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.
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.
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.
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.
Despite the limits of completed “border wall” across the mountainous terrain, an expanse long defined by the Rio Grande’s course, an area of difficult building, and an area of especially sensitive habitat, President Trump devoted his final days of being Presidential to a visit to the Border Patrol officers at the border town of Alamo, TX–not to be confused with The Alamo in San Antonio, in an attempt to illustrate that the promise he had made to build a wall along the border was complete. Optics were long important to the construction of the wall’s sections, which he repeatedly visited in his campaigns, and which provided a rallying cry for rally crowds in the 2016 election–the run that first featured “Build The Wall!” as a collective cry of identitarian politics the level of “Remember the Alamo!”–and a backdrop used to jump-start his Presidency and to energize his 2020 campaign,
This Rio Grande Valley section of the border wall could be seen either as a construction project, akin to those on which Trump had broken ground in New York and Chicago as a real estate promoter with local politicians who had helped guide them–
Or as a quite complex necklace of wildlife refuges, parks, and wilderness areas in the Rio Grande Valley, whose banks were long nourished by loamy waters that regularly flooded the riparian areas of the region, making it a spot for the migration of birds, butterflies, and across the South Texas Wildlife Refuge Complex, a corridor for the travel of sensitive species.
Trump had repeatedly visited boder towns as Laredo TX, McAllen TX, Yuma AZ, Calexico CA, and San Ysidro CA in the past six years, and they provided a familiar setting and a backdrop for calls for greater security. The six Presidential visits he made to the US-Mexico border surpass visits of any earlier President since Taft first met Porfirio Díaz at the border in 1909, a century before Trump’s election. He had first visited Laredo “despite the great danger” of the region in 2015 as an obligation as a candidate and an illustration of his patriotic promise to Make America Great Again–“I have to do it, I love this country“–and after prioritizing the immediate construction of a “physical wall along the southern border” only five days after his inauguration, as if to confront a clear and present danger, multiple visits were later made by Trump surrogates, Mike Pompeo, Joe Arpaio, Paul Ryan, or Melania Trump, that magnified the border and a border wall as a Presidential order of business.
The wall was a basis to prioritize a promise to put America First, and an altar for pronouncing his intent to Make America Great Again. It was a basis to define the criminality of undocumented migrants as “illegal aliens,” to construct a revision of American immigration law, all by a system of remapping the border by a “physical wall.” So when he left office, or it seemed inevitable that he would have to leave office, reaffirming the “physical wall” he had mandated was a major order of business to confirm, and even if the wall was not as clearly present, he recognized the need to monumentalize its presence. Trump was a reactionary in returning to a national system of mapping, fending off global mapping tools that promised to erase borders in a network of global coordinates, Trump’s long campaign offered a way of effectively remapping the nation–or its national attention span. The insistence on the safety of the “nation” along this stretch of border wall over-wrote the many indigenous groups who lived on either side of the Colorado River or, as it was known locally, the Rio–so densely congregated in Hidalgo county, near Alamo TX.
If not much of the border will be covered by newly built wall by the time Trump left office, a considerable amount of currently disputed projects, in pre-construction or under construction, far outweighed the amount of border barriers already existing along the Rio Grande. Trump came to claim that they would be completed, in part preaching to the choir–the very group that had first endorsed his candidacy in 2016–that illustrate the deeply transactional nature of the Trump presidency, as much as the eagerness of switching attention from the disastrous publicity of the Capitol Siege that followed his last public appearance, and may tinge forever his Presidency with a deeply distasteful malodor of domestic terrorism, more than security.
But the visit to Alamo TX would exaggerate the process of construction–and the need for its continuation–in a useful rallying cry that could be resuscitated out of office, and indeed to affirm his dedication to the dream of a Border Wall he had planted in the nation, and indeed to restate its patriotic design. Indeed, the visit to Alamo conjured the illusion that the border wall was a straight line–the line that was drawn in the ground with unsheathed saber at The Alamo in 1836, even if the actual border at the Rio Grande was particularly serpentine and difficult to define, despite the accelerated construction of reinforced concrete levees in recent months. While The Alamo was never directly invoked in the border speech that President Trump delivered at the border that recited the “historic” accomplishment of his presidency to defend the border, and sealing the country from asylum seekers and refugees while urging “we can’t let the next administration even think about taking it down,” having spent $15 billion on the border security and construction, for a project he assured was “so important to our country nobody’s going to be touching it.” The pronouncements that came on the heels of the riots that he incited that had left five dead connoted a message about country and nation, concealed that the completion of 450 miles of border wall over four years–a dismal rate of just over a hundred miles of built wall a year, after having banked on the promise that “I’m very good at building things.”
