Gonzalez Flag revolutionaries flew over the fortress to taunt Mexican soldiers to regain canon long used to fend off natives since 1831, that Lopez de Santa Anna’s men would smelt, re-appeared recently in confederate flags at the Capitol Riots, emblematic in tattoos of Texans, of a refusal to relinquish arms or independence in the Texian Revolution.
Travis’ request provided a template, conscious or unconscious, for Trump to recast the financial boondoggle of the border wall. And if the boundary of the “deepest part of the Rio Grande” agreed upon at the 1849 Treaty was a poor proxy for an international frontier, given the process of avulsion that shifted the course of the Rio Grande, that led the United States to insist avulsion “shall not affect the boundary-line,” despite its consistent southward shift, by 1884, and led the land-claims of Mexicans to be resolved by as an international boundary disputes, inviting the opinions of Canadian international lawyers to try to support governmental claims to sovereignty, but muddying boudnary jurisdiction. The image of the defense of the Alamo continued to grow as the river moved as a heroic site of defending borders: as if contrapuntally to the river shifted course, Joaquin Miller had apostrophized the bravery of the Texian soldiers as national heroes in Defense of the Alamo (1902), beyond debates about international border law. The re-entombment of the remains of the three defenders of The Alamo on the centenary of what was imagined to have been the start of a historical revolutionary battle that provided a moment for white patriotism, confirming their status as national heroes, wit a heroism is often implicit in the twenty-eight star American flag that marked the inclusion of Texas as a state in the Republic.
The “line in the sand” had long affirmed the dangerous and deceptive self-serving conceit in which American bravery trumped international law. If the “line in the sand’ might migrate from the defense of the spread of communism in southeast Asia (the first Texan President, Lyndon B. Johnson) to the shifting “line in the sand” in the Middle East of the next two Texan Presidents, George and George W. Bush, the distance from San Antonio to the actual border was rather small. The “line in the sand” might stand in for the expansion of such a project of border security; while hardly a done deal, Trump’s successor Joe Biden has promised to cease construction of a border “wall,” and the wall was the central legacy Trump sought to preserve while American President–and to cry, as legend has it, with Lt. Travis, “Those prepared to giver their lives in freedom’s name, come over to me!” on what would be his final visit to the US-Mexico border as American President. Trump used incendiary words as he claimed to have “reestablished American sovereignty” by “ending catch and release . . . which is the equivalent of ‘open borders,'” a derogatory term he has long favored to give migrants notices of future court appearance, ended “the old, broken system” that he described as allowing “asylum fraud,” and left the nation with enhanced anti-immigrant “Migrant Protection Protocols” whose alteration bring “a tidal wave of illegal immigration,” that evoked how lack of vigilance would allow breaching the border as a line in the sand.
The visit served to expand a geography of the border and a broader project of border security in retrospective ways, but also to situate the border wall in a geographic imaginary of an ongoing project of national defense. And in evoking the project of border security and its stakes for the nation, the symbolic geography of a visit to a town named Alamo, located on the border, could not be lost, and seemed a powerful form of messaging to leave the Presidency by reminding the nation of his intent to leave a system of border defense intact, and indeed to preserve an underground current of a mythic role of border security, as well as to relish in retrospect his longstanding political commitment to this ideal, and to return to the theme of vulnerability of an insecure border by which he had won the 2016 election, and had championed as the basis of his entry into American politics. The establishment of a secure border provided a centerpiece for Trump’s energetic rallies, movements of mass appeal that offered license for a form of speech foreign to American politics.
If, the New York Times reminded us by an interactive map, of which this is but a screenshot, in the decade prior to his Presidency, the federal government had confined itself to building border barriers on federal land, in an attempt to stop trans-border illegal immigration, the border fences had deteriorated and provided limited defense, Trump had promised the construction of a border, even promoting a “beautiful steel slat barrier,” that would reveal commitment to defend the full length of the border along which it would run.
The construction of the border wall became a form of uniting “Americans” by false promises of economic security, public safety, and anti-immigrant anger, as the wall became an icon of political sovereignty at rallies that he largely held in “red states” to cultivate Republican solidarity, to shore up voters’ support by baiting audiences by fears of transborder immigration by undocumented immigrants for friendly media markets.
From promising residents of a border state that the wall would be “beautiful” and would indeed “someday be named after me,” at his first large rally in Phoenix, he showcased the border wall as a prop for supporters. He used the image of sovereignty to bait audiences, asking “Who do you love more, the country or the Hispanics?” By December, 2015, he had come to call it the “Trump Wall” at a year-end rally in the border state of Arizona. The rallies proved events to celebrate the imagined “big, beautiful wall” as curtailing of migration that’s “going to end,” personalizing his style of sovereignty by promising a barrier would make American great again.
Not only did Trump’s rallies played a central role to his Presdiential victory. the promotion of the border wall became their central prop. He promised to complete a “big, beautiful wall” of over a thousand miles of length along the U.S.-Mexico border that he, unlike the political classes, arguing he “knew how to do this” as a builder unlike the political classes: rallies that discussed the wall replaced campaign offices in most states. The rallies continued during his Presidency, interspersed with visits to the border wall. At the disgraceful end of the Trump Presidency demanded a final act of chicanery, to trumpet the comparison of the four hundred odd miles of wall construction, mostly were wall already existed, in ways that might be memorialized in mythic terms–both in the terms that he desired and needed for his base. The signing of the a plaque at the wall was vain, but the visit magnified his signature accomplishment as an accomplishment and border defense as it channeled the historic “line in the sand” mythologized at the Battler of The Alamo.
Trump’s promise to believe in “respecting America’s history and traditions, not tearing them down” situated the border wall in a mythology of the nation that The Alamo began: if it is unclear if Trump or the Border Patrol chose the visit to Alamo, TX, the President, a huge fan of John Wayne who sought to memorialize Davey Crockett, who Wayne played in the historical epic, in his Garden of National Heroes, and defended Wayne’s legacy despite the actor’s notorious sympathies for white supremacists–and the clear racial prejudices of his technicolor film. But the point was to enshrine the visit to the wall with an affirmation of its place in American history: “We can’t let the next administration even think about taking it down . . ” Trump said about the border wall in Alamo, not even letting himself finish his thought. “I don’t think that will happen. I think when you see what it does and how it’s so important to our country nobody’s going to be touching it.” Biden would soon terminate the state of national emergency at the border that Trump had allowed to syphon monies tot he border wall, but Trump sought to foreground it as a monument to nationhood, and evoking The Alamo proved a way of looking backward, not forward, as to the role of the border in American society.
1. At the time of the border visit, Trump seemed to recognize he might not be inaugurated in 2021 after the Capitol Siege. But it must have hurt. And as a reconciliation of sort, and a cementing of his legacy, the visit to the site of the expansion of border barriers in the Rio Grande was in a sense a mythic visit to a site where it all began. The union of Border Patrol officers were celebrated the inauguration of 400 new miles of border security; allowing that Trump was not to be inaugurated in 2021, as he had hoped, his visit to the border town Alamo TX provided a means to celebrate the creation of a new border infrastructure, building a “new” system, mostly of reinforced fencing, that U.S. Border Patrol had long sought, and since 2015 as Trump’s trademark campaign promise.
But Trump’s campaign promise to “stem the tide” of undocumented migrants by the promise to “build a wall” reflected not only a border security system, but the obstruction of the human migration he so distastefully referred to in dehumanized terms, and the most significant cross-border transit at border sectors was across the border was in the Rio Grande Valley, where this stretch of new border wall had been fittingly built: the visit was a commemoration of its construction as an obstacle for migrants that were apprehended by Border Patrol in far greater numbers when Trump had ordered the start of the wall’s construction, according to the statistics that the U.S. Border Patrol themselves kept.
The visit to the very region where migrant apprehension was greatest had been the first priority for wall-building for the union had early endorsed Trump as a candidate, and promoted his candidacy seriously. The levels of apprehending undocumented immigrants from countries other than Mexico were especially pronounced in the Rio Grande valley, where the union had prioiritized building a border wall.
The President’s decision to visit the border was a ceremonial visit to a mythic border. It was ceremonial, but also a rhetorical exercise in mapping the nation, a site where the real border wall overlapped with an imaginary border in Texas history. While he visited the border town Alamo TX, he was symbolically visiting the set “Alamo Village” built by John Wayne at unprecedented expense for the blockbuster, “The Alamo” (1960) he would produce and direct, near the border and just north of Bracketville, TX, in an act of bravura to make the movie he had long wanted but Hollywood production houses had refused to produce. Was this not Trump’s true go alone effort, an illustration of his commitment to build a new set for staging sovereign authority, that no party could provide in recent history, but whose construction only he could ensure?
The replica Wayne built of the old garrison was built near the site of a fort of Indian Wars boosted the actual site as a national shrine. The set for the “The Alamo” he built in Bracketville was based on a 1938 commemorative map, by Bracketville’s Mayor, and “Alamo Village” was eulogized by President George W. Bush, who fondly remembered the mayor as “Father of the Texas Movie Industry,” no doubt having seen “The Alamo” when he grew up in Texas. The blockbuster film that John Wayne had long sought to make, but broke from Hollywood to create an independent company he starred in and directed films til 1974, a major production house that from 1959 to 1974 made a mark in Hollywood studio system as it marked Wayne’s attempt to free himself of it, after no studio would take him up on a film that would have been inspired by his own white supremacist sympathies by celebrating three Anglo heroes as forefathers of the nation. At the same time that Trump, graduated from New York Military Academy in 1964, had entertained attending USC’s film school, “attracted to the glamour of the movies, . . . guys like Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck and most of all Louis B. Mayer,” he acknowledged in his 1987 Trump: The Art of the Deal, before allowing “in the end I decided real estate was a much better business.” After entering the Iowa primaries, his first as a presidential candidate, Trump made a point of visiting Wayne’s birthplace, in Winterset, Iowa, where he was welcomed by John Wayne’s daughter, posing before a figurine of his idol in a diorama of the American West, and would soon vigorously defend Wayne’s statements in favor of white supremacy on the campaign trail in 2020, as Orange County Democrats lobbied for its renaming.
Was not the successful staging of conflict at the border soundstage still in his mind?
Although Trump never openly referenced the historic site of battle to defend a garrison flying “Old Betsy” by Tejano settlers. But he needed to distract that but eighty miles of border was walled by the end of his Presidency. If the border wall–need one even capitalize it, or should one, as it is now a proper place?–had been used as a screen to project the dangers of cross-border migration, the comparison magnified, Trump style, what was in face hardly a place, so much as a massive destruction of border space–a public works project of the like of which we have never seen.
While the actual Alamo was far from the border, in the late 1950s, John Wayne founded a film production company to magnify his Hollywood persona with the film of frontier wars with Mexico he had desired. The movie set’s masonite walls, often confused with the walls of the actual Mission, San Antonio de Béxar, is lodged in the nation’s memory as the site of the first defense of a southern border. The set for which 1.5 million adobe bricks were manufactured staged a primal battle for the southern border of the nation, in what was the costliest movies of its time. Echoed the survivalist cries of many modern Texas militia and vigilantes, the film had heroized the insurrection by Anglo settlers including Davey Crockett as a sweeping stage for the Old West circa 1836, and shaped the imagination of the border for many who saw it as teens in the early 1960s and late 1950s–like Donald Trump–and lodged the battle in a filmic imagination.
Trump’s visit to the border may have been suggested by Border Patrol, but activated an image of the defense of liberty on the border by the valiant defense of “martyrs” of The Alamo, and a mythic frontier John Wayne cultivated, ignoring that Texas lay in Mexican territory, by mapping the borderlands by his own moral compass and sense of right and wrong for film audiences. The mantra of survivalist groups and vigilantes was summoned in the words of the figure of Davey Crockett he played, of staking a claim for the nation to what were blank spaces on the map where he could resist Mexican tyranny: “When I came down to Texas, I was looking for something. I didn’t know what. There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other, you might be right, but you’re dead as a beaver hat.” Sitting at the Alamo, and peering over the border at the approach of the Mexican soldiers who have crossed the Rio Grande to quell his insurrection, John Wayne challenges the ultimate western as a figure of a Cold War, prefiguring the Cold War, as an epic battle of American and Mexican sovereignty, in which grit and determination of a white race will persevere, blessed in some way by the wall of the garrison behind them, and the flag of Old Betsy that legend has it waved atop the ruins of the old border garrison. Wayne used the color film to foreground the contest between the Anglo defenders of The Alamo and the Mexican-American extras he had hired to play the troops who arrived to quell the rebellion–or to “attack” the Texian revolt to quash it.
The set was built at great expense to offer sweeping views of the defense of the Texas Republic during the Cold War, has much to answer for in distorting the national memory of the border and its historical geography–and indeed its place in Texas history. Built in a near a fort from the old Indian Wars defended by black seminole–and foregrounded the border wall that merged a national map with a monumental line of defense and the defense of freedom and nation, in hyperbolic ways that, for a young man hoping to attend film school, would have provided the major blockbuster and image of independent production values. Was the film not indeed an ur-text for how the border wall has been staged as a line of defense of the nation, and of the mandate for building a “secure border” that haunted the defense of the border as a “line in the sand”?
The image of border defense, and indeed the calling to defense the border as a surrogate for the nation, was made by Wayne’s film, which no Hollywood studios would finance as an epic on the scale he had imagined, and that Wayne had set up his own production studio to create on a ranch-owner’s land, in casting the attempt to hold the Mexican garrison from self-styled soldiers who came to quell an insurrection of southerners who sought to extend the enslavement of the plantation economy to the west as a defense of “liberty,” “the Republic,” and the nation–all abstract values concretized in the technicolor film, as in a map.
