Category Archives: border wall

Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?


Border security was the hallmark issue of the political career of President Donald J. Trump, in ways that long evoked 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 the 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. But if he had been elected in no small part because of the assurance with which he had insisted “I’m very good at building thing,” including a wall to Make America Great Again, the President who disrupted conventions of government by provoking a government shutdown in 2019, did so largely as he was was loath to “give up a concrete wall” in government negotiations, as his Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney put it, and reluctant to have to “replace it with a steel fence” for democrats. Late in the ill-fated Trump Presidency, wall unbuilt, and looking like it would be reduced to Ozymandian fragments for visitors to look upon his Presidency and despair, desired to visit a section of poured concrete wall that seemed a testament to the achievements of his Presidency. Trump gestured to the border wall mounted on concrete as a sign to our national security, all but ignoring the

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 Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, and has been displayed in discontent at the outcome of Presidential elections since 2012. The distress signaled, in no small part, fear of failure to complete a continuous wall of two thousand miles in the desert that was promised to keep undocumented barbarians out of the nation.

People rioting on the west side of the Capitol with Trump flags
Pro-Trump Protestors at West Side of U.S. CapitolThomas P. Costello/USA Today via Reuters

The building of the wall may have seemed a piece of cake for someone who had little sense of the practicalities of building, if it is hard to know what he knew about building border walls and when he knew it. For 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, an ease he wanted to make even smoother as President and may have seen the office in no small part as allowing himself to move across regulations that he felt had constricted the expansion of projects of construction in the past. The levees on the Rio Grande that had been built in his presidency provided the sole remaining concrete walls left of the border wall, which was mostly more vertical steel bollard fencing, beams filled with concrete that expanded areas of existing fencing, that were judged to meet the “operations requirements of the U.S. Border Patrol” in 2019, until they were found easy to be sawed through by a circular saw.

The value of “high security fencing,” Trump grudgingly noted 1.6 billion for border construction, but a fraction of the $25 billion he had desired to allocate for the border barrier, heralding the quick start of work on the wall he had promised, “not only on some new wall, not enough, [but] . . . fixing existing walls and existing acceptable fences” very quickly, he had been accelerating the pace of border construction in ways that seemed to be timed to the election, and chose to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, in a valedictory manner. President Trump’s visit to Alamo to “highlight his administration’s work on the border wall” was an affirmation that he had done his hardest to keep the barbarians on the edge of the empire on the other side of the border, and was to a site near McAllen, Texas, AP and other news outlets quickly reminded the nation, in part as the White House had almost left it unclear, and not the Alamo in downtown San Antonio, but the 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 if visiting an outpost on the border of the empire where he sought to protect barbarians from invading, days he incited riots that had staged an actual insurrection breaching the U.S. Capitol, he ceremonially visited the border 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.

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 are mounted on large concrete levees, and the concrete wall that Trump did promised actually exists. 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.

President Trump Visiting Border Wall at Alamo, TX, January 12, 2021Alex Brandon/AP

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 concede,” Trump visited 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. In returning to the Rio Grande Valley, Trump announced in 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.

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.

Donald Trump, Melania Trump
September, 2018

The odd elision of the monument to a terrorist attack with the planned border wall was more than 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 whcih to draw for his own Border Wall, Trump engaged fantasies of monumentality and national power.

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.

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 attempt to remap the border in the public imaginary of Americans. For if the border wall had been a long process of adjustment to the limits of eminent domain, the environmental regulations of sensitive habitat, and the problems of mixing and moving tons of concrete at great cost to the desert, the imagined location of the border wall to Alamo, TX was a way to flatten 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, most importantly for Donald Trump, in film–and a battle that could be won, as a “miraculous” battle that had been fought in the long-mythologized walls of the Alamo, in 1836, as if itw as a fight that would be fought and won on the ramparts of a single wall against collective Mexican forces.

Dawn, March 6, 1836, Siege of the Alamo - Day 13 | Texas revolution, Alamo,  Mexican american war

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.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Tracts of Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge

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.

Moral Map of the United States (January 1837)/Cornell University Libraries, Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection\

–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.

Texas State Library and Archives”/“Moral Map of the United States

Commemorating The Alamo embodied separatist white supremacist values in defense of a national imaginary fit the spirit of the recent Capitol Riots. 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.

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. Before he 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 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.”

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Filed under border barriers, border wall, Donald Trump, US-Mexico Border, US-Mexico Border Wall

Mega-Projects without Maps

President Donald Trump made the mega-project of a border wall the basis of his candidacy. The proposed innovation of a “wall” — a “great, great” border wall blocking the specter of cross-border transit–has offered a powerful image by which to pole-vault into Presidential politics whose power has left the nation arrested in shock. To promote the “wall” as a mega-project the nation, Trump has regularly invoked the notion of an invasion from the southwestern border, conjuring the image of a nation in dire need of protection–using this talking point not only to enter the 2016 Presidential election and on the campaign trail, but to hold his first news conference from the Oval office, and as grounds for a thirty-five day government shutdown to gain a $5 billion in public funding for the project. The ratcheting of collective attention to the imperative of the border wall has peaked as it became grounds to declare a National Emergency.

The inflation of the border wall at the cost of all other projects of infrastructure increasingly reveal both a personal fixation and public obstruction to national growth. From something like a virus, meme generator, and a battle cry, the wall that provides the latest punchy slogan for the 2020 re-election campaign–the oddly motivating cry, “Complete the Wall,” as if such a wall has been begun to be built–

–has given currency to the fiction of a “Trump wall” as a project whose urgency only masquerades its deep illegality. The absence of the wall may lead it to be fetishized as “beautiful” and “being designed right now,” Trump assures, as if to involve the nation in a fantasy, but is never mapped.

The fetishizing of such a misguided promise masks that the project, perhaps funded by stolen funds, including civil forfeiture conducted by Customs and Border Patrol at the border that offer $600 million, would mandate reprogramming billions, but fails to address the problem of massive migration and displacement. But in dignifying the border plans by discussing a border “wall,” the image helps magnify the mega-project Trump has recently elevated to the status of a National Emergency to secure funding of $3.6 billion, even its cost estimates haven’t been defined, but lie at least $15-25 billion without costs for land acquisition and future maintenance. And as if to avoid the misery of migrants who arrive in the Caravan from Central America, the wall is elevated as a mythical, beautiful construction, and played against violent scenes of sex trafficking, threats of the violence of criminal migrants, or stories of the cruelty of cross-border transit. The mega-project of the border “wall” deflects all of these, and seems a solution to the tide of migration that haunts a globalized world.

The state of state-funded mega-projects is a battleground for defining the future of the nation in both metaphorical and real terms, and it was bound to be opposed to projects of actually investing in national infrastructure. Trump has long attacked the mega-project of building High Speed Rail along California’s central valley. The project that symbolizes many of the visions of responsibility he has disavowed, and indeed the vision of building “new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land” by destabilizing the role of public funding in infrastructural improvements, but using local and state funds with private capital. While the High Speed Rail was based on promises of lowering emissions and government funding of infrastructural projects that were the fruit of public stimulus projects, it has come to symbolize public investment he seeks to shun, and a vision of the future that seemed destined to collide with the alternative mega-project of guarding the nation against the danger of outsiders outside its borders. Indeed, longtime anti-HSR Representative Kevin McCarthy introduced a ‘Build the Wall, Enforce the Law” Act to ensure the project–slated at $23.4 billion–as reflecting the popular desire “the American people want” to fulfill an alleged governmental responsibility of “maintaining strong borders” that “For too long, America has failed.” Yet despite the geographic fiction of this imperative, it lacks any map.