Trump had of course vaunted expertise as a builder and negotiator to construct a border wall with minimum pain or cost. For the candidate even boasted that the cost of an anti-immigrant wall was but a “peanut” given the “fortune Mexico makes because of us,” assuring he would negotiate Mexico paying all costs of the border wall to Republicans averse to government programs. The negotiation of costs for the border wall had of course fallen through long ago, but he seemed to seek to affirm something of the majest of the “great wall” he had promised to built “very inexpensively” in 2015. The promise resulted in replacement of updated fences, with first seventeen, then twenty, miles of new border wall by 2020–and securing funds by the declaration of a “national emergency” of the arrival of immigrants. He seemed to celebrate with a sense of accomplishment, hardly haunted by the 2015 assurance “nobody builds walls better than me” or the promise, “I will build a great great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.” Both were consigned to the dustheap of history, but the Alamo visit was a search for some redemption.
As he had promised to construct a “wall” along the two thousand miles of border, because building was something that he “knew about,” the visit to the wall had to be spun as a form of victory. President Trump’s visit to a town named after the insurrectionists who defended The Alamo by the mythic line that Lt. Col. William Travis Barrett, a native of Alabama drew on the sands of the old Mexican mission with his sword, when he was only twenty-seven, ,dying in defense of The Alamo in ways canonized in printed accounts that since1878 have mythologized the line that Barrett drew before the siege of The Alamo as a heroic defense of the Texan Revolution: the “Revolution,” but the 1836 revolt was far more “Texian” than Texan, was a struggle to extend the pro-enslavement practices that dominated the southern states’ economy that were long prohibited in Mexico–and retrograde in the world–into Texian lands, at a time when enslavement was a globally retrograde–if in danger of spreading into Texan lands.
–but mapped a stain upon the nation, and not only for American abilitionists: while Mexico had prohibited the institution of slavery, the southern insurrections who fought, with Barrett, against Mexican sovereignty, were not only “revolutionaries,” but had envoiced a fight for the expansion of slavery, endemic to southern states but in need of expanding to Texian lands.
Barrett’s drawing of the line is however commemorated in San Antonio by a brass bar set in the paving stones of the mission, although its actual site remains unknown, evoked the line in the sand of the boundary of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalulpe, as if it had been drawn by the fort’s defender with unsheathed sword. Barrett’s rebellion, born from dispute with Mexico’s government over anti-slavery laws by fellow-southerners like Crockett and Bowie, as the Texas Revolution began, awaited reinforcements that did not arrive, Barrett’s commitment of himself to martyrdom became a spirit of defiance and dedication to country–
–as Barrett committed himself to martyrdom in immortal words of defending an imagined territoriality, “determined to perish in defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.” Barrett’s claim–“Victory or Death!”–was the basis for the first nationalist slogan of the Mexican American War, “Remember the Alamo!” expressed commitment, echoing Barrett, to “Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character.” One could, perhaps, forget that the border along the Rio Grande at Alamo, TX was far more sinuous and complex to construct without disturbing habitat and environmentally sensitive areas long bathed in river silt, or that the border was not simply a matter of drawing a “line in the sand.” Much as the border was not a clearly determined line but increasingly difficult to define along the changing course of the Rio Grande, even if concrete levees tried to stabilize its course, the “line in the sand” drawn at the Alamo was, if mythological, an attempt to draw a clear division of space where Texas indeed bled to Mexico, driven by land seized to expand the plantation economy.
Commemorating The Alamo embodied separatist white supremacist values in defense of a national imaginary fit the spirit of the recent Capitol Riots. 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.”Continue reading