But the town near the actual US-Mexico border, itself a station of Customs & Border Protection, in Kinney County, where Wayne filmed the epic gunfight on the US-Mexico border, on a set built in the town founded to escape enslavement in the southern states some forty miles form the US-Mexico border. Border Patrol has found human smuggling and arms trafficking–a site of international tension hardly visible in the terrain of the USGS topo map. Yet it was haunted by the historic border.. If not visible on the official map, the power of that film in shaping a geographic imagination of the United States was in the minds of members of the United States Border Patrol, if not of President Trump himself, in magnifying the accomplishment of border surveillance system in the Rio Grande Valley in his final official or public appearance as U.S. President. The visit to Alamo TX channeled the mythic conceit of Davey Crockett and Lt. William Travis drawing a line in the sand in 1836 in San Antonio, preparing for a historic defeat with a long and terrible afterlife as a mythic motivation of resolve in the defense of land and country.
News outlets as Reuters felt themselves obliged to remind Americans likely to remove place from physical context that the visit to Alamo, in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, was “distinct from the site of the Battle of the Alamo, a pivotal Texan loss in the Texas Revolution. The game of trading spatial imaginaries was pure Trump, and recalls the promotion of sites of real estate he had promoted in New York: if no President has so often visited the American border while in office, none so confounded the border as a site of sovereignty.
2. The overlapping of border imaginaries–and the evocation of the border as a site of danger, a limit over which lay chaos and confusion, was served by the invocation of a film set in which the patriotic defense of the nation was entrusted to white men with guns, affirming that shooting straight from a multi-gauge rifle of the sort Richard Widmark used to defend the border garrison in the 190 technicolor extravaganza confirmed in semaphore that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” exponentially expanded in scale, as he conjured the danger of drug cartels, gang members, child traffickers, and coyotes in place of men bearing Mexican flags. The late addition to the western genre that glorified the use of guns for self-defense against Mexican invaders was, in a sense, the first “border” or clash of nations between Mexico and the United States, and while remembered as commemorating the first major battle for Texan independence in local state history and in the militia groups of patriots who guard the southern border, despite its little strategic consequence in the Texas Revolution, became a talisman of the defense of borders as Alamo TX was planned as a town along the post-1848 US-Mexico border as part of the patriotic frenzy of border protection after the Spanish-American War. The 1961 Technicolor film, featuring a Mexican army equipped with flags against valiant Anglo defenders committed to fight to the death to protect the garrison, evoked a nativist perspective on the border’s expansion dear to Wayne, a noted white supremacist.
The confluence of a spatial imaginary of the legendary line drawn in the sand, at Alamo, as a defense of the nation, the border town Alamo, the map, and a spatial imaginary of the border overlapped in Trump’s visit, in ways we would do well to understand better at the close of the Trump presidency, that has done more to map the dangerous nature of the border, far removed from the migrant, in our national imaginary. While the film set that was built close to the actual border than The Alamo in downtown San Antonio, the “open space” in the Rio Grande Valley, a long demonized as a site of cross-border migrant traffic, in need of expanded border security. Trump made building additional border barriers his central campaign promise in 2016, and he leaves office slotting a “barrier system” costing $1.375 billion in FY 2021, having built only forty miles of wall in formerly open border lands–a number some report as more like twelve–far from the “big beautiful wall” he had promised voters in 2016, to run continuously along 1,954 miles.
Did the limited area covered by new border wall at the end of the Trump administration demand a sort of final moment of truthful hyperbole, as the President would call it, evoking a grandiose setting of the most famous breached wall in the nation’s memory, the defense that Davey Crockett waged at The Alamo? Not for nothing was Davey Crockett to be among the figures of American heroes in the statuary garden Trump had proposed, the Garden of National Heroes. The Alamo was a memory, but an affirmative memory of the rights to own guns among a well-regulated militia, and the need for guns in self-defense of family; the film glorified the place of firearms on the frontier and affirming that for “well-regulated militias” that patrol the border Militia, that the Second Amendment indicates “necessary to the security of a free State,” includes firearms. This Alamo was a site of nativist pride and protection, a site of the “battle between Americans in Texas and Mexican forces,” as is still taught in Texas curriculum, in a Crash Course on Manifest Destiny. If The Alamo is the regular site of staging a Fourth of July celebration, where is Alamo, TX on the mental map of nativists?
Trump’s suddenly announced border visit formally celebrated the redesign of the open space of the border by the erection of a permanent border structure, but echoed the photo ops Trump long used to announce the transactional relation of special permits and permissions for building developments in midtown Manhattan, when he came to autograph a new section of reinforced concrete. He joined by his long-time friends, the Border Patrol members, instead of the New York officials who arrived for breaking ground for a new skyscraper or luxury complex, but the visit featured as part of a “Promises Kept” tour suggested a triumphal tour to the limits of empire of reciprocal reinforcement, contrasting the “dysfunctional open border” he inherited to the current border wall. In visiting developments in New York City, Trump had regularly presented his latest deal for luxury developments as a victory for all New Yorkers.
Trump conjured the majesty of the sections that were built, as if it was of national significance, and the culmination of the emergency demands he had relentlessly made. He didn’t have much to show for them. But he fulsomely praised the concrete and rebar border wall over four hundred and fifty miles as a victory for America, despite its steep price tag, conjuring the dangers dismantling by the border wall would expose the nation. He listed dangers–much as, perhaps, those first American settlers and Tejanos faced at the valiant loss of Battle of The Alamo–ranging from human traffickers, international drug cartels, and an escalation of criminal violence as octopian tentacles of transborder dangers that the wall prevented, opposing sovereignty and “immigration chaos,” focussing most enthusiastically on the physical construction of the panels of border wall as complete, as if to conceal the chaos that had just incited in Washington, DC, enlisting a range of familiar but quite disturbing border fantasies.
The Alamo was so often dramatized in film, as a national sacrifice on the border of the open space of the west, from D.W. Griffith’s historical drama Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) to the present, perhaps most monumentally, for Donald Trump, by the 1960 technicolor “The Alamo,” produced and directed by his very own cinematic “hero,” John Wayne, that used color film to emphasize the subject as a film about race. Trump did not address race openly, but in his words about the “open space” of the border at the Rio Grande Valley protected by Border Patrol almost invoked the border imaginary of Anglo defenders the Mexican garrison at San Francesco de Bexar known as a site of a race war against Mexican tyranny, inspired by patriotic love of liberty. Lest American women be exposed without defense to the murders and rapists Trump conjured as about to cross the borderline, and the corps of well-armed citizens and vigilante groups be disbanded, the defense of the border must be continued–“The Alamo” the movie confirmed that shooting was in American’s blood, “granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright, ” as Wayne LaPierre has put it. Most efficiently, Alamo TX must have invoked the sense of the border as a line–as a barrier in space, jumping right off of a map, with the security of a thick line of black ink, whose security obscured and outweighed the fate of migrants or the setting of borderlands. Trump had perfected the Clint Eastwood glare, looking out at his audiences, and summoning the fierceness of the need for blocking immigrants.
What spatial imaginary of the border did Trump so easily suture to the nation? The considerable power of the thirteen-day siege that settlers resisted at The Alamo has for long held particular power in a spatial imaginary of the nation that has cast a long shadow of a thirteen-day battle over American expansion to the west among heroic battles of national defense. The battle was not pivotal in any way in itself in the Texas Revolution, but the martyrdom of white settlers have risen to the status of defending the nation, that Trump has proposed the central character John Wayne performed–and the person her represented in the film, Davey Crockett–to take a prominent place in the very National Garden of American Heroes of the “giants of our past” to “show that America is a land of heroes”–even if the Garden of statuary of Confederate figures, James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan, Theodore Geisel, Christopher Columbus, and Alex Trebek but will probably never be built. Yet the “heroism” of figures who had become associated with racists or were promoters of racist ideology as John Wayne is no surprise. If Geisel broadly caricatured blacks and arabs as much as he represented a sense of wholesomeness as Dr. Seuss, the panoply of white heroes was redolent of racist connotations, celebrating the racially skewed optic of stereotypes of freedom that obscured the absence of freedom and liberty in the Trump Presidency. Trump has relished citing figures of how many gang members Customs and Border Patrol has detained–3,467 gang members since 2016, almost 1,500 of whom are, per their data, MS13 members–such figures masked that the Trump Presidency has only seen construction of eighty miles of wall along the border where it did not already exist.
While many children perished in the site of the battle of The Alamo, the tragedy of children who arrive at the border he detaining of unaccompanied minors at the border and Points of Entry along the US-Mexico Border since 2008 were placed in custody of Health and Human Services, often to be placed with sponsors who were not by 2015 asked to provide proof of relationship, were increasingly detained “for a deterrence effect,” under Trump, escalating the detention of children at border Points of Entry, so “parents stop bringing their kids on this dangerous journey and entering the country illegally,” and expanded capacity in an increasingly militarized border, meting out punishment by apprehending, convicting deporting, or punitively detaining.
The fantasy of protecting the border that had not been secured in long stretches by less than eighty miles of border could scarcely be promoted by Trump as evidence of creating a barrier to migrants on “unprotected” borderlands he had promoted. Minimal completion of a wall contrasts so sharply with the gaps of border barriers that the Trump campaign called to national attention in 2015-16, to divide the nation along the need for its construction, that invoking the myth of the Alamo was evoked to promote the national import of border protection that had so successfully divided the nation in 2016, pointing to the dangerous absence of a secure border poorly protected by vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing, and all too easily able to be breached.
3. After promoting completion of a short stretch of border wall near Yuma, AZ during the Presidential campaign, the limited building of any new border boundaries during the Trump administration demanded a rhetorical trick, at the end of his presidency. Ad by employing his preferred device of “truthful hyberbole”–the magnification of an exaggeration Trump insisted was by no means a lie–as a verbal and logical trick (if not tic) to score more points to his advantage. The reference to defense of The Alamo a border visit to Alamo TX might be able to magnify the sorry state of new border wall to a response to the very concept of nationhood and liberty: the narrative amplification of the border wall’s reduced scale magnified his own achievement, much as the ground-level shot of the Yuma construction that FOX nationally broadcast, magnified construction of border wall far beyond actuality; the channeling of The Alamo might be able to map the border wall onto a mythic defense of the border that has haunted the nation’s mythic geography, as much as the actual border’s terrain.
Psychologist Mary Trump, Donald’s niece, who has spent considerable time but not more than the rest of us pondering and trying to clarify her uncle’s psychology, harbored no doubts that the President was more familiar with the idea of The Alamo as a heroic movie of border defense, than anything about its place in American history, the agreement to visit the U..S. Border Patrol in Alamo TX was not only to celebrate the victory that he did win over Joe Biden in border towns. It was a deeply transactional relation to Border Patrol, who had long endorsed his candidacy, and regain stability days after the Siege of the Capitol, to deliver a final Presidential performance with men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol.
The visit was Presidential, but recalled the promotions of realty projects that Trump theatrically staged in New York City to showcasee exclusive housing as a deal that he had arranged as of broad public benefits.
Trump was reminding the base that he stood for order, after the disorder of the insurrection he had fomented in Washington, DC. The optics of authority were important, and the border wall had to be foregrounded as a prop of his leadership as never before. So often had Trump evoked the border wall for his base as the grounds for his election that he seem to have responded to the sense of a gaping hole in the demands of the Border Patrol in America. Barack Obama joked with some desperation in 2011, exasperated after appeasing Republicans, that if the border barriers at El Paso, TX were “basically complete,” “They’ll want want a higher fence—maybe they’ll need a moat! Maybe they want alligators in the moat!” Trump in 2019 adopted that very cinematic fantasy, per Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration, by seeking cost estimates to stock a trench with alligators to ward off migrants from border-crossing to end cross-border flow on what he saw as his property, gloriously removed referential data to place. A moat may have been the ideal image of stoppage by terror, not rooted in place, but conveying the bravura of a builder. As the image gained currency in photoshopped images, Trump was furious at his staff, convinced a leak had occurred that held him up to ridicule. “You are making me look like an idiot! I ran on this. This is my issue!”
It was his issue, but enlisting aquatic reptiles was implausible in an arid desert –even if some speculated that the subsidies to Florida alligator breeders would secure the state’s votes. The planning of an adequately prohibitive trench opened the President to a range of questions about the feasibility of a border wall, and suddenly opened the project to ridicule–as the visit to Alamo opened speculation that Rudy Giuliani would join Donald Trump at the Alamo car rental agency at an airport in Texas. But the visit would showcase front lines of border protection by Border Patrol, the foot soldiers to stop migrant transit, and this time: in Alamo, the sheer concrete of the border wall existed at a real place–if “Alamo” was more evocative in the national imagination as a reminder of the perpetual vulnerability of the border as much as its defense. Trump visited the border wall to restore dignity to the office which he was leaving in disgrace–far less gracefully than he had departed NBC after fifteen seasons of The Apprentice. If affirmed as a law and order President beside the officers of Customs and Border Protection. If the moat caricatured border protection in photoshopped images, Trump wanted to promote the remaking of the Mexican-American boundary reveled as no fantasy game of alligators extending on a thousand-mile lazy river leading to the Rio Grande, but an occasion to praise heroes “who risk their lives every day to protect our families and our country” in a scared duty that compared to the patriotic moment of border defense at The Alamo mission, in the heroic adventure film of John Wayne, set in San Antonio,–even if that shrine to the nation lay a full two hundred and twenty miles north, or three and a half hour by car, and about eight days by foot—or summoned he movie set that John Wayne had built for “The Alamo,” far closer to the actual US-Mexican border.
4. For by the visit, and gesture the historical imaginary, Trump magnified the border wall as a monument to the nation by a place-name able to evoke the image of national defense over a thirteen-day siege by foreign forces, transcended its role in the creation of Texas, or Texian pride, as a defense of flying the American flag as an icon of continental destiny and hemispheric dominance, monumentalized as an American Thermopylae, preserving American democracy and the expansive rule of American destiny before a Mexican threat, as Thermopylae turned all Greeks against the invading Persians. The status of the mission as a shrine to Texas martyrs and the struggle of liberty against Mexican tyranny gained a patriotic consensus ruffled when Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbit–later Interior Secretary–scoffed at The Alamo in 1979 not as a national monument, but “symbol of the problem in our relationship with Mexico” as a nation–a view that Mexican-Americans saw as epitomizing a paternalistic relaiton to Mexico. For while it is continued to be commemorated as “a sacred symbol to Texans and an extension of the American ideal–but to Mexico it’s a symbol of territory lost, a nation plundered by overbearing gringo neighbors.” Nonetheless, the heroism of the defense of the garrison was returned to in television films from the 1987’s The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory, the 1988 IMAX spectacle Alamo: The Price of Freedom; and in John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo–that elevated the national identity of America in terms of a struggle against Mexican culture and authority.