The project claimed to bring economic benefits and jobs become a target of Trump’s anger, leading him to announce on social media “We want that money now!” in a clear attempt to shift its past and future funding to his own designs on completing a massive border wall between US and Mexico, long promised as the guiding project of the Trump Presidency–even if the wall has not, in fact, begun to be built, “Complete the Wall” the likely slogan for Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The disdain that California Governor Gavin Newsom showed in dismissing the so-called “border ’emergency'” as manufactured political theater, in which California’s National Guard wouldn’t participate only rose the

Trump is particularly eager to allocate further funds for the construction of the long-promised border “wall” that will be insurmountable by refugees or criminals. To achieve its building, he declared an actual national emergency, in hopes to free funds for its construction that the US Congress denied. He almost acted as if the funds were ready to be reassigned, and the funds to be returned diverted to his own mega-project of border construction–and to glorify the actually uncertain technology of such a “wall,” in contrast to the “boondoggle” of a state-of the art infrastructural project of High Speed Rail, long supported by his predecessor, but which has become something of an avatar of the Green New Deal, as an opportunity to promote his construction of a border “wall.”

In a few days, Trump tweeted out a counter-image of time-accelerated wall construction from his social media megaphone, accompanied by a triumphal score as form of alternate news. High speed video of the replacement of twenty miles of bollard fencing were scored as a triumphal achievement, as if a ready-to-assemble pieces on cleared terrain was only IKEA-style assembly–showing a picture of segments that replaced existing fencing as a project completed “ahead of schedule” unlike the damning time delays and overruns on the High-Speed Rail Project that stands uncompleted.

“We have just built this powerful Wall in New Mexico. Completed on January 30, 2019 – 47 days ahead of schedule! Many miles more now under construction!” (February 20, 2019)

The two mega-projects are quite distinct in functional and in the futures they promise to create. But both suggest the degree to which political problems are both increasingly interconnected with considerable complexity–weaving problems of globalization, from climate change to immigration to economic inequality–responded to by a “simple” solution of a truly monumental solution. The GIF of workmen posed on the side of the new border fencing promoted the momentum to a mega-project of utmost national need. The project is one marked by a stunning lack of national vision, but its simplicity has proved sufficient to substitute for one. Whereas the project of High-Speed Rail or a “Bullet Train” promised to create needed pathways for economic mobility, the super-project of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles–essentially an urban plan, moving across the Central Valley, and promising to reduce carbon emissions in coming years–was both a target embodying all that Trump denied and degraded (needed emissions reductions; public transit; global warming) but a source for needed funds.

The difficulty of these mega-projects–which oddly unintentionally echo the fascist projects of the past, while claiming different visions of modernization–both turn on the use of public investments. The allocation of huge sums to infrastructural improvement are promised to assuage the political sense of insecurity that plague the world, and the promised resolution of global specters that they promise to allieve and the futures that they promise to secure. If the High-Speed Rail Project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles provide a broad link within the state from the hub of a new Transit Center in downtown San Francisco to the world, from Sacramento to Los Angeles, the border “wall” is a barrier to protect America’s place in the world. The claims that the rail project was indeed “dead” that were made by Republican Kevin McCarthy–a long supporter of the President–to interpret Gov. Gavin Newsom’s very first State of the State speech in Sacramento incorrectly as a declaration of death of a project that he has long opposed. The notorious pro-MAGA Congressman from Bakersfield who has long enjoyed aggressively contentious sparring on social media–“We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA”–and to make the securing of $25b for the US-Mexico “border wall” a national priority to burnish his pro-Trump credentials. His claims as “GOP Leader”–he refuses to be a Minority Leader–on the fundamental place of “a protected border” to a nation led him to promote bills funding the “wall” and support the National Emergency, delighted in tweeting gleefully the “Train to nowhere is finally stopped”–as if the plans for completion had been postponed.

McCarthy seemed to pounce on Newsom’s address with misplaced glee as he relished the prospect of ending a project to which he’s long been opposed, and is the model of public investment in economic infrastructure that Trump on which Trump seeks to shut the book, by privileging public-private partnerships and streamlining with less accountability or review, and the promise of revenue-making public works–while funds earmarked for disaster relief and stimulus seem redirected to a costly “border wall” claimed to be prioritized as a response to current national security crisis. The antipathy that McCarthy–long tied to oil money in Bakersfield, just outside Los Angeles, through whose district the rail would run–has framed his oppotiion to the high-speed rail project led him to try to frame it as a matter of national politics, as he styled himself as a “Republic Leader”–rather than “Minority Leader,” pronounced the Bullet Train “dead” with a finality that he must have trusted Trump would notice.

The collision between the needs for funds for the border wall–an apparatus of state that is needed, Trump insists, to preserve the policy he enacted of “zero-tolerance” immigration policy on the border, but that would serve to protect the nation from proliferating specters that haunt the nation. Collision with the projected High-Speed Rail Project first planned in 2016 by voter referendum, back in 2008, in the days of the arrival of promised Stimulus Package, seem almost the exact mirror image of mega-plan, designed to bundle inter-related problems (air pollution; congested freeways; climate change; petroleum dependence; economic inequality) at a single stroke, if from an almost diametric position. But as the right accuses the “far-left government” of California, suspiciously as if it were a Socialist state in Latin America, of pushing the rail project, and President Donald Trump grips to the conceit of a border wall, the individual faces of men and women recede to the background of each.

While touching on a range of political issues, the project that declared itself free of ideology became something of a political target to Trump as he machinated to find new resources for the “wall” that the U.S. Congress denied funds. The slightest hint that California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown’s successor, would scale back or re-dimension Brown’s own pet project because it “would cost too much” prompted Trump to reclaim federal funds as “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project”–code for an unneeded public expenditure–even as Trump tried to remap the southwestern border by a barrier constituents could rally around, as if designing a new aesthetics of our national space to bracketed a record 68.5 million of globally displaced people driven from their homes, according to UNHCR, at a rate of almost 45 million a day, including 25.4 million refugees.

AnCalifornia’s Attorney General–with those of fifteen other states–quickly sued Trump for declaring a National Emergency to secure needed funds for the “Border Wall.” Not missing a beat, Trump attacked the state for the right to do so after “the state . . . has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion,” and whose “cost overruns are becoming world record setting.” Trump’s gleeful tweets about a “Failed Fast Train Project” may conceal what is really at stake–

–but the needed funds were surely in the front of Trump’s mind.

