Tag Archives: national emergency

Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?


Border security was the hallmark issue of the Presidency of President Donald J. Trump–as of his candidacy–that proudly foregrounded a specter of racial division. The promise to expand the fences that had been barriers along six hundred and fifty four miles of bollard, chain link fences, and even helicopter landing pads that were military materiel from Vietnam were to be expanded to a continuous wall by the man who, Ayn Rand style, promised he was master architect and builder of a border security system, in hopes to get the costly concrete wall he imagined would be perfect for the border built. He won election in no small part because of the assurance “I’m very good at building things,” first and foremost a wall to Make America Great Again. The President who disrupted conventions of government by provoking a government shutdown in 2019 resisted the prospect he would “give up a concrete wall” in government negotiations, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reminded the nation, and in visiting Alamo TX, on the eve of his departure form office, he seemed to be affirming the presence of the wall he wanted–he never wanted to have to “replace it with a steel fence” back in 2019–and to affirm the centrality of a concrete wall to the nation he ceased to lead.

Trump’s visit to the US-Mexico Border paid final homage to the achievement of building a border wall that was indeed of concrete and reinforced steel core seemed to create a shrine for an image of the border rooted in white supremacy, and no better site for such a shrine seemed to exist than Alamo TX. The very name of the border city in Texas few had ever heard of before it was designated as a site to salute the completion of four hundred miles of Border Wall near the Rio Grande Valley evoked a society based not only on the state’s funding of border defense, but a nation that was “founded, nurtured, and financed” on White Supremacy, as Ta-Nehisi Coats put it long before the Trump Presidency. In visiting “Alamo,” the outgoing President was not only visiting the border. He was affirming the centrality of the border wall as a monument to his followers, a memorial to border protection that was a dog whistle in its name. For the hybrid constellation of an “Alamo” along the Border Wall elevated the symbolic value of the southwestern border of the United States as if it were a battle-line to fight for the permanence of a color line long fundamental to American democracy, but long denied as a brutality of racist ideology naturalizing a social hierarchy in ways that were enforced by state power. If the visitation of the border provided a recurrent site for Trump to affirm his candidacy, Presidency, and indeed to wield and exercise executive authority by appropriating billions on the construction of a border wall–without even knowing if it is effective–the border wall articulated a vision of state.

The Border Wall was an icon of the Trump Presidency, a prop for his public political persona as President of the nation, and a site of illustrating the commitment to the defense of borders, fulfilling the syllogism there are no strong countries without strong borders–or that, per Ronald Reagan, “a country that cannot control its borders is not a nation”–as if the border were going to vanish from the map. And when Trump visited Alamo, eight days before leaving office, in a choreographed speech, he elevated the Border Wall to a spectacle. The visit on the surface sought to reprise a bond with the American people around construction of a Border Wall, and which he was proud at having allocated–or wrangled–$15 billion that the U.S. Congress had never appropriated. Designed to slow migrants and smugglers from crossing the border, but a token of an expanded system of border surveillance from helicopters, river boats, aerostatic blimps whose radar systems are Customs and Border Patrol’s “Eye in the Sky,” and military jeeps, and an archipelago of incarceration in detention facilities that deny migrants rights. But the concrete bastions he visited on the Rio Grande affirmed the spectacle of border defense. “The spectacle proves its arguments simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition,” as Guy Debord argued, “by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed,” and the reaffirmation of the spectacle of the border seemed to ahistoricize and perpetuate the border wall as a defensive monument, refusing to obliterate and elide it from national memory, by eliding it with the border defense of Texas, before Texas was a state.

The visit to Alamo provided a fitting stage for the final lap of a “Promises Kept” tour, as it reprised the hostile border as a part of the American imaginary. Trump long claimed. that without borders. or border enforcement, “you don’t have a country,” as if a reinforced border was a needed affirmation of national security and identity and indeed–at least semantically–nationhood. He sought to summon dignity at the border, days after the fiasco of the insurrectionary staging of an assault at the U.S. Capitol, and warn then-President-elect Joe Biden not to destroy the wall lest he undermine immigration policies crucial to the nation, and erode the border to bring “calamity” to national security at the site he had long declared a national security threat. Seeking to both stop time, refocus national attention, and conflate myths of national identity at Alamo, the dog whistle of a defense of security at Alamo TX placed the border wall in the national mythos, to stay the prospect of these sections of concrete wall and levees from being dismantled, to keep alive the story of wall-building that he had long promised to the nation as he left office, casting it as a heroic effort of national defense and construction project that he had presented himself as the Presidential candidate as uniquely suited to create.