The major television dramas of the battle from the 1980s foregrounded the role of Mexican Tejano members in the Texan army, dislodging The Alamo from the race battle John Wayne staged, even if as many black settlers–enslaved, to be sure–died in the battle but are omitted from its list of martyrs as Seguín heroically rejects Mexican tyranny, more than Tejano identity; foregrounding the contribution of the insurrectionist Captain Juan Seguín, Travis’ partner in insurrection, in the filmed versions of the border battle from the 1980s reflects an effort to foreground Tejano diversity, but enlisted Mexicans as heroes of The Alamo led many to reject conscribing Mexican protagonists as defenders an American ideal of nationhood in an event that stripped Mexico of territory in a narrative whose “master symbol serves as a critical map for the exploitation and displacement of Mexicans” and triumphant narrative of American expansionism.
While The Alamo was not a particularly critical battle in the Texan Revolution, it was mythologized as one with far greater significance. The conceit of a forging of the nation naturalized a rights-based myth of the claiming of American identity by a line in the sand at the same time as the US-Mexican border was defined . The ongoing nature of a threat to American liberties and democracy was channeled in a visit to Alamo, TX. Never mind that the that the Texian insurrection at a munitioned garrison was in Mexico: the siege raised by Mexican forces of General Antonio López de Santa Anna may have even glorified the moment of insurrection to the groups that had contributed to the insurrection at the White House, known as the Capitol Siege, echoing the admiration and sympathies Trump had declared to the insurrectionists, who might find precedent for their own invasion of a joint session of congress in the insurrectionists and anti-federalists of the past.
On the eve of increased buzz among far right extremists in the United States of renewed interest in staging disruptive events during the incoming Presidency and inauguration, even the slightest reference to glorifying the thirteen-day insurrection as a national defense broadcast messages. Was the insurrection holding of ground not a national defense against against all odds? The valiant attempt to hold the fort dignified an insurrection quelled by Mexico’s army to give it a centrality as a patriotic defense of national constitutional liberties. But the siege only acquired patriotism as it was reinvented as the cry of patriotic injunction to “Remember the Alamo!” to rally troops and revolutionaries in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48–its patriotic cry reverberated in the jingoist “Remember the Maine!” launched to start the Spanish-American War, just before Alamo TX was founded after World War One. Hearst, championing the paper as a “the greatest force of civilization,” given their power to “form and express public opinion,” invested in them the power to “declare wars,” urged America to “Remember the Alamo” as another imperative of public memory.
The place of “The Alamo” in the national memory was effectively inscribed on the border town, founded shortly after the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor was taken as a grounds for declaration of war. The declaration of war promoted by the Hearst newspapers’ yellow journalism used the very jingoist terms that the foundation of the Texas border town embodied by summoning memories of national offense and pride, born of the increased trafficking of patriotism that almost bore the imprint of Hearst newspapers. And although San Antonio was far from the current border wall, the border town geographically removed from The Alamo reminded us of the mythic enlistment of that battle in a longstanding myth of national defense and sacrifice. Visting the border down just days earlier when the Capitol building was seized for four hours was a defense of national ideals–in a town whose 1905 naming commemorated the battle at the “new” border town.
The visit to a town named after the myth of The Alamo, glorified by White Supremacists and Texas militia as a site of national memory, was intended to recall the status of the border in a defense of national territory, despite its considerable distance form the actual garrison in San Antonio.
This time, the President wanted to remind the base, the place existed, the wall was rooted in space. Trump wanted to share a moment of bonding with Border Patrol that might moreover root the border wall visit in a moment of national memory. And what better way than by evoking a sacralized site of American history at The Alamo, recalling a distant siege of 1836 that some might see as the origins of the Border Patrol, or the first defense of a southern border on Texan land,–if not the transformation from Tejas, the Mexican state, to Texas in defending the garrison in San Antonio, if not the blood shed by the defense of territorial claims of Tejanos that were commemorated in patriotic cries of United States soldiers who defended American sovereignty over Texas?
4. The critically foreshortened perspective on the US-Mexico border, and indeed on the border wall, have a long pedigree, whose genealogy might be said to begin from The Alamo, if not the perpetuation of the Alamo myth as a staking of rights to hold land–and, as it happens, to seize munitions and pistols at a fortified garrison. The preservation of the place of The Alamo as a mythic site for standing one’s ground on a line drawn in the sand–a legend without basis in historical fact–testifies to the history of the mutability of the US-Mexico border which was, of course, not firmly defined as a latitude before the two hundred and seventy-six obelisks were set in the ground to mark the US-Mexico border in 1848, after the US-Mexico War fought to define the southern perimeter of the nation–long before the idea of a “border fence” or “border boundary.”
When David Taylor undertook in 2006 to document the boundary markers that were result of the Mexican-American war, he used them to move along the landscape he knew in his native Arizona across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. His photographs capture the space that this early borderline created, in ways that make sense to re-examine after the increased spectacularity of the border wall’s rebuilt complex. Taylor’s project began before the militarization of the border by the United States and capture monuments that describe an almost surreal relation to place in 276 views of the border the art practice offers a snapshot that froze and preserved each border monument before the inevitable progress of militarization of the boundary as a security complex in the Trump years. Taylor’s corpus of monumentalism suggest the reduced monumentality of the first survey of the border, taken in the boundary line surveyed after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, remembered for having purchased rights to run the border and cede California Alta, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and much of Arizona to the gringo for $15 million, “in consideration of the extension acquired by the boundaries of the United States”–before expanding allocation of resources to fortifying those boundaries that almost destroyd the border landscape.
The jointly qualitative and quantitative project of surveying that was a testament to the skill of deploying a national surveying team along treacherous terrain, engaging astronomers, cartographers, mountaineers, and artists, often the veterans of the US-Mexico War, was a massive national project of sovereign aggression, cementing the map to the land by assembling piles of rocks, cairns completed in 1852 later defined by spaced by obelisks every to to four miles apart to be able to be seen by an individual line of sight in the 1890s.
Given the difficulty of “tracing upon the ground” the boundary negotiators of the treaty concluded, the essentially arbitrary line was to be surveyed, measured and drawn on the very ground, to make the arbitrary line manifest as a part of the landscape, transforming what was a line in the sand across two thousand miles “to cement the words on the page and the line in the sand” physically manifest in the border landscape.
The obelisks later affirmed as a patriotic point of reference from which flew flags marking territorial claims, but which increasingly look antiquated, a past notion of open-ness that the border barriers built beside them obstruct, and in a sense overshadow, as they create a protective barrier in place of a permeable membrane.
When Donald Trump ran for President on the promise to expand the border as a monitory wall, the border was already militarized, but expanding the investment in a border infrastructure to solidifed in the national imaginary and memory. Announcing a visit to Alamo as he left office sought to recognize the militarization of the border and the threat of its breaching simultaneously, by evoking without every having to the memory of the loss of The Alamo, and the conquest of the border, by creating an imaginary continuity in the historical militarization of this border line.
5. Did Trump’s visit to Alamo, TX conceal an appeal to “The Alamo,” a heroic film of the border’s defense that cast the battle as an iconic defense of liberty and nation, whose three heroes–William Travis, Davey Crockett, and Jim Bowie–would rally all Texians to win political independence form Mexico to join the United states. Trump, a huge fan of John Wayne, whose birthplace he visited int eh Iowa Caucuses of 2015, when running for President, must have remembered the stirring defense of the nation that was imagined in the 1960 historical epic, “The Alamo;” under the Betsy Ross flag that has become an emblem of white supremacists, Crockett shoots as many Mexican soldiers as he can, before his ammunition is exhausted, in his defense of a “line in the sand” became a mythic birth of the Republic.
The drawing of the line never occurred, but the 1836 battle was cast as part of a national foundation story of westward expansion; the defense by Tejano soldiers of the garrison in San Antonio, then a border town to the Mexican interior of the Mexican state of Texas, mythologized sovereignty by a line in the sand, commemorated in historical epics of the American cinema and by a bronze bar at The Alamo, that cast the defense of the garrison as a martrydom for liberty and nation. American films from D.W Griffith’s Martyrs of the Alamo to John Wayne’s technicolor epic magnified the patriotism of the defense of a racialized line in the sand that laid claim to defense of the nation: defenders of the garrison commandeered by Tejans never agreed to defend a line in the sand drawn by sabre with Lt. Col. William Barrett Travis, was canonized in printed accounts of The Alamo from the 1878 that mythologized the siege as a defense of a Texan state, evoking the boundary of the 1848 Treaty by a line drawn by the fort’s defender with unsheathed sword.
While the line is mythic, it almost needs to exist at The Alamo, so central was the line as a model of mythic and the consecration of the space as an altar of sacrifice to a vow to break Mexican tyranny, concretizing such false oppositions as freedom v. tyranny, democracy v. despotism, Anglos v. Mexicans and mestizos, that could bear the weight of a historical myth–a line canonized in historical memory: “nobody forgets the line,” so powerful is it engraved in public memory, Texan folklorist J. Frank Dobie claimed in 1939, as “it is drawn too deep and too straight” in history, and even straighter in popular culture as a democratic ideal of westward expansion and manifest destiny. Travis had himself called all but three Mexicans in the fort as enemies of his group of defenders of the garrison beneath the raised flag of Old Betsy; American President Lyndon Johnson of Texas was not only attracted to the Alamo as a site of political resistance, but invoked it as a need to commit to make a stand against communism’s spread in Southeast Asia, as John Wayne had seen the Alamo, a film he long desired to make, as an exhortation to putting nation before self in the Cold War. The place of the fortress as a foundational moment in the mythistory of the nation, as much as its history, was foregrounded in Trump’s visit to the border and his magnification of the place of the border wall in American sovereignty. The American Army had indeed returned to rebuild the garrison of the old mission of San Antonio Bejarafter the retreating Mexican army demolished as much of the building where the Tejanos had held out, rebuilding The Alamo after the American annexation of Texas in 1845, and reuse the old garrison as a supply depot and to rebuild the gable that tops the chapel’s parapet, a facade that served to conceal its use as a supply depot if it became identified with the site, by the American army who restored it by the design of a Bavarian architect.
The nineteenth-century American migrants who fought to reclaiming what they understood as their Constitutional rights would, after all, lead the United States to recognize Texas as a state in 1845, and defend Texas’ southern borderline. While the vision of the a moat filled with alligators seemed a flight of fancy, the reference to another Alamo seemed rooted in space, if it was not exactly geotagged. By evoking the myth of border vulnerability, bravery, and militarized valor in one of his final public appearances as President, Trump celebrated his creation of a wall in “this great outdoor space” in what he called only recently “a broken, dysfunctional open border.” The implicit message that it might soon devolve as an open border–and “the most secure border in U.S. history” might soon be breached. While “we got it done” to meet the letter of the request of the U.S Border Patrol, “the completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” what was a “development project” in either “construction or pre-construction,” the border wall system must remain, Trump implied, a part of the Texas geography as central as The Alamo itself. While he pronounced the border wall complete, enshrining it in a nationalist, the section at Alamo was always in danger of reverting to the dangers evoked in the diorama of thousands of Mexican soldiers attacking its walls that lies in The Alamo in San Antonio, able to be evoked, without even naming it, in his audience’s minds.
This, at least, seemed a real place–and seemed the conclusion of a history where the walls of the Alamo were besieged and new walls, truly unbreachable, existed at Alamo TX, in their memory. The ruins of the fort that were a shrine to national memory had provided a living memory to the nation, preserved in the oppositional terms that they had been recorded in the diary of the member of the volunteer Revolutionary Army of Texas, Dr. John Barnard, as the very Mission and church whose masonite walls were stormed as “the foes of liberty came and dealt death and destruction to all around.” They site of pillage would be claimed by a Mexican army that had “exulted in their carnage and gloried in the conquest of a handful of brave men, who overpowered by numbers, fell as those heroes of old did Thermopylae,” where 7,000 Greeks had held off what were said to be a million Persian invading troops in ancient three-day battle that had raged in a mountain pass. The topos of invasion had cast the Alamo as itself a divide where the Texian revolutionaries held the garrison that had fallen, but was preserved in popular and national memory something akin to the early wall–the line that, legend had it, the commander of the garrison, Cl. Travis, traced in the sand with his sword, as he asked fellow-defenders to choose to defend “in freedom’s cause” or to accept the surrender to General Santa Anna demanded. If historical legend has it that all but one of the “heroic defenders” still commemorated in Texas High School history books had chose to defend, their canonization as martyrs was enshrined in the adoption of the battle charge “Remember the Alamo!” to among Texan Revolutionaries, revived in the defense of Texas’ southern boundary in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and the Spanish-American war.
Just three years after The Alamo was retaken, before American forces had occupied Mexico to provoke the United States-Mexican war, Mitchell’s Family Atlas had mapped Texas as lying outside Mexican sovereignty, a decade before the state entered the union, four years before Mexico’s foreign minister warned Washington that annexation of Texas as a state would be an act of war–even if cotton production in Texas had encouraged the extension of slavery, competing with plantations in southern states for pricing their primary cash crop.
While the defense of the United States’ new southern boundary after the annexation of Texas by Congress, as the military occupation of the territory led Mexico to sever relations with the United States government, the State of Texas was mapped as Anglo land grants above the Rio Grande (or Rio Brava), during the Texas Revolution, against longitude from Washington, DC according to acts of the U.S. Congress, as Texas militia invoked The Alamo decades before the United States’ southern border officially extended to the Rio Grande.