For as Trump seems to be “weighing every possible option” to build the wall’s so junk technology at the border, so that the “wall” has become an icon of “illegal immigration” and the danger of “entry” into the United States’ “open borders,” as if the President is able to exercise complete executive authority by closing the border at any time, the state audit revealing that construction delays and billions of dollars of cost overruns were due to budgetary mismanagement has been blamed on being a project of personal investment for ex-Gov. Jerry Brown, who spent public funds on an unbuilt system long promised to link San Francisco and Anaheim, and failing to link the state in the sort of mega-network Brown had proposed, and a true break of public trust. (If Ponytail suggested that a solution would be to build a “wall” in detachable sections that, post-Trump, might be submerged in the Atlantic and Pacific sea floor to offer anchor sites or artificial reefs for marine life to flourish where it doesn’t exist, the potential proliferation of mega-projects and maxi-projects as border walls world wide–

AFP/2015

–have created a terrifying normalization of the border wall in a shockingly brief time, as a mega-project promising security at a time when global security is hard to come by, as if they were tools of normal governance.)

Can the projects and their costs even be compared? If the costs of the High Speed Rail project have ballooned–as the costs of the “Wall” seem constantly underestimated and bound to rise in cost overruns we have not even begun to predict–the notion that these are comparable construction projects, or analogous infrastructural improvements. Both mega-projects–however dissimilar in nature–don’t address political problems, but constellations of issues, from infrastructural needs, climate change, and fuel consumption to immigration, criminality, and drugs, promoting projects of mass appeal in different ways, that suggest targeted projects addressing constituencies, promising to address deep infrastuctural problems to very limited degrees–their purported boldness hindered by limited funds, and facing limited support to be enacted on the scale that their promoters celebrate.

While it’s uncertain that either could ever be completed in a realistic schedule that has been announced, the projects from opposite sides of the political spectrum seem something like mirror-images, ostensibly designed as investments but suggesting almost opposed ideas of government or the idea of investing in the public good. Bound to collide with one another, both advance promised changes in landscapes, projecting solutions to mega-problems they cannot fully address, and invite fantasies of the further promises they might meet. The rise of such mega-projects seem a sign both of the increased complexity of pressing problems of powerfully political origin, but their bundling of networks of pressing political problems in a single project claiming to resolve complex problems at a single stroke, is combined in quite toxic ways with oversimplification–by both promoters and their critics who attack them–in ways that threaten to remove them from the very complex networks of problems they attempted to address. The changed status of “mega-projects” in our political discourse make them a sort of pandering rooted in slogans and ultimatums, and removed from complex problems we deserve better to map.

Hot on the heels of Trump’s fuming at Congress that “with the wall, they want to be stingy,” matched by the veiled threat that “we have options that most people don’t really understand,” Trump found the time ripe to chasten California’s governor for “wasting billions of dollars”–and charge that the state in fact “owed” the federal government $3.5 billion. The handy figure could increase the $1.375 billion allocated in budget negotiations for fencing on the Rio Grande, and in a budgetary shuffle increase desired funding for Trump’s mega-project, to reach the robust sum of $4.875 billion–almost close to that original demand for $5b, a magic number of sorts, that could be itself arrived at by allocating emergency funds from the Department of Defense–or the declaration of a national emergency as if this were an actual crisis. (The addition of $3.6 billion from other military construction projects among the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department budget that he argued wasn’t going to be used for anything “too important”–and was officially discretionary, if earmarked for construction, repairs, and counter-narcotics programs–rationalized as the mega-project would block “illegal” drugs.) The result would double allocated funds–and create a mega-project worthy of the name, for which no clear map exists, although many have been offered. But a mega-project of this size perhaps, paradoxically, itself resists mapping . . .

Racing to ensure the possibility of declaring the national emergency to get his way on Thursday, the suggestion on television that Gov. Gavin Newsom could curtail a project of high speed rail in the state just the day previous came with a search to secure more than the $1.375b in border fencing as a victory, or exit the terms of the bill he had to sign to avoid extending a government shutdown, as he met contractors to discuss the design of the wall, and sums of money able to be tapped after he declared a national emergency, and use it as a basis to claim he remained an outsider, still not bound by Congress, still not polluted by deals cut in Washington, even after he’d occupied the Oval Office for over two years–even if he didn’t really have a believable map of how to build it? Or did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling cornered by Congress, see Newsom’s seeming concession as the chance to secure billions by budgetary re-allocation? The high-speed rail system was given the fearsome price-tag of $10b; repossessing $3.5 billion of funds from a cancelled project raised dizzying possibility of an under-the-table reallocation of federal funds no one knew were there.

Trump delights in playing fast and free with numbers that seem designed to disorient his audience. In truth, the costs of a border “wall”–whatever it might look like–remain far higher than we can calculate or imagine. Trump boasts he can build the “wall” for but $12b, yet that is a figure at which most scoff. Internal reports from the Office of Homeland Security place the figure at more like over $21.6 billion over three years, The most recent plan to secure another $6.5b by some sort of emergency funding seemed less of a reaction to stinginess than a charade of creative accounting,–a dizzying juggling of vast amounts of money that become meaningless before his own hyperbolic claims of “an invasion of our country,”–the new mantra used to justify its construction–“with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”

In the process of pulling out all the stops in his request for emergency funding and indulging his worst impulses, the moneys slated for California’s train suddenly seemed an attractive target for federal re-appropriation. High-speed rail seemed a project whose funds were easy to hijack and redirect to the border barrier Trump was scrambling with budget analysts and contractors to fund. And when California’s governor appeared to diminish the size of his project, Trump not only pounced, but to terminate the funds of just under a billion for the rail project–a $929 million federal grant–and to demand the return of $2.5b in past stimulus matching grants, arguing they were neither properly used or matched by the state, by “actively exploring every legal option” to take the funds, no doubt in order to add them to the President’s discretionary funds during the declared National Emergency, which seems more and more a pretext for building a wall for which the land has not been secured, let alone panels designed.

Staging a “state of emergency” is a classic form of justification advance by political theorist Karl Schmitt, a promoter of executive power and extra-legal articulation of a state’s power. The demand for the funds would not necessarily allow the completion of a “Border Wall,” but would compromise a project that is important to the state’s economy. The crisis he has manufactured has led Dan Richard, chairman of the High Speed Rail project or “bullet train” to resign, as a damning letter arrived from the very transportation agency which sent grants for the High-Speed Rail Project in 2009 and 2010 called California state out of compliance with the grant agreement and promised date of completion by 2022. As chairman, Richard, former PG&E executive and pioneer in extending public transit the BART transit in San Francisco, was an unpaid member but was involved in the project’s operational planning and oversaw the extension of almost one hundred and twenty miles. But his work came under heavy criticism after the state audit for having assigned contracts in haste that precipitated lawsuits–mostly from the improvident failure of securing land for building track. (Perhaps Newsom suggested a reduction of the scope of the project–“Let’s be real”–to bring the state in line with a Central Valley Project from Merced to Bakersfield, and a cornerstone for a future route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.) But the call “let’s level” about the elevated platforms built for the current project whose platforms are already built across much of the Central Valley–

–was heard by opponents as a cry of concession, consequent to the finding that an L.A.-San Francisco line could cost over $13 billion estimates that were expected.

But was the comparison between such mega-projects creating a false sense of similarity in the role of the state to redesign the future of the nation at a single stroke, impressing an executive desire on the landscape? The false geographies that each project create demand themselves to be better mapped. The aspirations for the High-Speed Rail Project were considerably easier to map, similar questions of a lack of state-owned lands on which to build and lack of agreement on the projects form created obstacles that a single executive not deeply familiar with the site or its inhabitants couldn’t have hoped to resolve.

The rail project was savagely satirized in the juxtaposition of newsmaps claiming to reveal hidden interests for property owners–as if to suggest its hidden agenda–by linking High-Speed Rail to the raging California wildfires, as if such a small-scale map could reveal the foolhardiness of the rail project. The manipulation of news maps as information was a teased that the fires would prompt landowners who wouldn’t sell land to the state to do so–

–but was presented as an excuse not to dig deeper into the project’s benefits. For real problems of congestion, a lack of public transit, and a need to create better infrastructure for jobs are all replaced by evils specters of other hidden interests, all rendered opaque by likening the geography of fires’ spread to the state’s problem in securing necessary lands on which to build the tracks, and raise the specter of special interests driving High-Speed Rail, in ways that might deeply damage the state as we know it.

1. Both mega-projects have been sold as worth their cost, and both–though one falsely–as “paying for themselves.” The border “wall” is so massive it has no clear price–conservatively, $70b (and an extra $150 million a year to maintain it), or anywhere from $27b to $40b, while Trump asserts only $12b. Where the funds will come from is anyone’s guess, as the promise is something of a conceit, and as Trump never produced a clear schema of costs, the whole question has been maddeningly and dizzyingly opaque. The train may cost as much–although the benefits are more tangible–though a possible $100 billion price-tag has raised many eyebrows. But the high-speed rail was long billed as a basis for modernization, which the border wall can hardly be claimed to be. Price-tags provide a poor basis for understanding the benefits and goals of both mega-projects–$21.6 billion for a wall and $10 billion are sums which we can barely imagine for organizations that symbolize ultimatums–protection and safety or economic modernization–that reduce the complexity of inter-related problems to a monumental solution, all too often removed from or reduced to a map.

The funding for High-Speed Rail was planned to be funded largely by the cap-and-trade program designed to lower California’s carbon emissions. Cap-and- trade was written off, at first, but has caught on as a practice of resistance in the Trump era–although it is rejected by the White House. The High Speed Rail project would stands as an alternative infrastructure to fight climate change. This made it all the easier to the seen as a sacrifice of federal funds, at a time when any budgetary expenditures were being scrutinized for potential pillaging. The vertiginous bombast that Trump summoned to seek to justify the declaration of a national emergency–the image of an invasion is pretty powerful, and for some hard to resist, and the threshold of evidence has been substantially lowered–allowed for the by now all too familiar juxtaposition of scale, numbers, and proportions that seemed guaranteed to confuse his audiences so that they got behind his argument. The very breadth of the high-speed rail project seemed a perfect target–its many maps suggesting a future that gave Trump special pleasure to deflate, no doubt, in ways that one can’t see as tied to a perverse pleasure in seeing infrastructural projects seem to crumble into thin air, felled by executive fiat.

Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

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Filed under American Politics, border policy, border wall, infrastructure, US Politics

The False Imperative of the Border Wall

Donald Trump’s most astounding victory–predating and perhaps enabling his astounding electoral victory as President–was to remap the mental imagination of Americans, and reconfigure proximity of the United States to its southwestern border in the public imaginary.  The goal of this insistence is no less than a remapping of civil liberties, based on his insistence of the need for border security and constructing a Border Wall, and preferably doing so in all caps.  

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Condemning “obstructionist Democrats” are the party of “open borders,” and obstructing the work of law and order agencies such as ICE–the Immigration and Customs Enforcement–agents or his beloved Border Patrol, and for filling the national need for border security, and the project of building “the wall,” a super-border structure that would both prevent cross-border migration deemed ‘illegal.’  The construction of border psychosis is evident in the large number of Republican governors of states that have been elected two years into the Trump Presidency–

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–as the question of “governing” states most all the southwestern border–save California–has created a new “block of red” that has been generalized to much of the nation, rallying behind the America First cry to defend borders, build prisons for immigrants deemed illegal, and work with federal agencies to apprehend such immigrants, denying their lawful place or rights to work in the United States.  For much of this map of governors, now that the Republican party is increasingly the Party of Trump, reveal the uncertain terrain of the undocumented immigrant, and the massive circumscription or reduction of human and civil rights, as well as a fear of failure to manage immigration.  Although current findings of sixty-nine competitive districts in the 2018 election include many border states–sixty-three districts of the total are held by Republicans before the election, a considerable number of the “battleground states” lying near or adjacent to the planned Border Wall, according to a Washington Post-Schar School survey

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–where calls for wall-building originated.  The magnification of the border in the electorate’s collective consciousness was a gambit of electoral politics and staple of the Trump campaign for the Presidency, and it conjured the unprecedented idea that a single President–or any office-holder–might be able to shift the borders of the nation, or guarantee their impermeability to foreign entrance.  The striking appeal of the border was not seen as a question of border protection but rather the construction of a wall, evident in the expansion quasi-tribal collective rhythmic changes at rallies, now repeated as if in a non-stop campaign.  Although the focus of most buildup of the border has been to update existing fencing, the calls for fix-it-all border protection plans gained sufficient appeal to suggest a potential shift in the nation’s political terrain.  Even though Donald J. Trump was, for practical purposes, a quite parochial perspective based in New York and Manhattan, and perhaps because Trump’s own expertise in national building projects was as limited as with working within the law, the project was first floated by the candidate as if from the sidelines of national politics, treating the project as akin to protecting a two-mile southbound side of the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan, beside his pet real estate project, Trump Place, at 220 Riverside Drive, through an Adopt-A-Highway Project, and that the border wall was essentially the same need of securing .  (Although the prominent sign was itself quickly vandalized to read “STOP TRUMP”  as Trump won the Presidency, needing to be replaced, the return of the defaced sign promising the riverfront side’s maintenance was far less an act of good citizenship than a vanity act.)

Jon Comulada/Upworthy

New York City limits the Adopt-a-Highway program to individuals, companies or organizations, rather than to political candidates and campaigns seeking publicity, but since the Trump Organization maintained the section since 2007 or earlier, it gained an exemption–and a tax write-off for its contributions to maintenance.  And when he spoke to residents of the territory currently known as “America,” Trump seems to have treated the proposed Border Wall as an almost similar project of beautification, and a project of protecting what was his, in a proprietorial way that seemed to conflate his own identity and person with the country, as the current sign conflates his name with the Trump Organization, as his recommendations have contained as little familiarity with the site, scope of the project, or terrain, as many have noted, treating the construction of a continuous border wall as a detail designed to beautify the country, even though the border includes 1,288 miles currently without any pedestrian or vehicular fencing, gate or protection.