San Antonio was far from the southern border, but as a crucial trading post to the Mexican interior, and trading post, the city where the Alamo lay was a The mythic line for holding ground against the Mexican forces was never drawn by defenders of the garrison at the Mission whose masonite walls afforded a border outpost and fortress; but the line was mythologized in the service of the defense of a longitudinal boundary line, and is commemorated for all visitors to the Alamo, a shrine to revolutionaries as the site of burial of its defenders, marked by a bronze rod inset in paving stones twenty feet before the church’s door, as a line that Texian separatists pledged to defend to the death until they exhausted their supply of canon balls and bullets. The line, even if it does not commemorate an actual place, and was never drawn, has been enlisted in a project of national memory in a celebratory history of the start of “the geopolitical structure of the Americas” and an exclusion of Mexican history and Mexican memory from the map, as it inscribed a myth of belonging to the occupiers of The Alamo, and their defense of a territory which we imagine we vicariously continue: the naming of the city of Alamo at the entrance to the Rio Grande Valley, in Hidalgo County, was named after the shrine of Texan liberty in San Antonio, as it lay just north of the US-Mexico border.
6. If the memory of The Alamo was an erasure of Mexican land claims in Texas up to the border, the expansion of levees, concrete panels, and border wall system would erase delicate avian habitat along the Rio Grande or, as it is known in Mexico, the Rio Bravo has nourished. If these ecological niches were encouraged in wildlife refuges established in the 1940s, to counteract water diversion and land clearing, elevating the perspective of the border complex by imposing a perspective privileging construction of the border wall along sensitive habitat–and erasing the serpentine border that runs through the Rio Grande Valley wilderness complex–and had demanded multiple waivers to even erect barriers of the sort Trump had promised in his 2016 campaign.
The place-name not only erases Mexican presence from the Rio Grande valley at a place where the river regularly overflowed its bounds, but reduces the wilderness wildlife refuge that abuts the border, the lush region still fed by seasonal overflow of the Rio Grande in an area of massive water diversion, one of the few areas in the region amid cleared lands where flooding was curbed by settlers, an ecological niche for migrating birds.
–privileging the fear of a “flood” of migrants over the seasonal flooding of the river that long enriched “resecas” replenishing loamy soils, even as water diversion projects imposed dikes, levees, and dams that limited the frequency and intensity of long-regular historical flooding that had heled create local ecoystems by spreading clay-rich waters beyond the Rio’s banks.
–as a grid of urban development, land clearance, and habitat destruction advances along the border, increasingly threatened by the very construction projects that have completed existing segments of border wall. The triumphalist image of the progress of construction promotes a dangerous vision of border defense, erasing the protection of sensitive habitat in wildlife refuges critical for migrating birds, privileging the fear of migrating humans above migration patterns of birds and butterflies, by imposing the perspective of the imperative of continuing the construction of further levees in the Rio Grande Valley for border wall.
7. The dividing line of the bronze bar before the mission that was a garrison channels the defense of the border. The evocation of this bronze line set in The Alamo evokes a military defense of the border that imbued with sacred purpose. As the defense of the border was commemorated in the historic epic of border defense, directed and produced by John Wayne, featuring the cowboy actor massacring “invading” Mexicans in a celebration of commitment to a fateful line for the nation, the mapping of the border wall removes the edge of the nation from its environment. In ways akin to a line of longitude, maps a divide of territorial defense in the name of the nation, even if the choice to defend the garrison was made by Anglos who entered Mexico as illegal migrants, only later remembered as sacrificing their lives to assert inalienable rights: the echo of the falsification of the preservation of rights was echoed in the name of the border town Trump visited to commemorate completion of panels of a border wall designed and in the process of completion to deprived migrants of rights. And while Trump may know little American history, or is widely read in Texas history, despite the many rallies he has had in the state, U.S. Border Patrol is so keen to have the completed border wall recognized as if it were a line of national defense, that Joe Biden’s administration might allow Mexican immigrants to breach, that Trump arrived in Alamo TX.
The name of the border town is itself a commemoration of the Americanization of the Alamo–an old Mexican fortress, the Fortress of San Antonio de Valero, that has entered the nationalist lexicon of many of the militias commemoration at Alamo emphasized the primacy of a border, over a borderland, and in visiting the wall at the end of his Presidency performatively enacted a telling bond to the nation, fulfilling the fully transactional nature of his relation to the U.S. Border Patrol’ union whose board early endorsed his Presidential candidacy, thrilled by the commitment and seriousness with which he tool the construction of a border defense system. It was time for Trump to restore his sense of pride, in the days after the Siege of the Capitol, and to try and restore his sense of himself as a Law and Order President, who had promised jobs, not mobs.
Who could deny that the primal scene of the border-like invasion of the breaching of the garrison walls of a building known as The Alamo, and not the Fortress of San Antonio de Valero, was at the back of his mind, given its place in the national psyche as a site of national defense? The commemoration of the Alamo of the struggle of Fortress of San Antonio de Valero, is after all its own sort of confederate monument, commemorating the attempt of settlers from the southern states who would expand slavery to Texas, as it was established as a Republic–before joining the United States–making it the most retrograde of nations as the only one to sanction second-class status for blacks–or to deny them citizenship. In the calls for the removal and reassessment of Confederate monuments in Texas and around the nation, the Alamo is one of the most deeply racist–with national status, but little international value, and indeed an insult to Mexicans, who should see the garrison where so many lost their lives as a shrine to the Mexican nation, even if it lies in United States territory.
For The Alamo is a shrine of the agenda of white supremacy that distinguished nineteenth century Texas history, and a racially inflected line of battle, as much as a defense of the nation, which is a touchstone for gun rights activists, and even the leader of Branch Davidians, followers of a self-anointed prophet, David Koresh, who had announced the end of times, who staged a showdown with federal forces at Waco TX called a “wake-up call” for Americans akin to Waco–perhaps more apt comparison than any–and should be reassessed as a battle, historian H.W. Brands argued, as an engagement with Mexican forces that in terms of its “contribution to the strategy of the Texas Revolution was nil or negative,” rather than a turning point or watershed of local history, meriting commemoration as a national sacred shrine. Was it any coincidence that it was in Waco, TX that the validity of the executive actions of the Disputed President elected in 2020 were filed?
The Alamo is often, however, iconographically remembered as a fortress over which flew the Gadsden Flag, recently adopted by the Alt Right and southern secessionists, white supremacists, or states rights activists, even if the Mexican soldiers who stormed its barricades to restore order in the garrison that anti-federalist Texians held for thirteen days in a stand-off had only arisen during the heady rhetoric of states’ rights, liberties to own guns, and religious freedoms that the Waco massacre itself provoked among white supremacists and white terrorists who were energized to action during the Waco siege, and which have found renewed focus among varied militia groups which grew in fears of a Hilary Clinton victory, and have multiplied in Donald Trump’s presidency–groups with strong ties to the U.S. Border Patrol. Did Border Patrol invite Trump to Alamo to evoke the depths of their commitment to preserving the border wall, and the apocalyptic imagery of ending the wall complex defined as critical to border security?
The border became a strip, and a frontier of a war, triggered by the visit to Alamo TX as a defense of the border at the borderline–designed to revisit he had helped to reframe as a monument of nationalist pride, erasing its habitat, ecosystem, and indeed the very notion of a border zone as a zone of transit, and a permeable membrane of abutting jurisdictions, by moving the US-Mexican border into American sovereignty so that an American flag might fly over it, akin to the flying of the Betsy Ross flag–the original flag of thirteen colonies, “Old Betsy,” commemorated in many films of The Alamo, including the blockbuster of avowed white supremacist John Wayne, and itself adopted by many of the protestors in the Siege of the Capitol of 2021.
8. The recent salute to the heroism of Border Patrol members at Alamo, TX was a clear reference to another cinematic fantasy of national defense, this time of sacred origin. The symbolic nature of the huge assault Santa Anna waged at The Alamo brought a massive 1,800 assault troops to lay siege to the munitioned garrison that the settlers desperately defended, resolved to hold to the end, perhaps, legend has it impelled to bravery by their commander drawing of a “line in the sand” refusing to cede land. The war ending in bloody hand-to-hand combat left dead almost all hundred and eighty nine defenders of the fort, save a few women and children gallantly allowed to leave the garrison’s besieged walls as the mission and its walls became the target of enemy canon fire to retake the garrison, earlier abandoned, in December, 1835, using canon onslaught to retake the strategic fort and its munitions, March 6, 1836.
Was the border wall a similar instance of martial valor, and, indeed was enshrined by many militias and white nationalists as a canonic turning point in the border’s defense in future histories of the American West, trying to retain a garrison filled with munitions as from its walls, as they faced canon fire on two flanks?
The construction of the border wall on the southwestern border of the nation was central to the very notion of nationhood, Trump insisted. Trump so compellingly made a central issue of his first Presidential campaign, has been showcased in his Presidency to created a wedge driven into the nation, if the border wall promised to protect national security in ways that previous administrations, for a lack of clear bearings on the situation or blinded by political incompetence that prevented them from endorsing measures of sufficient strength. “All of you people, incredible,” Trump waxed, trying to soar to patriotic heights, as he praised a secure southern border and reformed immigration system as if the border wall stood as but a synecdoche for a complex ensuring border security, prefigured, however ahistorically, in the undying defense to the end of the Alamo.
Trump was offering during his visit a new narrative of his Presidency rooted in law enforcement, not the expansion of anti-migrant hostility or escalation of violence against migrants systematically separated and detained at the border to discourage immigration in almost psychological warfare. The border wall was a synecdoche for national defense: “When I took office, we inherited a broken, dysfunctional, and open border. Everybody was pouring in at will.. Everyone here today is part of an incredible success story. This is a real success story.”
Instead of asking what sort of film was playing in his mind, it makes sense what sort of map he was creating for the nation. The tenor of President Trump’s somewhat valedictory visit to the border town of Alamo, TX reenacted his relation to the nation, by affirming the border not only as a boundary enforced during his Presidency to affirm the nation’s integrity. The flight down to Texas to visit the border wall at the border town Alamo in his first public appearance since the Siege of the Capitol was not only an attempt to feel, but to steal the headlines and turn the attention of the media, and, unbelievably, offer further trigger words after inciting mobs to storm the Capitol building.
The visit was Trump’s first public appearance after the nation was destabilized and shocked by the January 6 Siege–and he sought a new photo opportunity to look Presidential that restored an image of law and order long cultivated and projected onto the border and its blockage, if often from a repertory of performance more imbued in cinematic fantasy than immigration law.
Addressing the public for the first time after the Siege of the Capitol, Trump boasted completing four hundred and fifty miles of new wall on the region the Border Patrol had prioritized region of the Rio Grande and along other sectors of the US-Mexico border. Visiting a border town named Alamo channeled the trauma of invasion by its place-name, as if tagging the visit for social media. Border Patrol leadership had long feared increase “lawlessness” across the border in a Biden Presidency, and the final visit to the border strove to turn attention from the crisis of the constitution to the strong borders of Trump Nation. It helped plan the visit to a town that memorialized the defense of a historic Mission mythologized in Texan history as a garrison of the Republic, filmed as an epic patriotic battle in 1960 produced, directed by and starring his longtime media idol, John Wayne, of whose Trump is a “huge fan”–whose open avowal of racism he recently defended.
Trump’s visit to the border town at a moment of his second impeachment might undermine Presidential authority reminded us how much the border wall was a literal prop for his presidency, as he stoked fears that any removal of border wall will imminently open the nation to a “tidal wave of [lawless, illegal] immigrants.” Trump had for years embraced the border as a signature interest of his Presidency, and visited the town in an attempt to reassert his Presidency at a moment of crisis to revisit a site of the performance of the Presidency. He came to praise the U.S. Border Patrol, whose union lent a powerful early endorsement to his candidacy in 2016: the union’s vice president, Art Del Cueto, a huge fan of the President who was by his side when Trump’s family watched the votes tallied in the 2016 election, and who held out hope in late November that the election was not lost yet. The visit to the border wall offered a final performance chance to summon some dignity in Trump’s poor performance of his role as President, a celebration of the politicization of the Border Patrol in his presidency as enforcers of order on the border to foreground how his commitment to their stewardship of an ideal of order at the nation’s edge. The Border Patrol expanded under President Obama, but Border Patrol officers became both a constituency promoting border enforcement and prominent form of immigration police on the front lines enforcing immigration in Trump’s enhanced border security apparatus, all but fetishizing isecurity through the crudest of interactive maps since 2009 demonstrating completion of border fencing–click here to see!—
to the “strategic evolution” of the border, mapping sectors by total apprehensions per day, as if the border provided a clear tally of effectiveness for national defense.
–and casting migrants as an advance that can be dehumanized in terms of “highwater marks” before Obama’s election to the presidency.
President Trump’s administration has spared no restraint in gaining “operational control” over the southern border through massive surveillance technology given to Border Patrol, as a wish list, allocating pumped up budgets for Customs and Border Protection and ICE beyond the $20 billion of 2018, including $18 billion for construction of the border wall and $23 billion for security and enforcement, earmarking $1.6 billion for Border Patrol surveillance technology and equipment for the front lines of apprehending immigrants to detain and deport across the border.
9. The politicization of the Border Patrol had redefined the nation’s edge in the nation’s imaginary. The border was promoted a a site that demanded order in the Trump Presidency. Trump had so long nurtured fears of the border-crossing that the very power of the place-name “Alamo” as a primal site of breaching boundary walls triggered a vision of the border as a site of patriotic battle dramatized with patriotism in John Wayne’s historical epic of settlers defending the fort to the death for the Republic. Trump indignantly declared himself a “longtime fan” of John Wayne and defended the removal of a nationalist icon as much as a movie star, all but blaming Orange County Democrats for removing Wayne’s name and likeness from their airport as a partisan ploy, despite John Wayne’s notoriously “white supremacist, anti-LGBT, and anti-Indigenous views.” Even in a national moment of reckoning and reassessment after the George Floyd Protests, Trump held his ground to defend the icon of the film Alamo that cast the band of Anglo insurrectionists who seized the mission from Mexican sovereignty in openly heroic terms: even if John Wayne admitted his support for white supremacists in a 1971 interview with Playboy, revealing “I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or ten generations ago these people were slaves,” and questioning blacks’ responsibility. (The aging star who produced The Alamo confessed “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”) Trump evoked John Wayne in the early days of his political candidacy in 2016: he visited the Wayne Birthplace as he began his Presidential campaign in the Iowa Caucuses, visiting Wayne’s birthplace in the company Aissa Wayne, who as a child played the sole survivor of the Siege of the Alamo in Wayne’s film, and posed smilingly before a wax effigy of his cinematic idol.
Soon after the announcement of the visit in the aftermath of the Capitol Riots, Mary Trump, the psychologist niece of the President, who has carefully considered her uncle’s psychological dynamics and pathologies more closely than most, argued Trump’s decision to visit the section of border wall at Alamo, TX was a catcall of sorts to followers. Dismissing the idea that it was based on knowledge of U.S. History, or Trump’s knowledge of the tragedy of the Alamo, she suggested that someone suggested to visit a site whose place-name recalled a primal scene of Texan and American history. The visit was most likely not The Donald’s idea, given his unfamiliarity with actual historical events: “I’m sure somebody else told him to go there” to make the visit, and that “once the symbolism was known, he was sure it was a good idea,” she opined. His visit to the border was perhaps cast as “making a stand” after his incendiary January 7 speech about the Capitol Riot. The divide in the nation was evident in the contrast between Mary Trump, assuring CNN viewers Trump had no historical knowledge, but didn’t where to stop, as Border Patrol Acting Chiefs predicted an uptick of border violence in coming days on ANN and FOX as inevitable if the border structure was not enforced.
Was the visit suggested by the U.S. Border Patrol? The union leadership was extremely close to him since 2016, forming the base of his base, and in capping off a week of inciting tension crowds and tensions by loaded phrases and tag words, the place pregnant with symbolism—“Alamo” pops off of the map as not only a toponym, but a site of national duty, patriotic sacrifice, and nationhood as much as loss. Trump’s trip to the border but the turn to the border may have tested less on historical knowledge, than social messaging facilitators, tied to Border Patrol in Texas, where the Alamo is taught as a founding moment of the Republic in all Texas history courses: Remembering the Alamo was a battle cry and patriotic call of imagined irredentism a bit akin to Make America Great Again; the image of national sacrifice preserved in kitsch media that have preserved the image of flying flag of Old Betsy flying atop the besieged fort as a patriotic call of nation above circumstance. Wayne aimed to resuscitate his career by producing, directing and starring in “Alamo,” an early Technicolor blockbusters at studio expense. “The Alamo” affirmed Wayne as a patriotic icon of the Republican party; Trump, who aimed to be a film producer, most definitely admired the racial contest onscreen in the years he pinned his future to film school as a way to extricate himself from his father’s seedy real estate business. If, as André Bazin argued, “every film is a social documentary,” “The Alamo” was a memorable staging of the social reality of the border, imagining the Anglo settlers John Wayne and Richard Widmark struggling in hand-to-hand combat to defend the ideals of the American flag they hoisted above the garrison, in ways that might have been discussed at the Trump family dining table.
Trump had spent the summer not only campaigning, but waging a pitched war over historical memory. He had angrily denounced American protestors with disbelief, of “trying to tear down statues of our founders” across the country, and most prominently before Mount Rushmore on July 4, 2020. Such “angry mobs” that were attempting to “tear down” history were described as “defacing our memorials to unleash a violent wave of crime in our cities.” He sought to win applause as he entertained the pet project of a Garden of American Heroes, in response, and promised a sculpture garden of more heroes, in response, including Davy Crockett, who John Wayne played in the film, billy Graham, and Antonin Scalia, among others. The removal of the name of John Wayne from the Orange County airport during the George Floyd protest was, for Trump, akin to the removal of names of Confederate soldiers at U.S. Amy bases in Texas: the President took time during the George Floyd riots to dismiss the attempt to remove the honorific name from the airport near Los Angles as a casualty of the bitter climate of removing historic statues and confederate monuments across the nation, as a danger of the loss of a national patrimony. Before evidence of John Wayne’s sympathies for white supremacy, Trump rebuffed the importance of preserving his memory. “We love John Wayne,” he stated, arguing that we would do well to brush aside the movie star’s statement, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” Wayne stated, “I’m not condoning slavery. It’s just a fact of life . . .” Despite revulsion at commemorating the right-wing star of western kitsch, Trump took the opportunity to call out an unwanted reassessment of national identity. Trump had begun his visits to Iowa for the caucuses he would win in 2015 with a visit to Wayne’s birth home.
Trump didn’t need to name John Wayne in his visit to the border to channel the national patriotism with which John Wayne’s historical epic racialized the defense of a border. The film’s celebration of the war waged by Anglo settlers who tried to fight of the Mexicans who besieged their fort. In this light, Trump’s visit to the border city of Alamo was a moment of the theater of immigration at its crassest. Trump’s planned visit reminded us of the theater of the border and role of a border strongman that Trump has cherished, as he returns to it to wrap up Donald Trump: The Presidency, with a nod to John Wayne’s film. This blog wrestled with the infographics of asylum seekers, border apprehensions, corpses of migrants in American territory, and, of course, the building of a border wall that was a keystone promise of the Trump Presidency that condensed his very own Contract with America. The decision to return to visit the southwestern border at Alamo, TX, a border town south of San Antonio, is to mark the completion of four hundred miles of Border Wall, but also stages a triumphal conclusion to a Presidency a project of border- building announced his Presidential bid.
10. The visit to Alamo, as impeachment hearings loom, evoked the American epic, in a Technicolor extravaganza that was produced by John Wayne at huge expense by the studio, that celebrated how a band of Texan settlers who took the Spanish garrison had forced he hand of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the Alamo, evoking the myth of their defense of the “Republic” costing Mexican up to 6,000 troops to defend the Texan territory that became part of the nation, even at the cost of their lives. As he conjured the “nearly 5,000 illegal aliens with criminal records, some with very serious criminal records” that the U.S. Border Patrol had apprehended–in the past year alone, border patrol agents have apprehended 7,564–the fate of these migrants was erased in the name of the national defense. What better site to evoke the power of the nation on the evening of his impeachment?
Trump’s visit was a distraction from the start of impeachment proceedings, and the Seige of Capital he had begun. Although he visited a border town named after the garrison was far from the actual Alamo, the visit implicitly referenced the historic site of a battle that has been recast in mythic terms as a fight for American sovereignty and national identity, waged by insurrectionists who had seized a fort in Mexican territory. The image of the Battle of the Alamo where a line was drawn in the sand by the commander of defense forces, Colonel William Travis, a one-time lawyer, with his sword, had long conjured the militarized defense of the sacred territory of the nation that President Trump channeled, even if he didn’t refer to it openly, in his speech. In mapping the security that he had created for the nation with the erection of border wall along the Rio Grande–the region that the Border Patrol had long specified as the most in need of greater security-staked a performative relation to the mission of preserving the nation, elaborated in the filmed versions of the Battle that showed Anglo heroes who fought in sacred commitment to the nation.
This was truly disorienting. The associations of such a coded reference didn’t need to be made explicit, as it was understood as a way of recasting his valiant dedication to Border Control–reminded his audience and the nation that while he had inherited a “lawless border,” akin to what Davy Crockett faced in the Alamo, the dangers of the border had been tranquillized over the course of the Trump Presidency, and that even if “we didn’t need walls everywhere, but where we needed them,” they have made the nation stronger, before conjuring fears that the imminent opening of “these very walls” of national security might claim far, far more than died at the Alamo Mission, but “millions and millions of jobs and thousands of lives,” at a time when “I can tell you,” he concluded as if to offer a hint of the map he would keep presenting, “already, waves are starting to come up from 2,000 and 1,000 and 500 miles away,” recuperating apocalyptic images of biblical proportions, without agency, that mapped the vast and perilous border as an edge of uncertainty.
More than channel the actual Alamo, Trump channeled, as many have noted, the symbolism of the fortified Mission, if not the 1960 Technicolor celebration of the defense of the Alamo as a visionary nature of the protection of the US-Mexico border as sacrificing himself to the nation in a site that is now preserved as a shrine to the nation in San Antonio. As he arrived in the Rio Grande valley, Trump evoked a sense of nation that was removed from the space of the border–or borderlands–asserting “we have ended the immigration chaos and re-established American sovereignty on the border,” in a show of patriotic devotion to nation as removed form actuality as how John Wayne imagined defense of the west as a devotion to a republican cause. “Republic. I like the sound of the word–means that people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose,” the patriotic imagining of Davy Crockett asserted in the film with proto-nationalist conviction probably foreign to the opportunists who seized the fort. “Some words give you a feeling,” he mused in the film produces in 1960; released around the very year Trump had imagined a future of making films, John Wayne’s historical epic channeled the defense of the nation in overtly nationalistic terms undoubtedly not known to Davey Crockett: Crockett stirringly muses in his committed defense of the garrison that “Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat.”
Did Trump, long a fan of action sequences, if not great on United States history, recall the extensive battle scene of hand to hand combat after Mexican soldiers stormed the walls of the Alamo in San Antonio, see it as fit to visit Alamo with Border Patrol members to showcase a geographic imaginary of the defense of the nation? the visit sought to affirm the border wall as a line in the sand that needed to be secured for the nation, far from the experience of migrants or immigration. There are no borderlanders in The Alamo, which opposes Anglo defenders of the fort to Mexican soldiers besieging its walls–only the claims to national territory. The line in the sand is now raised to steel columns rooted in a reinforced concrete foundation.
President Trump’s visit that marks the end of his Presidency entertains historical myths about the border and puts the border back into national discussion: the decision to to visit a town named after the San Antonio mission in whose stone walls Texans seeking independence withstood by the Mexican army for thirteen days, firing canon at forces by which they were outnumbered, and became a battle cry in the Mexican-American War in ten years. The historical memory of defiance will seek to boost the drama of the border in patriotic struggle, and restore the border to the national attention, removed from the illegal detention and deprivation of rights of migrants at the actual border. The myth of electing death before outnumbered resistance in the garrison where American settlers first moved to Texas, living among the cottonwoods of the stone walls and concrete parapets that fortified the mission: in place of the siege Trump incited against the Capitol last week to forestall the transition of power, he arrived to celebrate four hundred miles of border wall with US Border Patrol officers in Alamo TX, who have already cleared the road for his arrival, in an area they had prioritized as an area in need of secure boundaries, and to which he responded–if not as quickly as they had asked.
It provided a powerful way to illustrate the continued need for the defense of the border at the border, as his own Presidential authority had been undermined, and an occasion to continue to wrap himself with flags, in ways that blurred the logic in a mythistory that recast insurrectionist goals with allegedly patriotic intent.
If the visit may be seen as pure transactional politics of the sort Trump prefers, who unprecedentedly endorsed his candidacy and have worked to secure and clear the area that he intends to visit. The visit offers a basis to canonize the border wall within the MAGA agenda, as well as a photo opportunity to bemoan that President-Elect Biden plans to stop construction of the Border Wall. The visit will seek to turn a chapter on the Siege Trump encouraged on the Capitol, breaking constitutional precepts, by basking in the glory of the wall, in the face of the President-Elect’s hopes to hold Border Patrol accountable for crimes, and restructure their semi-autonomous organization As the President-Elect had campaigned on the promise to halt construction of the border wall, vowing not to add “another foot,” the visit to celebrate the completion of 400 feet of new reinforced wall will launch a rallying cry of nationalism, planning for hours how to not be distracted by impeachment proceedings, by re-igniting a discourse of Making America Great Again. The reassertion of the wall’s ties to national defense and security have receded with public protests and fears of COVID-19. Wrapping the constructed sections in several sectors of the border in a MAGA glow will be an homage to the Border Patrol, Trump’s oldest supporters, and the excavation of historical memories to situate the border wall the centrality it had occupied as the principal sound stage and prop of the Trump presidency.
Was this simply business as usual? The visit to Alamo, TX to affirm the place of the border wall to a vision of national integrity on the eve of the impeachment hearing was a moment of national transcendence, of sorts, tagging national memory and a primal scene of national sacrifice, marking the strategic place of the dedication of the Texas volunteer army in the Texas Revolution. In visiting Alamo TX, Trump was tagging the place of the border wall and placing his presidency in the national memory, in an apparently valedictory way. For he had long performed the role of President at the US-Mexico border, and if there was comfort in being surrounded by members of the Border Patrol, a group increasingly marked by a strong presence of white supremacists, identified with Border Patrol long before the Trump Era, it elevated the wall to mythic status. IF Border Patrol was a focus of white supremacists’ “historical” interest predating the Obama Presidency in “infiltrating law enforcement communities or recruiting law enforcement personnel” or converting members that have conflated immigration enforcement with domestic terrorism. The Presidential visit to Alamo TX as the clock for impeachment ticked tagged a primal scene of mythistory, as if on social media, where the nation was born of strength, resolve and sacrifice that Trump sought to project to interrupt his second impeachment.
Trump has given unprecedented official legitimacy to U.S. Border Patrol, a once low-level organization without much sheen or status in the federal government, both in enforcing immigration at the border and gaining a large technical armory designed for increased “OpCon.” As if in exchange, Trump has basked in their approval, since the early endorsement of his Presidency. The border wall has been increasingly apparent as a proof his leadership and performance as President, since it was introduced at his early rallies, occasioning a rallying cry triggering “fight or flight” responses. Border wall was featured on social media, in the obsessive redesign of the border wall, and in regular visits to the border wall sections. The 2020 campaign featured Trump ceremonially signed the plaque commemorating the completion of two hundred miles in late June 2020, inspecting its reflective surface after a Phoenix rally celebrated installing border wall to buoy his fortunes in Arizona’s primary, as if looking for evidence of the second term an Arizona victory might bring.
The signature of plaques commemorating construction of the border wall were the conclusion of a promise to America, and a performance of the Presidential office that featured visual evidence of his ability to Make American Great Again. but if the visit to the border town of Alamo and his reception at border station at McAllen-Reynoso was not only business as usual where he brought a sharpie for plaque-signing. It seems certain that the fictional imaginary of the Alamo–far from Alamo TX, its historical namesake and its trigger in the historical imagination and spatial imaginary–is the underlying logic for Trump’s visit to a border town he wants to cast as a militarized barrier, as the border wall was elided with the breached wall of the garrison, as he celebrated the completion of needed protection of a newly fortified nation, and a line of defense of national sovereignty, well worth the transfer of funds from the Dept. of Defense.