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It almost seems that the proposed border wall had not been “mapped” per se, so much as it was a rhetorical promise for the sort of project Trump would like a President to do–and a project whose magnitude appealed to his sense of personal vanity.  He praised the benefits of the construction of the wall as a need to “get it done” and imperative that responds to a state of emergency–a national emergency that sanctioned the suspension of existing laws.  The emergency, as Trump saw it, was created by crime, gang violence by MS-13 members, who he has called “animals,” and a source for a loss of low-wage jobs.  The acknowledgment of the need for the wall is virtually a form of patriotism in itself; recognition of the need for the country has become a way to participate in a new nationalism of strong borders–a nationalist sense of belonging that was opposed to the agenda of those unnamed Liberals without clear purchase on the geopolitical dangers and a failure to put America First.  President Trump has argued that the “larger context of border security” necessitates the wall.  Trump has come to repeatedly proclaims in his continued rallying cry stake out a new vision and map of American sovereignty, and indeed of territorial administration.  Evoking a new tribalism in openly partisan terms, Trump even promoted with impunity the false belief that Democrats have united behind an “Open Borders Bill,” written by Dianne Feinstein–distorting the #EndFamilyDetemtion protests and “open borders movement” with an actual legislative bill.  More to the point, perhaps,

The very crude geography and mental mapping that animates this argument is repeatedly a staple of Trumpian rhetoric.  As if  thick red ruled line could be drawn atop a map, Donald J. Trump has become the outsider political voice able, as a builder of vain monuments, to claim the ability to build a new structure able to replace existing border fences, and provide a continuous monument at endless concealed costs, without any acknowledgement of the people who have long moved across the border on the ground.   The transposition of this tribalism of border separation into a partisan dichotomy has promoted and provoked an apparently Manichean opposition between political parties around the defense of the US-Mexico border, and the building of a Border Wall, in an attempt to define the differences between Democrats and Republicans around the issue of the defense of national safety.

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President Trump has not only made immigration into a platform for his campaign and for his party:  the stubbornly intransigent logic of Trump’s oppositional rhetoric has not only remapped the nation in mind-numbing ways.  The fixation on the fixity of the border as a means to “Make America Great Again” erases the historical instability of borderlands in the United States, in its place projecting the image of fixed boundaries:  the exact shift in the image of national territoriality seems a not only shift on the border, but a decisive replacement of an inclusive state.  And even as Trump’s recent rallies are–as of September–still interrupted by “Build that wall!” tribal chants, leaving Trump to lie openly by claiming “The wall is under construction,” he reminds us of his need to evoke an inexistent barrier for which such intense desire has developed among his supporters that it is indeed a talisman by which America will, indeed, be able to be Made Great Again.

Continually crying about the urgent need for “building the wall,” even if it would be in violation of international law, is cast as a state of emergency which would reduce crime, the illegal presence of gangs, and existential dangers, and a promise made without acknowledgement of any who live outside America’s national borders, or any foundation in civil law.  The promise to finish “building the wall” is cast as a simple question of volition, in almost pleading tones, that can be addressed to the entire nation as an ability to cathect and commune with the nation in simple concrete terms, no matter the distance at which they live to the actual border.  It is an exercise in the geographic imaginary, in short, and a nearly ritualized deceit which Trump labors to sustain–as if a Border Wall could be conjured into existence as a leap of faith.

Identifying the dangers to the nation as lying external to it, the discourse of the wall have created a subtle remapping of sovereignty, on an almost emotional level.  It focusses on the border, as an imagined line, rather than on people who move across it, laws or citizenship–placing demonized dangers as lying beyond the border and outside of the nation-state.  The disproportionate focus that has been directed to the border–a distortion of attention that is epitomized and focussed on the desire for a continuous “border wall”–functions as a deeply dehumanizing way of remaking the nation, and remapping national priorities, around a fiction and a distinctly new discourse on nationhood, that is mapped by vigilance to the border, rather than to the course of law or to individual rights and liberties.

If maps provided tools for defining and symbolizing nationality, the conceit of the need for a border wall symbolized and also creates a notion of nationhood based less on ties of belonging than on boundaries of sovereignty that exclusion people from the state.  Mapping is long based on ties of exclusion.  But the focus of intense attention on stopping border-crossing and transborder permeability as replaced a logic of maintaining protections on equality or access to the law in the interior, shifting the attention of the nation of spectators by a deeply cruel trick of remapping the nation’s priorities.  For the political rhetoric of creating a fixed border has effectively magnified the borderlands, through the terribly exaggerated violent pen-stroke of an Executive Order casting the border as a vital key to national security, and increase the proximity of the nation to the southwestern border in the political spatial imaginary.  

Is it any coincidence that the same government to elevate the symbolic mapping of a wall on the southwestern boundary of the United States has reduced the number of refugees that it agrees to admit from war-torn lands, already reduced by half through executive orders from the number of refugees accepted in 2016, a limit of 45,000, to a new ceiling of “up to 30,000 refugees” beyond “processing more than 280,000 asylum seekers,” in line with the current 2018 count of barely over 20,900 by mid-September, but now for the first time less than the number accepted by other nations.  Turning a cold shoulder to the crisis in global refugees is ostensibly rooted in a responsibility to guard its own borders, and “responsibility to vet applicants [for citizenship] to prevent the entry of those who might do harm to our country” and reducing grounds for asylum–even as the numbers of global refugees dramatically escalate dramatically world-wide–as if intentionally setting up obstacles for travel, and setting policy to openly prosecute any cross-border travel that was not previously authorized, and actively separating many asylum seekers from their families to deter them from pursuing asylum.

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New York Times

Such false magnification of problems of “border management” has defined a disturbing and false relation to a deeply distorted image of globalism, of fuzzy borders, and not only apparent but intentional distortion–

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–predicated on a false sense of national vulnerability, the urgency of greater border security, and the definition and elevation of national interests above global needs.

The rejection of refugees and closing of borders in the United States in the Age of Trump seems endemic:  if the country resettled some three million people since 1980, when modern refugee policy began, this year, the United States for the first time fewer resettled refugees than the rest of the world–less than half as many as the rest of the world.  The shuttering of borders is echoed in some 800,000 cases for asylum awaiting review, revealing a distorted view of the global situation that is mirrored by the blurred map behind Mike Pompeo’s head, and may suggest a global irresponsibility and deliberate disentanglement from world affairs.  But it also suggests a deep remapping of the place of the nation in the world, not limited to the State Department or Mike Pompeo, of imagining the greater proximity of the borderline to the mental imaginary, and a privileging of so-called sovereign rights over pathways of human flow.

The promised wall planned for the border of unscalable height is a bit of a blank canvas designed to project fears of apprehension onto those who would confront it, a barrier to prevent motion across the border by unilaterally asserting the lack of agency or ability to cross a line that was long far more fluid, in a sort of sacred earth policy of protecting the nation’s territory along its frontiers–and refusing the extend rights or recognition to those who remain on its other side.  Trump’s signing of grandiose Executive Orders as statements of sovereignty stand to reverberate endlessly in our spatial imaginary of the nation–while hardly warranted as a form of national defense, the border wall serves as a phatic act of sovereignty that redefines the function of national bounds.  Indeed, in a country whose history was defined by the negotiation of borderlands, the assertion of the long unstable border as an impermeable barrier seems a form of willed historical amnesia, as well as the fabrication of a non-existent threat.  The repeated indication of the southwestern border seems to seek to restore it to prominence in our national consciousness–and to see its security as being linked to the health of our nation–as if to make the current project of re-bordering an improvement of our national security–a process of re-bordering that is a performance of sovereignty, simultaneously symbolic, functional, and geopolitical in nature.  