Trump had praised the need for restoring an image of the border was in the lengthy hour-long speech Trump gave to the Save America March in Washington DC, to energize the Christian soldiers that advanced on the chambers of Congress. Standing before the Capitol Building just a few days before, he bemoaned Democrats’ plans to “throw open our border” and energized his audience by lamenting “Now they want to take down the wall . . . . let everybody flow in!”–but the iconic image of the old Spanish Mission that loomed so large as the site of the epic battle, while not on hand in fact during the visit, will restore the centrality of military defense of the border to a vision of national integrity. While he seems to have participated in a movement to “let everybody flow in” to the seat of representative government, lamenting his own misfortunes at the hands of a globalist cabal of tech companies, Fake News, foreign voting machines, and the despised Democrats, calling for the interruption of business as usual unfolding in the chambers of the government nearby, the prospect of an invasion that would be soon felt by all Americans was both a bit of a parting gift to the incoming administration of a President whose inauguration he saw no need to attend to confirm an orderly transfer of power, and an evocation of the pleasure of aggressive policing of immigrants–“illegal aliens” and “criminals”–that his Presidency had instituted along the southwestern border, to the delight of the Border Patrol. He was among friends.
While border barriers had existed for thirty years, the creation of the Border Wall was first and foremost a disruption of existing border policy. In their place, the distortedly personal goals of sovereign exceptionalism–removed from the laws of other nations, apart from common standards, but as revealing the exceptional status of American outside international conventions to defend national safety–seem to refuse to acknowledge the sovereign’s own humanity, so keen is he to defend the nation at all costs, and to place himself and the nation outside of the common sphere of humanity in a state of exception. As if running a smokescreen against the fact that he had just incited the Siege of the Capitol, an attempted putsch to overthrow the government’s established Parliamentary processes of certifying electoral count he lost, and whose illegitimacy he still asserts, Trump conjured the place-name of the border town of Alamo TX to map falsified memories of a “seige” against the Republic which, in its cinematic Technicolor extravaganza, showed Mexicans assaulting the citadel of Tejano liberty that is still venerated as a shrine in nearby San Antonio, as a site of drawing a “line in the sand” akin to the new line that the border wall erected on the Rio Grande.
The evocation of the Alamo recast the steel and concrete and rebar of the border wall as a national monument, rooted in American history, and sovereign independence, with deep associations in south Texas and also for the alt right–evoking the very shrine that, back in 2013, Alex Jones had radioed out on Infowars was about to be taken from the United States, by being transformed by the United Nations into an internationalist order, as San Antonio mayor Julián Castro was caught negotiating with UNESCO to designate the national shrine a World Heritage Site—as if Castro were ceding the hard-won citadel already lost once to Mexican General Santa Anna. Fears that a UN flag would fly over the old mission where Old Betsy once flew as the Mexican forces of President General Santa Anna were besieging Texian settlers held their ground, he stirred enough concern that the Texas Land Commissioner felt compelled to release a press release to assure all Texans that even if the walls of the mission would join the UNESCO heritage list. “the Alamo will remain entirely under the control of the state of Texas and the Texas General Land Office,” he assured the general public after Infowars implied the erasing of a symbol of nation identity by international fiat The irredentist tenor of cries to keep the Alamo in America were channeled as Donald Trump spent his final week in office, as if to shift the focus from impeachment hearings, on the work of championing secure borders at Alamo TX, unsubtly signaling the threats to which America would be exposing itself in the Presidential transition should that secure borer wall falter in the near future and the line that it drew in the sand also be overrun.
The ruins of the breached barrier that long stood as a site of resistance in San Antonio of American tenacity in settler days has been repeatedly dramatized as a site of resistance to Mexican assault, and indeed discussed to evoke historical memories of resistance, as the man raising his cane below in the lower right seems to regale his small audience of listeners in the late 1850s, after the foundation of Texas, as the fortified Mission that the Mexican army of Santa Anna laid siege to the garrison they sought to recapture from white insurrectionists for thirteen days, only to be defeated as the memory of breaching the wall proved so strong to become a rallying cry of Tejanos or “Texians” against Mexican forces.
But the ruins had been reanimated as a rich site of memory, re-imagined as a site of resistance and of military defense of western lands by armed Anglo forces, who had committed their lives to defend an outpost of the Texas Revolution from Mexican forces.
The culture of the Border Protection was long unique as it was historically tied to vigilantism, with ties to white supremacists and militia, and as it grew had become suspiciously less well regulated as a branch of law enforcement, as its rapid expansion led to several compromises of its role in law enforcement, already able to be questioned given the historical cooperation between Border Patrol with militias and extrajudicial citizen vigilantes dedicated to patrolling cross-border traffic, from Minuteman Project founded in 2004 to other patriot groups that hearkened back to the defense of sovereign bounds. The ties to such vigilantes may have encouraged a heightened culture of violence of Customs and Border Patrol in South Texas, reflecting origins of Border Patrol in white supremacist defense of Anglo settlers: the immediate and unprecedented endorsement by Brandon Judd of Trump’s presidential campaign–“He’s the first person who endorsed me!“–came as Trump had prioritized the border security as a platform of his candidacy–and increasingly to foreground with single-minded sense of purpose. Although “U.S. Customs and Border Protection does not endorse private groups of organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands,” and distanced themselves from militia officially, the agency ratcheted up citizens’ vigilance about immigration emphasized that the needs of border security operations meant “Border Patrol welcomes assistance form the community and encourges anyone who witnesses or suspects illegal activity to call 911, or the U.S. Border Patrol tip line.”
The historic ties Trump enjoyed to the Border Patrol from the start of his presidential campaign nourished a cozy relation that involved many union members crafting press releases for the President and in the campaign season, with Trump regularly welcomed many officers of U.S. Border Patrol to White House as if they were old allies and friends. When he spoke before the border wall at Alamo, he seems to have teared up in remembering the “great honor” after working “long and hard” on the border wall “to be here in the Rio Grande Valley with the courageous men and women of Customs and Border Patrol.” The encomium to the four hundred and fifty miles of wall built to exclude migrants were oddly cast as having forged deeply personal bonds. The President expressed gratitude for having “gotten to know . . . very well over the last four years,” praising the “incredible . . . really incredible” people at Border Patrol to whom he had promised the wall to be built, and, he was proud to say, “We got it exactly as you wanted it–everything!–including your protective plate on top . . . for extra protection.” The border wall seemed to conclude a transactional relation to the Border Patrol, as much as to protect the nation. Looking at the reinforced concrete structure with heavy slats, Trump channeled his identity as a builder President, explaining how it was “steel,” “concrete inside steel–and then its rebar–its rebar–a lot of heavy rebar inside.” “And it’s as strong as you’re going to get and strong as you can have,” Trump mused, reminding his audience that the bets were all off about building more wall in the Biden administration, as if to rile up his long-term allies at Customs and Border Patrol, whose union had first endorsed his presidential candidacy, excited by the priority he gave building a border wall in the first days of his campaign. The wall was a testimony to the strength of the nation.
The sense of the honor of such accolades and tributes to the “courageous men and women of the border patrol” was a military address that befit the visit to a frontier, at last secured from the enemy and destined to hold fast. Describing a “nation of law, . . . a nation of order,” and praising law enforcement at the border as the “foundation of the MAGA agenda,” he praised the “law enforcement heroes” at the Alamo as if to reprise a heroic relation to the nation. Trump visit the border town of Alamo, ostensibly, to celebrate having fulfilled a promise to complete four hundred and fifty miles of new “border wall system” as a defensive system of the border completed only “because of the will and vision of President Trump.” The visit sought to reprise his performance of Presidential authority, celebrating the completion of sections of border wall system built in the “San Diego, El Centro, Yuma, Tucson, El Paso, Del Rio, Laredo and Rio Grande Valley Sectors” as a system that “protects all Americans.” He visited the Rio Grande not because a signifiant section of border wall was completed there, but because it was a section of the border that Border Patrol had long advocated, but his visit to a town named “Alamo” conjured the deeply nationalistic project of border-wall building, steeped in this signature project would affirm a legendary “line in the sand” that recalled the early foundation of a Texian republic by affirming a racial as much as a spatial hierarchy.
The Alamo had been a bit of a meme in the Trump campaign. It was evoked in the name of the small San Antonio-based social media marketing campaign “Project Alamo” run by Brad Parscale. The triumphalism of the border wall at this section would extended adjacent the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, in South Texas, would have obliterated its deep costs, elevating above the destruction of habitat, natural beauty, and private land the defense of national borders. Rather than an environment or a ecoystem, the border was a site of totemic power. The power of national borders affirm the legacy of pouring almost a billion cubic yards of concrete as levee walls along the Rio Grande and over 680,000 tons of steel, investing it with comparable dramatic value, perhaps as a touchstone of national memory, and transforming the desert to a new national shrine.
While the wall system did not cover the entire border, and barely a fifth of the border itself, the visit to Alamo recalled the fragments of the garrison walls whose historical breaching were a primal scene of American nationhood, a site of necessary national sacrifice of defending a fort that led to the Texas interior–the power of the memory that boundary of its perimeter was breached was itself a powerful nationalist cry evoking a sense of national destiny in preventing the garrison to be taken, as they could have, and providing an inspiration for the Texan Revolt, “determined to defend the garrison the last” with 150 men, even after they saw the arrival of Santa Anna’s Central Army across the Rio Grande.
Was the historical geostrategicc significance of the Alamo perceived well by the MAGA base? Trump’s Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, Mark Moran, before Trump arrived at the border, had warned watchers of Fox Business News of the steep costs of any reversal of the augmentation of the extensive infrastructure built along the border in the Trump era, from technology to personnel. Continued investment in the border wall ensures “our borders are more secure and our country’s more secure,” he argued, describing economic and national security as “absolutely commingled” in the nation’s border system. Ratcheting up fear on consequences of a shift in border policy, prior to Trump’s visit, he promised the nation that “immigrants are being told the borders on January 20th are going to be open once again.” He escalated the image of a border war on which Border Patrol was the front line as artels and human smugglers exploit “open borders.” Morgan had been blocked by social media when before the election he argued that he needed to “educate the American people that borders matter.” Construction of four hundred miles of border wall whose “every mile helps us stop murderers, sexual predators and drugs from entering the country,” indulging an image of the nation designed to circulate on social media and burnish the protective wall that would promote national security as an emblem of executive action: Fox News called Twitter’s flagging of the tweet a silencing preventing the “truth” about the border from reaching Americans, bemoaning their “blocked access” to the messages of Border Protection itself committed to blocking migrants from the nation.
To be sure, the four hundred miles were barely a fifth of the border itself, and not even as much as the six hundred miles of bollard fencing and other obstructions that already had existed along the border, before Trump’s Presidency. But the massive expansion of steel border wall south of San Antonio, along the meander of the Rio Grande, is to be celebrated as a barrier at which the battle against illegal immigration was waged to attrition, by the Trump regime, due to be celebrated as a historical precedent in national memory that might survive as a future rallying cry of imposing a needed order on the border that the legend of The Alamo branded in the imagination in heightened drama–if not vivid Technicolor.
11. The hope to elevate his personal pet project to a similar place within the national memory will consolidate support from his base, as he is under impeachment with only eight days left in his Presidency, but is also a hope to locate the border within the national memory and legitimate its construction as a sacred memory of national defense. The historical nature of the defense of the Alamo as a battle that had been deemed by Texians as a fort “central to Texas,” and hence, in national memory, to the nation, provided powerful evocative significance to imbue Trump’s triumphal return to the border as a site of national defense.
Was Trump especially attracted by the prospect of performing a Presidential role at the site where John Wayne incarnated an appeal? John wayne in his first effort as producer and director sought to replace John Ford as a director, promoting a primal memory of the border–and indeed of the Alamo as a site of border conflict where James Bowie and Davy Crockett faced off at the garrison they had siezed. Their refusal to accpet surrender demanded by General Antonio López de Santa Anna was cast in the film as a battle to the death among white American soldiers and Mexicans, eliding or erasing the Mexican presence in Tejano forces, for a myth of Anglo identity. The role John Wayne famously played was a strongman on the border on the silver screen, who must have remained in Trump’s mind, and defense of the actor of whom he was a “fan” for his avowed sympathy to white supremacists; the large-scale battle sequence in the film set the stage for border heroism, so much that the film shot on-site increased tourist interst in the old fort as a patriotic shrine. The evocation of the heroism at the Alamo, in an attempt to echo John Ford films in which Wayne had starred, promoted the championing of American values to displace the experience of the border, aiming to elevate his own cinematic status beyond Ford’s films in a Technicolor spectacle foregrounding patriotism.
As much as to refer to the actual historical Alamo, that citadel of the Christian nation and emblem of the plans to settle a new slave-state, Texas, the visit to Alamo TX is as much a recollection of a history of drawing clear lines of battle between Mexico and the United States, no doubt sacred to the Border Patrol. But it recalls the defense of the walls of the mission by a brave of valiant Texians, in a revolution before the Lone Star State existed that has been a site of nationalist pilgrimage to remember the site of bloodshed where a band including Davy Crockett and were massacred, where the primal wall of defense against Mexico in the Texian Revolution. It has long been restored as a shrine to the nation, but the fragmentary ruins long survived as a motivating patriotic cry of vengeance after being destroyed by the retreating Mexican Army in 1836, considerably magnifying its place in the national map long after Texas became part of the United States.
There is no sense of where migrants will cross the border in future years: but the resonance of the ruined wall as a legacy of the defense of the nation that survived the destruction of its fortified wall, as the old wall f the church sacristy, now transformed to the “Shrine” that exploited the status the mission gained as a U.S. Army depot to be a memorial to national defenders. Trump no doubt seeks to channel how Wayne cast the desperate defense of a final line of sovereignty at the old Mission in San Antonio as an apt valedictory emblem affirming the vision with which as President he has tried to create a firm defensive line across the border–a sacred line of defense that the incoming Biden administration has promised to cease construction. In questioning who will defend the nation with the vision that Trump, or as Davy Crockett did at the Alamo, Trump will channel an image of American sovereignty tied to the defense of a Christian nation, echoing Wayne’s use of the Alamo as a defense of American Republicanism, if it was in fact defended long before Texas gained independence or became a Republic. The cinematic battles that were staged at the Alamo in film as late as 1960 promoted the battle between races, erasing Mexican defenders within the Alamo’s walls, and indeed erasing all Mexican Texians by celebrating the defense of the Alamo as the birthplace of White Texas–perpetuating, in other words, a vision of commemoration long mythologized in the popular imagination as a sight of white martyrdom against Mexican attackers, which still hangs in the Texas Senate Chambers which passed State Bill 4, which empowers police officers to demand any supect their immigration status.
Long before Wayne’s extravaganza, the role of Davy Crockett and his rag tag army agains the “Siege” of Mexicans who had breached the fortress walls was a subject for historical paintings after the Spanish-American War affirmed hemispheric dominance as the U.S. won possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillipines and temporary control over Cuba’s sovereignty from Spain, and the early origins of hemispheric domination were identified in the dramatic resistance to a besieged fortress southerners had seized.
This historical memory of the Alamo, which has led the ruins of the former fort and former mission to be treated as a shrine of patriotic memory, denied the insurrectionary nature of the Texian separatists who had flown Old Betsy atop the fortified former convent, whose continued commemoration as a last stand that led to the creation of Republic of Texas–if not a turning point of American geopolitical dominance in the hemisphere–has been tied to the imposition of a racial order on a “line in the sand” has effectively denied not only that many Texians were Mexican immigrants.
The ruins of the “shrine” of the Alamo–which Trump either hopes to evoke or channel in Alamo TX–the purity of Alamo as a turning point in the expansion of a racial order, that removed Mexicans from Texan territory, and purified the battle and independence of Texas as a crucial icon of Manifest Destiny and extension of an economy of enslavement from the Confederacy west: to invoke the Alamo as the birth of a Republic of Texas ignores how the battle opened the state to the entry of slave plantations–and enslaved populations from 3,097 to 24,401 in twenty years–more than a concept of Republicanism, by expanding the dominance of an economy of enslavement west. The Republic of Texas enshrined the first Confederate Constitution outlawing free blacks in ways that the racial order in John Wayne’s 1960 film echoed by casting Mexicans to portray the forces of Santa Anna, against Anglo defenders of the fort.
The combination of the sacred church which had become part of the Texian fortifications provided an image condensing multiple functions–a sacred space of the nation; a fortified space of rebellion; a space of sovereign defense–that even if it didn’t have sovereign claims in any way, were braided together much as the border wall combines sovereign claims, claims of fortifying national security, and nationalism. The figure of the Alamo had been however critically magnified in the American epic, produced by John Wayne at huge expense by the studio, who had, in the film, forced he hand of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at San Antonio, whose troops may have lost up to 6,000, and defended the Republic. Even if execution of surviving Americans and their families was a tragedy of national significance, the defeat famously survived as a rallying cry for Sam Houston’s troops to repel Santa Anna’s troops victoriously, winning independence as they cried “Remember the Alamo!” What better place to remember the centrality of the border wall in the national imaginary, and to celebrate Donald Trump as a visionary for securing the nation’s southwestern perimeter?
The memory of the border as a site of battle, a sacred site of the realization and founding of the nation, and a last defense of fortifications against a committed enemy, seem designed to recuperate the glorified nature of the border wall as a vital part of securing the nation. The cinematic power of the Alamo serves to recall an image of American strength, and unilateral determination, hardly inspiring US-Mexican cross-border friendship in its preservation of a military ideal. Was this site chosen as a site for celebration by members of the U.S. Border Patrol, or was it a central part of the geographic imaginary by which Trump–long a fan of action sequences in film–long argued the southwestern border needed to be at all costs to the nation secured?
The filmic imaginary of the valiant defense of the thick stone walls of the old mission in San Antonio that was converted to a site of fortification was perhaps better to evoke than mere four hundred miles of actual border wall, which risk never being completed, if not dismantled or defended, should government contracts allow. Better to recall the valiant nature of the defense of a line in the sand to secure national freedom of the Republic, as celebrated in the 1960 American epic whose unforgettable action scenes glorify defense of the border to preserve the Republic, starring, directed and produced by John Wayne. The blockbuster $12 million extravaganza, unheard of at the time, that triumphantly celebrated visionary protection of the US-Mexico border as a valiant duty in a protracted battle, staged in a ranch over a hundred and twenty miles north of San Antonio, that became the set for Gunsmoke. If Wayne’s was but one of seventy films about the defense of the old Spanish Franciscan mission in San Antonio, it broke ground as a Hollywood blockbusters when Donald Trump was considering attending film school at UCLA, eager to become a motion picture producer. The film that was almost an explicitly political platform for John Wayne to articulate his ideals of Christian country, drawing a line in the sand of the defense of the Republic across thirteen days with increasing national urgency that bore the imprint of the Cold War, and included Wayne’s famous line–“Republic. I like the sound of the word. Means that people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat.” The championing of a multi-barrel rifle and munitions wielded by the settlers at the garrison was a model of white gunslingers of the past with plenty of Second Amendment messaging in its glorified narrative.
The elision of the defense of the fort and protection of national liberties until the wall is finally breached as the defenders await reinforcements provided an iconic re-imagining of the United States placing its footprint on the project of “winning” the West. Perhaps it makes sense to see Trump’s planned visit to Alamo TX not as a victory lap around the border, but his affirmation of the Alamo as staged by John Wayne, as a Confederate monument that should be celebrated. If Crockett was, in the 1960 film, a strongman of the border, who fell in defense of the nation, the legacy of his death provided a model for Trump to cement his own finished Presidency to the nation, by cementing it to a national memory, so that its legacy will remain alive even after he leaves office, as the border wall is sanctified not only as a signature project of his Presidency, but as evidence of his deep, deep commitment to the nation, or an idea of the nation that he hopes his Confederate-flag bearing, White Supremacist base will nourish and preserve in their memory, as the cry “Remember the Alamo!” stood so long in the national consciousness as a defense of sovereignty that was able to define Texas as part of the nation where the first laws enshrining a racial hierarchy facilitated the expansion of a slave economy, and where the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is commemorated and remembered as being as pivotal in the vision of the Republic as it was onscreen. Idealized as a defense of open space that was unsettled and unclaimed, and a defense of the flag of Betsy Ross flag settlers raised over the garrison, the image of the mission in the open desert as a stand made by patriots is a far departure from the skyscrapers surrounding the island of sandy mission grounds in modern San Antonio.
But if the set for Wayne’s historical epic that mythologized white defense of Texan lands as if it was a defense of liberty, and not an insurrection to expand the plantation system’s cotton fields–is it a coincidence that cottonwood trees gave the Alamo its name, the Spanish name for the towering old grove that gave its name to the mission, only one of which today survives?–was removed from the current site of The Alamo in an overbuilt downtown, the site of Alamo TX might as well be a site of the old western narrative of defence that President Trump seemed to seek to channel–or the Border Patrol hoped to evoke. After all, there is but one sole surviving seventy-five foot cottonwood to survive near the battle site, now crowded with hotels and pavement in downtown San Antonio, but the actual border war that Trump seems determined to continue is closer to Alamo TX than San Antonio, if the new border wall is monumentalized as a heroic defense of the nation that seems to update and expand the heroism of the defense, some two centuries earlier, of The Alamo.
12. While Trump’s earlier tours of the border wall system in western states promoted his 2020 Campaign, the swan-song visit to Alamo reprises his performance of the Presidency through a truly signature effort–and the idea of stopping the construction of the border wall would be a “dangerous policy” of undermining national security that would leave “our country less safe because of it,” given the danger of drug smugglers, coyotes, and that transcends beyond the artifact of the wall or the border security apparatus, but the control over transnational flows that have been magnfied under the Trump administration as a threat to the nation.
–if the twitterverse yuk-yuked about a visit to a car rental agency with Rudy Giuliani, remembering Four Seasons Total Landscaping with a smile–the choice of the border city whose name evoked the defense of national sovereignty perhaps led Trump to this border town.
A week and a half before the President-Elect’s inauguration, as security was ramping up in the Capitol for a transition of power the U.S. President told his supporters he would not attend, on the eve of the end of his Presidency, he evoked the “line in the sand” that according to legend the lawyer Col. William Travis drew with this sword within the walls of the mission that had been transformed to a garrison, allegedly asking “every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.”
When Travis did so, he traced a boundary in the sand that divided Mexico from the United States, and mapped the territory of the Republic. We don’t know where that line was drawn, but remember the drawing of that line as a martial act of bravery, affirming the line channeled in the President’s visit to Alamo visit as the boundary that the Border Wall now creates, in preserving American sovereignty and security. The martial tracing of the line in the sand with the tip of his sword that has been cast as the start of claims of Texan “independence” from Mexico, and might be seen as the basis for expanding slavery into the state of Texas, allowing the southern practices of enslavement illegal in Mexican territory to be expanded westward as if by manifest destiny. To be sure, the claims of Travis’ sword rested on an insurrectionist claim to legitimize the seizure of land, mythically by Anglos, by mapping a line of resistance in the face of near-certain defeat of the armed forces and civilians he was entrusted to defend to try to rally support within the Mission’s old walls.
Faulkner reminded us that, in the Southern United States and in the world, “The past is never dead–it’s never past,” the line of defense that has been long venerated as the line of bravery for “battle-weary men” is invoked as mapping an Anglo Texan identity as a clash between heroes of the “Republic of Texas” embodied by Davy Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, set into stone tiles of the old Mission venerated as a shrine to the nation. If the expression echoed the line that the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro allegedly traced in the sand in Peru in 1527, separating the state he would claim from Panama; this classicized colonial imperial gesture seems channeled in Donald Trump’s visit. There is no evidence that the bronze inset visitors to the Alamo line up to see exists line records where Travis ever drew his line, but the line in the Alamo is preserved as a boundary that we celebrate, a point of orientation we use to imagine the place of the Alamo within the national map.
There is no sense of borderlanders here, but of heroes that were on one side or the other of the line–a line that seems a meridian set in the ground, if a line of longitude, and a founding line of the nineteenth-century nation. Crockett, Bowie, and Travis defended the citadel walls behind which they discussed dreams of a Republic in The Alamo (1960), before an impending imminent siege of “Mexican forces,” repelling them to their best as they tried to scale the Mission’s mythic walls.
The Anglo southerners who crossed into Mexican borders are cast as “defenders” but of course were defending land they seized. Defending the purity of the nation in technicolor version, in the version John Wayne had filmed as a race-based war by race-based casting, Mexican soldiers stormed the Mission’s walls to breech the defenses of a nascent nation–a “siege” earlier filmed by D.W. Griffith, when he produced Martyrs of the Alamo in 1915, months after the release of Birth of a Nation, as the second part of a cinematic epic for national identity. The use of Technicolor to foreground a racialized contest in John Wayne’s film was a sort of homage to meet the need for a new national epic about the defense of territory in the Cold War.
The forces who defended the fortified Mission, unlike the Technicolor prominent in Trump’s mind and in those of his base, were infact not entirely Anglo. But the defense of land grabbed from Mexican sovereignty offers eery antecedents to the modern militia groups that have long cooperated with the Customs and Border Patrol policing the southern border. The film is an artifact of the culture of militia groups in Texas who stood land that they believed was rightfully theirs; the flag that flies beside the actual Alamo is a Texan flag, as opposed to the many Mexican flags carried into battle in the film. The film is a celebration both of resilience and a culture of border violence. Was it a coincidence that the Department of Homeland Security that has seized privately owned land to construct the border wall along the Rio Grande that Trump visited?
The defense of the territory that they claimed was embedded in a White Supremacist lineage, more tied to the expansion of the Confederacy–and the Texian constitution that first enshrined racially exclusive citizenship. The visit would create a photo opportunity able to summon a sense of heroism that he in fact associated with the actual Alamo–the battle celebrated as pivotal in instituting enslavement in Texas–it was forbidden in Mexico, where constitutional denial of citizenship to blacks led the Republic of Texas to be cast a pariah state in the world, and to be refused to be recognized by England or France. The visit attempts to reprise the performance of the Presidency of which he was most proud as a signature effort, but will it also be a way of cementing Trump’s legacy as an international pariah? Perhaps not if we gain a sense of the White Supremacist associations of a racial order that he seeks to channel as he has channeled by celebrating the construction of insurmountable barriers on the US-Mexico border. The visit is a hope that his contribution to the nation–four hundred miles of concrete wall barriers–will not recede from the national memory, but will continue to have legendary status as a shrine of its own–even if his successor Joe Biden has argued he would halt construction on the border wall segments. Would these fragments be open to breaching, as the ruins of the Alamo itself evoked that historical breach from which the nation arose?
Trump’s visit offered a hope and prayer that the piece of national infrastructure Trump bizarrely compared to the Eisenhower National Highway System survive. At a time when the national infrastructure is increasingly evident to be decayed–in health care, public health oversight, and the roll-out of a vaccine–Trump extolled the work he dedicated to construction of border wall as a personal legacy born of great effort, but of future centrality for national security. The visit hoped to ensure memories of the success of his presidency in its single minded dedication to a prop of national security, ratcheting up the violence of border apprehension and prosecution with little attention to compromising national ideals. The invocation of the “Alamo”–a few hundred miles north–channeled patriotism and Manifest Destiny tied to the Battle of the Alamo in film, song, and historical paintings as if the strategic military engagement was to be celebrated as central to nationhood, the breaching of whose walls remain in our national memory since the inspiring valor of a military defeat.