The symbolic of sovereignty is far more insistent than the functional, and the symbolic register is the heart of its political meaning, if the structural need is promoted as a response to geopolitical actuality.  

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For the Trump train, the wall is a “smart” redefinition of the nation, rooted less in the accordance of civil rights or guaranteeing of human rights, than the subsuming of law to protection of a nation that we imagine as under assault.  If globalization has been understood as a process of “re-bordering,” where the lines between countries are neither so fixed or so relevant to political action on the ground, the border wall maps a defense against globalization in its rejection of open borders.  The proposed construction sets a precedent as an act of unilateral border-drawing, or willful resistance to re-bordering, by asserting a new geographical reality to anyone who listens, and by cutting off the voices of those powerless to confront it.  The deeply dehumanizing conceit of the border wall that was modeled in several prototypes deny the possibility of writing on their surface.

In ways that mirror the inflation of the executive over reality or the rule of law, the border wall serves to reinstate an opposition over a reality of cross-border migration.   And Trump seems particularly well-suited and most at home at this notion of reordering, which he has made his own as a construction project of sorts, where he gets to perform the role of the chief executive as a builder, as much as a politician or leader of a state, and where he gets to fashion a sense of sovereign linked to building and construction, to a degree that the builder turned political seems to be intensely personally invested and tied.  Although Trump has been keen to treat the notion of a border wall as a form of statecraft, the proposed border wall is all too aptly described as a an archaic solution to a twenty-first century problem–for it projects an antiquated notion of boundary drawing on a globalized world in terrifyingly retrograde ways.  For while the construction of the border wall between Mexico and the United States was mistakenly accepted as a piece of statecraft that would restore national integrity and define the project and promise of the Trump presidency to restore American ‘greatness’ rooted in an illusory idea of privilege, but focusses on the privilege of entering the sovereign bounds of the nation alone.  

The proposed wall maps a dramatic expansion of the state and the executive that continues the unchecked growth of monitoring our boundaries to foster insecurity, but creates a dangerously uneven legal topography for all inhabitants of the United States.  For Trump and the members of his administration have worked hard to craft a deeply misleading sense of crisis on the border that created a stage for ht border wall, and given it a semantic value as a need for an immigration “crack-down” and “zero tolerance policy” that seem equivalent in their heavy-handedness to a ban, but have gained a new site and soundstage that seems to justify their performance.  

While it is cast as a form of statecraft, the only promise of the proposed border wall is to exclude the stateless from entering the supposedly United States, and to create legal grounds for elevating the specter of deportation over the country.   For the author of the Art of the Deal used his aura to of pressing negotiations to unprecedentedly increase the imagined proximity of the entire nation to the border–by emphasizing its transactional nature in bizarrely in appropriate ways.  The result has undermined distorted our geographical and political imaginary, with the ends of curtailing equal access to due process, legal assistance, and individual freedoms.  Acceptance of the deeply transactional nature of the promise of a border wall during the 2016 Presidential election as a tribalist cry of collectivism–“Build the Wall!”–as an abstract imperative, removed from any logic argument, but rooted in a defense of the land.  The purely phatic statement of national identity was removed form principles of law, but offered what seemed a meaningful demand of collective action that transcended the law, either civil law, to affirm an imaginary collectivity of Americans without immigrants–and an image of a White America.  

The imperative exhortations that animated Trumpism, as it gave rise to multiple other inarticulate cries repeated on Twitter and at rallies, based on lies and false promises or premises–“Lock her up!”; “America First!”–fulfilled a need for membership and belonging at the expense of others, in ways that subtracted popular opinion–and a false populism of the Trump campaign–from the law.  By isolating the artifact of the wall as a sort of grail and site of redemption and religion of the nation, the tribalist cry “Build the Wall!” offered a false imperative that replaces reasoned discourse.   Trump sees fit to treat as a basis for shutting down the government, accordingly, and indeed as a logic for a brand of governing that doesn’t follow the “terrible laws” of his predecessors.  If the budgeting of a border was was earlier taken as a grounds to actually shutter the government, in 2017, the rehearsal of the threat to willfully “‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes [for] the Wall” once more unnecessarily equated the need for the border wall as a basis and rationale for government.  The Manichean vision of politics of a pro- and anti-border party has been determining in creating a vision of the United States where sovereignty is defined at the border, irrespective of responsibility for the stewardship of the country:  we built walls, impose tariffs, and end treaties, rather than acting in a statesmanslike fashion, and evacuate the promise of the state.  

Much as Trump earlier called for “a good border shutdown” in the Spring of 2017 cast the wall as a part of his notion of governance, the new threat treats the as a bargaining chip able to equate with an act of governance–even if the wall as it is described seems less about governance at all.  Trump rails against the passing of spending bills that do not foreground or grant a prominent place to the proposed border wall that he sees as a point of orientation needed for his constituents and that he still cherishes and his own introduction into national debate:  attacking legislative packages about spending bills that don’t include special stipulations for border security or the construction of a border wall, threatening on Twitter to suspend governmental functions altogether without knowing “where the is the money for Border Security and the WALL in this reicidulous Spending Billaon the eve of the arrival of an apporopriations bill to the White House in the Fall of 2018, as his executive functions seem as imperilled as his grasp on the Executive Branch,  of government: but the border wall retains centrality as the central promise he has made to the nation.

For the unwarranted and ungrounded promise to prevent the imagined threats of organized criminals, gangs, rapists, and drug dealers from entering the country–not that we lack many who are home-grown–through the border wall is a governance of exclusion, racial defamation, and promotion, which has little to do with governing at all.  The apt characterization of the border wall as being an inefficient and irrational fourteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem by Texas U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar-D of San Antonio–riffing on the suggestion of U.S. Representative Will Hurd-R of San Antonio as a third century solution to a twenty-first century problem ineffective to secure cross-border migration, and gesturing to the new tribalism that the project affirms.  The imperative of the border wall is an insistence of tribalism over civil society, and a reflection of the increased tribalism we feel and see, but mostly feel and fear.  Indeed, it allows these fears to be mapped against cross-border traffic.

The imperative distorted and magnified what a border is and should be that shows little understanding of effective governance, and reclaims an old idea of the border–a fantasy, at root–that rejects the permeable nature of borders in an era of globalism, by rather affirming an imagined collectivity from which dangers–unspecified, but ranging from gangs to drugs to child trafficking–must be kept out.  Although an underlying problem is POTUS’ spectacular lack of understanding of how government works, or of the law, which he has spent most of his life reinterpreting, it reveals his conviction construction contains crisis in essentially fascistic terms, building a structure that has little contextual meaning, but seems to impress, as a negative monument to the the state that is located in a borderland of apparent statelessness, but which Trump seems more and more frustrated at his actual inability to change what still looks more like a rusting twelve-foot tall Richard Serra sculpture than the imposing frontier promised America–

imageRichard Serra, Tilted Arc (New York City, Federal Plaza, 1981-89)

–but whose offensiveness disturbs, upsets and angers the viewer in a truly visceral way. Resting on the edges of our own borders as the basis for a larger “border complex” that seems to steadily expand, the border complex is not only a unilateral dictation of border policies, but a relinquishing of any responsibility of governance of the inhabitants of the nation, treating the definition of citizen/non-citizen as a primary duality never explicitly adopted as central in American politics and history, but assigning this division a centrality rarely so clearly geographically expressed as a question of national territory.  

Even though the wall is a practical separation between territories, and an assertion of exclusive territorial identity, the imperative of the border wall that is repeatedly cast in urgent, existential terms, has presented itself in discursive terms both as a promise to the nation, in terms analogous to the Contract with America, that separated Americans from others, but which promised to strengthen Americans’ relation to the rest of the world.  The increased proximity of the nation’s inhabitants to the border and border wall was asserted in the Trump campaign:   the transactional status of the wall grew as a means to prevent multiple forces from endangering “our communities’ safety” as the border wall became a narrative plug-in for something like a promise of redemption from higher wages, untold economic dreams, and an acceptance of police security, as if a border can radically change the status quo of the American economy and local family safety.   The proposal of the border wall continues to exist in a deeply transactional sense for Americans, as geographic relations to the actual border has been erased so thoroughly for the border, under the guise of “immigration,” to become a national platform of a political party, and a new model to define and remap America’s relation to the world.

1.  The growth of global insecurity echoes profound anxiety at the realization that the lines of control of states cannot be so legibly or clearly mapped in the present moment, an anxiety it reflects by proposing to inscribe the border onto the landscape to make it visible to all and permanently fixed.  The false promise of the border wall has been able to gain meaning on an individual level, allowing each to invest it with meaning and feel proximity to, independent of their own actual geographic proximity–even if the result is to silence the violence that the proposition of such a border wall does to the rule of law.  If the long and energetic tradition of public mural painting that had origins in the Mexico of the 1930s provided a movement of energetic and energized monumental painting on open air surfaces in projects of humanity and considerable color.  But the elevation of their pictorial formal power moreover asserted a new public identity of the nation for observers.  In contrast, the artlessness of the empty screen of the border wall is an evacuation and denial of subjectivity:  the defining characteristic as a concrete surface of the proposed border wall is itss inexpressive surface, its denial of common humanity, and its assault on the collective narratives that were the subject celebrated in muralism.

The wall stands as a sort of rebuttal to a muralist tradition of inclusiveness–embracing varied styles from Rivera to Siquieros to Orozco–through the assertions of a new artistic idiom by which to involve viewers in a revitalized broad civic life.  The border wall is less an illustration of human will, than an image of the assertion of the reason of the state, understood less by legal principles than a tortured logic of exclusion.  For while the extant border was a site of recuperation of muralist public art, the new border wall serves to impose the fixity of the border as a site that offers no place to the individual refugee, migrant, or legal immigrant, but a blank canvas that symbolizes the absence of individual autonomy or subjectivity to cross the transborder space.  Indeed, rather than a collectivist statement of unity, whose monumental forms suggest a human struggle of collective identity and work, the construction of the wall is presented as a testimony of the need for an obstruction of the passage across the border to protect the nation, based on the knowledge and experiences of border communities, presented as a need to ensure and defend safety, national integrity, and economic power.  Like the symbolic language of muralism offered a replacement for the common iconography of sacred art, in its assertion of public identity, the border wall presents itself as nothing less than a new religion of the state.  While the comparison of the proposed border wall to the public panting of collective art muralism intended as an call to collective national consciousness and unity in post-revolutionary Mexico is a provocative comparison to the elevation of sovereign authority over the border by building a wall, the magnification of the border by the project and prospect of building a border wall has served to elevate a perilous image of nationhood, based less on ties of commonality, collective identity, or a rich historical legacy of individual involvement that muralists proposed than an unhealthy focus on the border as a site of danger, a frontier needed to be vigilantly guarded, and a threshold whose guarding substitutes for the defense of civil laws.

For in claiming to protect and secure the nation, the border wall becomes a performative exercise of the religion of the state, as much as it serves as a defense of political sovereignty.  The authority of the US-Mexico border wall, in unintentionally, seems to stand as an open rebuke and rebuttal to the hopeful ideals and huge figures in images of dynamic abundance such as the monumental Allegory of California (1931) by which Diego Rivera depicted the rich bestowal of gifts on of a heroic mother earth figure of California, in San Francisco, whose monumentalism addressed individual viewers by an almost tangible allegory of local abundance —

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–which set a basis, in one of the first large projects of the painter in the United States, set a basis for a new tradition of public moralism in western states.  The interchange between active labor, earth, and a united countryside, if not a united narrative of nation, offered an optimistic personification of a monumental Gaia-like state, who, her resources liberated by workers, grants “gold and fruit and grain for all” of its residents, the revolutionary art of Siqueiros that heroized his country, or the twined histories of the Americas that José Clemente Orozco organized of tragic but truly epic historical scope of the Ancient Migration and the Migration of the Human Spirit, extending the collectivist spirit of revolutionary nation.  Affirming a discourse of white privilege, indeed, rather than inclusion, the border wall is an imperative of religion of the nation that girds the border as a sight of defense, mapping the other as outsider in relation to the needs of the state, rather than celebrate the human subject as a force that is part of nature or culture. Rather, the proposed border wall seems to exist outside culture or nature, as an imperative to an endangered and threatened civility of the status quo.

The border wall erases the spirit of the migrant as it prevents migration, alleging compelling reasons of state and the new logic of the religion of the nation that replaces the law and any appeal to the law in its urgency.   Rather than portray a giving sense of the heroism of migration, indeed, the wall interrupts any freedom of migration and transborder or transnational citizenship, reducing citizenship to a notion of territoriality and land, by bounding the terrain of citizenship and affirming a new ordering of space, and a political theology about the boundaries of the state, and the subtraction of citizenship or rights from the “enforcement zone,” “border zone” or denial of the rights of political representation or legal status for all transnational migrants in the “dead zone” of the borderlands.   The absence in this zone of rights of the subject–the refugee, migrant, or itinerant subject–is paramountly defined by their statelessness and inability to fit between strict categories of sovereignty, rather than motion across states being celebrated as a point of access to the bounty of the land, or of the migration of the spirit as a celebration of the recuperation of a modern individual political identity.  By demonizing the practice of migratory mobility, as if by a principle of “earth-first” binding of the nation, the border inverts the celebration of the human spirit

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panel21Jose Orozco, Migration of the Modern Spirit (panels 1 and 21) (Dartmouth University)

There was a resurgence of the discursive practice of the political messages contained in  muralism as a form of public art in the resistance to decorating the border with monitory signs.  Is the Border Wall not only a map, but also a rebuttal to this tradition, and indeed to the painting of public rebuttals to the wall through paintings and commemorations in the past?  The absolute absence of any affect or visual address within the intentionally blank, sterile and almost industrial character of the wall seems in hidden dialogue or rebuke of an aesthetic of direct involvement of the viewer through its mute surface and corresponding evacuation or denial of individual human rights.  