Never mind that stopping construction on the border wall would save the incoming Biden administration $2.6 billion: the border barriers that have become the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation are still being ironed out by the Army Corps of Engineers, but the visit to Alamo TX keeps alive the defense of the border and conjures the streaming of Mexicans over another wall. The scene of sacrifice that was channeled so effectively and economically by the visit to Alamo, TX, tagged a primal scene of the nation, a drama of perseverance and of loss in the name of the preserving nation that was long canonically celebrated in film, in pictorial narrative, and in local memory as a drama of loss and national vulnerability, and remembered by a mythic “line” that was drawn by Corporal William Barrett Travis who was tasked with its defense to mark the refusal of the “Texian” army to give way from the defense of the fort, during the Texas Revolution or Revolt, as they awaited reinforcements from the north, and sought to secure the camino real of the San Antonio Road and Texian interior, blazed by Mexican expeditions across the Rio Grande, when the refused to abandon twenty-one pieces of artillery that the army had refused to surrender the fort they saw as “key to Texas.”
13. Trump may have known little U.S. History, but the centrality of the Alamo was long a shrine to the nation in popular culture and to the nationalist right in ways that he wouldn’t have needed to know in further detail.
The ties by which Trump was incessantly identified with the border was the marquis issue, after all, by which he defined his political candidacy outside the norms of politics, before being the marquis of his Presidency. He had boasted his skills as a builder could complete an insurmountable barrier on the border that earlier presidents had failed to construct for the nation, increasing its vulnerability, and he knew best how to create at a good price. The border wall was an image of his relation to the nation, and a film whose reality he is perhaps in need of affirming, as all legal recourse to audit, investigate, recalculate, or discredit actual ballots or the certification of electoral votes have failed. Is it perhaps possible that Trump so narrowly lost in several states in 2020–including Arizona–not only due to a lagging economy, unmanaged pandemic of cascading effects, and official incompetence, but the recession of the borer wall as a compelling argument for law and order? Trump, to be sure, still obsesses of the exact scale of the losses in the popular vote that he still refuses to accept, describing only as evidence of massive “widespread fraud,” at his Save America March on January 6, but remembering the margins of losing the popular vote with such obsessiveness that it seems the margins are cycling over and over in his head.
Although the long-term effects of his Presidency and ties to his base suggest poisonous currents from refusals to obstructing effectiveness of any managing COVID-19, at a time when it seems that the bad film of Donald Trump’s presidency is ending–but the Grand Guignol theater of denying that the lost the election continues–the resilience of an unstable southern border in the national imaginary, and need for a securitized Border Wall, offer a concrete metaphor of the racial order Trump assured his base the nation needed–even if the actual concrete is not poured across over one thousand and nine hundred and fifty miles of often torturous formerly open terrain. Can the restoration of the vision of John Wayne as Davy Crockett firing back at Mexicans scaling the wall of the Alamo provide a compelling reminder of the need to obstruct populations crossing the southwestern border?
It is hard to link a man as chaotic as Donald Trump to the natural order of anything, but beneath the chaos seems to lie the image of a deeply un-American sense of order. Trump is unstable and fluid–he has been ubiquitous if unordered over the past five years, emerging insistently from our devices, twitterfeeds, and televisions in highly mediated ways, filling their space as comfortably as he occupies any actual property, to sell us the sense of an established order that many Americans recognize. Trump launched his candidacy for President, recasting himself as a public figure through the rather shameless manufacture of false memories, launched his candidacy by promising to build a border wall as restoring a ‘natural’ order, even if the border is itself a most unnatural impositions of boundary lines on space. Trump absorbed the graphics that conjured the interruptions of border barriers as sites of vulnerability, exploiting them as a soundstage to orchestrate narratives of national crisis that were mapped as it crisis and border provided terms effectively became interchangeable Mad Libs for challenges to sovereignty able to fragment the nation? The maps we have of the wall’s effectiveness in stopping migrants, embodiments of the statistics of Customs and Border, seem designed to perpetuate the very image of a wall able to stop the onslaught of criminals, drugs, and and gangs that Trump has described the wall as a bulwark against.
Yet as if to respond to a moment of crisis, and insecurity, in a rage of mass shootings, apparent terrorist attacks, and with the nation almost cracking as a container of social unity, he pledged to restore a memory of order by affirming that strengthening of its border would be a mandate to “Make America Great Again.” If walls have been historically constructed as a basis to patrol entrance and exit from states in the ancient world, as the Sumerian Amorite wall to prevent nomadic migrations, or Hadrian’s Wall that sought to prevent incursions of the Picts: but the historical normalization of Trump’s preposterous project as neo-imperial efforts erases the demonization of the other in cartographies of danger without much to do with territoriality, if they present themselves as defending territorial security. Indeed, the majority of migrants crossing the border, once primarily economic, continuing to aspire to a better life, but increasingly seek asylum. But the bombast of the aims to construct the Border Wall still conceals that the Trump administration has, after four years and the procurement of $15 billion diverted from counternarcotics and military construction projects to build or rebuild a border wall has built but four hundred and fifteen miles, a substantial chunk of concrete, but hardly a dent in the coverage of 1,279 miles of unfenced land, and just under two thousand miles–1,954–of the US-Mexico border.
Even if slated to have completed four hundred and fifty miles by inauguration day, and moving full steam ahead to blast through endangered habitat in the Atlas Mountains and Rio Grande Valley, and bulldozing through Sonoran desert habitat and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, even as panels of wall are trucked in, what sort of deference to theatrics has allowed the nation to accept the expansion of border barriers begun to be installed but thirty years ago? The executive actions that allowed the Border Wall to be built are something like theater, but even if President-elect Joe Biden has campaigned on the promise he would not build “another foot” of the wall might save the Defense Dept. $2.6 billion, ceasing work on the project with which Trump has identified his political career and populist appeal may be hard.
Trump promoted cross-border economic transfers, Mexicans arriving for work, alleged criminality, to stage a dramatic escalation of apprehensions and deportations in an era painting migrants movement as dangerous.
The growth of Border Patrol personnel and funds in the Trump Presidency has helped the escalation of apprehensions, as well as the huge rise of Border Patrol officers, if this has also opened the huge risk of law enforcement abuses, and the growth of a culture of violent policing for which south Texas is known.
The escalation of costs of the U.S. Border Patrol needed to be defended as a budgetary ballooning on Trump’s watch, as a new administration was about to reprioritize budgetary needs. The pattern of border migration in the late twentieth and early twenty first century have little to do with mass-migration movements, but any perspective on their global character has been diminished by the focus on borders as impermeable barriers. Trump had presented an even more insurmountable wall across a region America long encouraged economic migration for low-paying agrarian jobs was presented as a way of the economy and civil society. He presented the wall as a showman and as a shaman, “securing” a border including 1,279 miles of unfenced land run across rugged terrain, rivers, and desert unsuited to build a continuous concrete barrier, and often across protected lands. But the point of the wall was less practicality than the soundstage it offered to an ambitious man who tied them to his pubic persona more than to their effect, if the genocidal nature of the closure of the border presented the sort of anti-globalist gesture of thumbing his nose at the International order not only isolationist but elevated domestic interests above international law and civil or indeed human rights.
The anti-globalist discourse expanded deep American roots to the securitization of the post-9/11 era, elevating border security as the primary theater of operations of the entire Department of Homeland Security. Of several of the southwestern border states, Arizona–the state with the most continuous coverage of the border–became a prime site for commemorate the progress of constructing the border wall to court electoral votes more than stop actual migrants’ cross-border routes. While one might better map the border wall in terms of the environmental damage of each section in destruction of habitat, the growing costs of each section of border wall, or indeed their psychic cost, we long continued to map Customs & Border Patrol statistics of cross-border apprehensions, seizures of drugs and narcotics, and indeed imprisonment, mapping the costs of the border from the border, and not on the nation against the specter of urban criminality as unprecedented levels of opioids and methamphetamines were flooding many rural areas, peddled by big pharma and gobbled up by eager Americans who sought to ease existential pains of underemployment far removed from the border.
We have seen the U.S. Customs & Border Patrol enlisted in a theater of the policing of the border, augmenting Presidential authority, in ways that it makes sense to ask, if the Twentieth Century as the Century of Cinema, what sort of use the border has gained as a screen, and what film of terror is played at the border–erasing the many people, cars, and pedestrians, who cross forty-seven official Points of Entry at the border. The border would erase the daily human and economic traffic that treat the border as a membrane, and create it as an edge, erasing permeability. We have collectively erased the ability to see the border by the metaphor of a membrane, however, in casting it as a barrier or site of augmented security and blockage–as if it were the edge at the end of a flat world where one was in danger of falling off after reaching its edge: this border, as a principle emblem of America First, casts the border as a conceit that is evidence of its utopic insularity, as if it was the latitudinal extension of the mythic line in drawn in the sand with a sword before the Alamo garrison, a line in the sand the twenty-six year old commander of the fortress, William Barrett Travis, drew by saber, commemorated by the a bronze “line in the sand” as a primal form of mapping. The line by which Barrett challenged his men leave the fortress (and die at the hands of an arriving hostile Mexican army) or defend is the To Be Or Not to Be question of national existence that the border has come to pose in a national imaginary, and one that is commemorated in bronze in the current mission.
This primal border is after all not only a latitudinal line, but transcends geography in its appeal to nationhood, a primal map that is an emblem for a Manichean struggle for cultural supremacy, that Donald Trump has wanted to drag the nation through in a similar primal exercise of boundary-drawing that bookends the Alamo as a search for freedom in an ostensibly boundless of the “The American West;” the Alamo prefigures the extension of that landscape and of American hegemony, but the site of the declaration of nationhood from which the defense of the border and the American West came to flow, and the line retrospectively embodies.
But need the border be a line? As the LA Times patiently reminded California readers by a combination of open data and numbers from the Dept. of Transportation and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data for 2018, at the height of the Trump border nightmare, active transit across the border offers an economic engine daily of $1.7 billion in cross-border commerce omitted in the misconception of the border as a stable edge of national sovereignty–as an image of the frontier and bulwark against globalism that dramatically mobilized supporters and cathected to Trump’s base.
Sections of US-Mexican border wall gained deeply performative functions for Trump akin to a soundstage or a prop for his role as President. After thirty years of border enforcement, Trump redefined the border as a site of dramatic tension and an “edge” of the United States sovereignty and legality. As the border is returned to in maps as a spatial imaginary, it has long offered a wedge to disengage America from globalism–from shared concordats or agreements to monitor refugee flows of the displaced who are destined to arrive from Central America and from responses to human rights abuses. Trump has proclaimed the completion of 400 miles of border barrier as his completion of one end of the bargain, as if he intends, in the final days of a transactional Presidency, to claim something in return, or at least to champion his diminished sense of honor among the faithful for having kept up his side of the deal. But the imaginary in which he is trafficking is truly dangerous to the nation.
By placing his own state of exception as the grounds for refusing entrance to refugees, Trump has treated the entrance of the refugee as an invasion of his sense of self–and sense of leadership–as well as his persona, not admitting the refugee to the nation, and, in a terrible echo of how Hitler cast German society as a social body politic at risking endangerment by infection and pollution pathogenic and non-conforming “Jewish bacteria” posed the body politic of the German Volk–in a book that Trump famously kept by his bedside, in his entertainment of the border as a line in the sand that divides racial identity as well as nations. Indeed, the wall becomes a tag for the transnational tentacles of human trafficking, drug cartels, gang violence, which the construction of the wall seems to connote. Unease at the metaphor of bacteria was so apparent that the profits from the first American translations of Mein Kampf were dedicated to aid German Jewish refugee organizations in 1939, both to assuage guilt at its publication and strip Hitler of royalties.
14. Yet Trump relished in the evocation of a cinematic reality, if false history, over the actual weakening of sovereignty that the wall revealed. He referenced the line at the Alamo as preserving a racial divide, beyond the four hundred and fifty miles of border wall built–most only to replace existing barriers. When he spoke to cameras at McCallen, Trump recalled the real need for extra protection as a thing of the past, celebrating having “achieved the most secure southern border in U.S. history” in a wall against “cartels, the coyotes, and the special interests, and we restored the rule of law,” but is oddly removed from securing rights, but having, in particularly violent terms, “slashed illegal entries” “seized over two million pounds of . . . deadly narcotics, saving thousands of lives,” and arrested “illegal aliens with criminal records,” removed gang members, and ended, yes, immigration fraud–even if the massive fraud in the tabulation of votes could not be stopped. “We actually had 27,000 Mexican soldiers guarding our borders over the past two years,” he continued–as if this protection would soon be lifted. But in bullying all other nations in the hemisphere, Trump said, he had reduced the chance of criminal entry from any nation–Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador–“to return Asylum to its original meaning and purpose,” rather than respecting international asylum laws, lest “there is no border, there is no law, there is no order.”
Trump conjured an edge-world, where the nation ended, as if the border as in fact a rim, off which the nation might fall, and an abyss of lawlessness that remained on the other side. President Trump clearly privileged the importance of the final word–order–over all the others in his speech, and the term confirmed the central message of what his Presidency had achieved, so that he could relish the accomplishment, and suggest, perhaps, fear of its contingency in American politics. If he had “inherited a dangerously lawless border,” akin to Davy Crockett, the true patriots of Customs and Border Patrol have helped secure a fixed border, protecting our economy and national safety, as he warned that “if our border security measures are reversed, it will trigger a tidal wave of illegal immigration — a wave like you’ve never seen before. And I can tell you that, already, waves are starting to come up from 2,000 and 1,000 and 500 miles away,” predicting an imminent crisis of national security, public safety, and public health as his final gift to an incoming President, that was about to lead to the destruction of “millions and millions of jobs and claim thousands of lives.”
The border wall was incomplete, but the map was permanent and the order of the border preserved, as it had been at the Alamo in the historical memory of those many who might remember the event through John Wayne’s film. While Trump assured his audience, as his Presidency ended, while “we didn’t need walls everywhere, but where we needed them [they’ve been added,” even beyond what was asked. By invoking the imminent fear of the opening “these very walls” of national security, Trump seemed to seek to bequeath a map to his successor, tauntingly. In adopting the perspective of the border to foreground the danger of transnational flows, above and beyond human dignity, he conjured familiar maps of sovereign domain and territorial defense from the edge of the border helped shut the gate and suspend asylum laws long enshrined in American immigration law, by articulating sovereign domain to trump longstanding concepts of individual rights of asylum, distancing himself and the nation from conditions of poverty or what he deemed soiled with deep suspicion, beset by future dangers of pollution outside firm barriers.