1.  The triumph of industry, of rich historical cultures, or even of cultural conquest and revolutionary violence is compellingly replaced by the absence of any trace of human making or creation–or individual subjectivity–within the surface of the proposed border wall, which rather stands to deny individual liberty:  in place of an aesthetics of broad political involvement, the denial of the presence of those on the other side of the border wall stand as a vicious act of disenfranchisement, and even a denial of human subjectivity.  Indeed, if the heroic or epic narratives of monumental figures engage viewers in a pedagogic manner in muralist traditions by illustrating a narrative of nation, the proposed wall suggests a blunt lack of any national narrative, save the denial of the subjectivity of those on the other side.

The talismanic nature of these “prototypes”–mock ups slightly removed  the border–was meant to evoke the prominent place of the border wall, and to restore or reinforce  in the psychological and mental imaginary of our new national space.  Repeated throughout the Presidential campaign as if a mantra, evocation of “the promised wall on the southwestern border” has redefined a relation to the nation–and indeed been presented as a form of love for the nation–by the master builder who would be US President.  And although the request for a “solid, Concrete Border Wall” in March, 2017–described as the President’s building medium of choice–became a secret state project, as “too sensitive” to be released by a Freedom of Information Act, by the Department of Homeland Security, designed to meet demands to be impossible to tunnel under, and impenetrable to sledgehammers or other battery-operated electric tools for at least an hour, seem something of a simulacrum of the state that is both all too obstructive for actual migrants and cherished by many Americans, and prevents the transformation of previous parts of the border wall to public sites of commemoration–remembering the suffering of those who attempted safe passage, or indeed of mural-art that has attempted to assert the fluidity of cross-border transit.

CrossesAguaPrieta--Dec08

gettyimages-632717318.jpgSandy Huffaker/Getty Images/Palm Beach Post

–or that try to imagine the perspective that the future of the border wall will create for the migrant subject who is excluded from hopes of cross-border transit.

Trump Vows To Build Border Wall Between Mexico And The U.S.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even as the proposed US-Mexico border wall is presented as girding the nation against multiple dangers, the new bounding of the nation that prevents any intervention or artistic transformation of the wall, by stating its own absolute authority as a re-writing of the nation.  The permanence of the models of the wall seem not so tacitly or subliminally suggested by the physics form of one of the mock-ups, which references the form of a flag, as if to suggest its similar permanence as can image and record of the nation, and proof of the nation’s continued existence, as if the nation could not exist without it:  indeed, the flag-like proportions in mock-ups suggests a new flag for the nation.  As the promise of the border wall has allowed such a range of audiences to cathect to the national boundary–a sense that was perhaps predicted in the repainting of a section of the existing border wall of welded metal and steel near San Diego–the very site where a caravan of Central American migrants would arrive where they were taken by President Trump as an illustration of the fear of the dangers of cross-border immigration–the wall suggested a sort of surrogate for the purification of the country, restoration of the economy, and an elevation of the minimum wage, wrapped into a poisoned promise of poured concrete.

It was no surprise that a group of Mexican-American veterans chose to paint a segment of the older wall near Tijuana in 2013 as if a mural that mirrored the use of the inverted flag to stage a signal of distress to the nation:  indeed, the deported former navy who chose the wall as a site for a cry of emergency and national belonging:  teerily prescient of the flag-like nature of the mock-ups, sections of which uncannily resemble a vertically hoisted flag, the wall sections painted by disabled veteran Amos Gregory, a resident San Francisco resident, who completed the painting with twenty deported veterans, recuperated the tradition of moralism to create a new story of the wall, where crosses of dead migrants replaced the stars of the stars and stripes, as if to appropriate the wall to a public narrative of nationhood.

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The inverted flag that a group of U.S to paint the flag, but expressed shocked at charges of using an iconography “hostile toward the United States of America,” and chose the inverted flag as a distress signal–to show honor to the flag, and to “mean no disrespect” to the nation, but to raise alarm at its  policies.  His dismay when asked to remove the mural by US Border Patrol sent a message of censorship as an attack on freedom of expression; Gregory incorporated crosses to commemorate on the wall the migrants who died seeking to enter the United States for better lives and livelihoods,  undermining the ideals of freedom he cherished.  By placing their memory on the wall, he sough not to dishonor the flag, but to use it as a symbol of extreme gravity that respects its ideals–and the etiquette of flag display, in the manner  future protests at the marginalization of migrants seeking asylum as they enter the United States at its border zone.

distress at Ptotest

The current mock-ups suggest, if unconsciously, an actual evacuation of patriotic ideals.  The MAGA President might have been conscious of how several of the so-called prototypes suggested a flag turned on its end, as if in a new emblem of national strength–

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–as if to offer them a new symbol of the nationalism of a new nation.  The segment of this prototype recalls the flag suspended vertically, as on a wall or over a door, above the border that has become a prominent character in the current President’s Twitter feed, and evokes the ties between terrorism and immigration that Trump has long proposed the government recognize and acknowledge, despite having few proofs of these connections, acting as an assertion of the implied criminality of all immigrants who do not cross border check points by legal protocol, no matter their actual offense.

1. The compact about the construction of the border wall has, against all probability, become the latest in faux populist promises since the Contract with America to pose fictive contracts of illusionary responsibility and reciprocity to the democratic process, and have provided new tools of assent.  At the deepest level, the wall exists in this discourse of urgency not as a proposition, but as an actuality that need only be built, and cannot–or need not–be mapped, less the practicalities of consequences of its construction by acknowledged.  The border wall, viewed in its prototypes, is somehow an expression of the unmappability and existential quality of the border wall that Trump wants; alien from its surroundings, and existing as an obstacle to entrance, it is a redefinition of the border from a site of passage to an obstruction.  The affirmation of the border as a “real border”–which Trump repeatedly ties to the status of the United States as a “real country”–seems to mean an impassible border, which lacks any negotiation, but is recognized as an element of the nation that needs to spatial location but acts to strip all outsiders of their their rights.  All attempts to map the border as a spatially situated place  seem to stand as a challenge to undo the imperative of the wall’s construction.

The faux consensual ties with the electorate perpetuate a fiction that a democracy runs on the contractual obligations between a government and populace, but have early been so focussed on geographically specific terms.  But in an age of anti-government sentiment, the icon of the wall has become an effective icon of describing the ineffectiveness of prior administrations, and an iconology embodying the new role of the executive in the age of Trump:  in an age of global mapping that seems to disrespect and ignore borders, we imagine migrants moving across them with the aid of GPS, or Google Maps, empowered by the location of border check-points on their cross-border transit,–

Google maps borderGoogle Maps

In a rejoinder to these fears, the proposed border wall would map a continuity among the stations in different sectors administered by the US Border Patrol, already strikingly dense, and apparently easy to connect by a solid wall–

Border Checkpoints

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Filed under border wall, globalization, human rights, immigration, US-Mexico Border