In the final hours of the Trump Presidency, with only four hundred and fifty miles of the border wall built, lest it be reduced to Ozymandian fragments for visitors to look upon his Presidency and despair, Trump visited the poured concrete wall at Alamo, TX, as if to greet the final testament to the achievements of his Presidency and to unveil to the nation completion of the legacy of his Presidency, as if it were a final campaign stop. Visiting a small section of Border Wall mounted on concrete levees around the Rio Grande became an occasion to reprise his commitment to national security, and the culmination of a heroic struggle of border-building and defense of the nation’s territory. The heroic struggle seemed less so, in the shadow of the tragically empty theater of the Capitol Riots, but perhaps it was the memory of his legacy he felt most able to leave: it served to epitomize the difference of “us” from outsiders, in a way that might better play to the nation than the raucous display of angry identities of flag-waving separatists, and set the tone of framing an ongoing future Presidential campaign, praising the Caesar-like monument for which he had secured federal funding, and insisting it would never be buried in the public imagination.

Indeed, among the colorful flags waved with exultation on January 6, 2021 that incarnated a social body excluding the entrance of African Americans or migrants into the nation, from Confederate Flags to III Percenters, angry at any change inclusion in a social contract that had persistently excluded those marked by ancestry and melanin from the state, the prominence of flags waved at the combat around the inaugural stands by MAGA shock forces of militia groups who cast the nation as white treasured the mythic defense of Tejano lands by militia at The Alamo as a foundational historical precedent and basis for “keeping America great,” embracing the image of The Alamo as a war that was fought both for liberties and for racial hierarchy against Mexican troops–an image nurtured not by the state, but by the powerful cultural currency of The Alamo in Hollywood as a proxy for a race war.

Even if the 2020 Presidential campaign was effectively over, the values of white supremacy that had long forged the alliance of pro-Trump separatists and deniers were kept alive by what seemed a hastily engineered visit to the border town of Alamo TX. After an incompetently ineffective summoning of minions to interrupt the counting of electoral votes by Congress, and to create a legacy for his Presidency, visiting Alamo to affirming a border wall as a monument built to keep “undocumented” Mexicans out of the United States, destined to survive even if his Presidency ended: insisting on a specter of the dangers of cross-boundary migration for America, the visit seemed perfect stagecraft for asserting the timelessness of the border wall as a legacy of defending the nation’s borders at a new Alamo, as insistently as AK47s were historically conflated with the role militias to “repel . . . danger” in 1788, and its ratification in 1789 as guaranteeing a “Right to Keep and Bear Arms.”

On his final state visit, six days after the insurrection, Trump seemed to steer national attention from the danger of domestic terrorists ready to assault the U.S. Capitol in combat gear to a racial specter of invading migrants, criminals, rapists, and seekers of asylum, collectively invested with criminal intent. As Trump had long presented the border wall as a site of military engagement–perhaps even of armed forces–the visit to McAllen and Alamo provided a means of continuing to fight the same battle over national identity, but to fight it at the border wall. The President had concluded his presidency by disrupting conventions of governing again, by refusing to recognize the popular vote’s results and inciting a riot that invaded the U.S. Capitol by minions waving flags from the lost campaign, which they insisted was not over, amidst an inverted American flag of distress, which militia groups had been regularly raised in protests about counting votes and ballots with accuracy over the previous months in Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, and has been displayed in discontent at the outcome of Presidential elections since 2012.

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 sense of distress of the inverted flag that one protestor held signaled, in no small part, fear of failure to complete a continuous wall of two thousand miles in the desert promised to keep undocumented barbarians out of the nation. And as the center could not hold, days after the riot or insurrectionary attempt to end the certification of the electors, Trump concluded his Presidency in what might be a valedictory visit to the border as a site of materiality, as if to prove that it could hold, if his presidency could not. The intent to mythologize the border as a material statement of state power, and as an imaginary of the nation, was underscored by the visit to Alamo, TX–

Donald Trump Reviews U.S.-Mexico Border Wall at Alamo, TX Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon
)

–that recast the visit tot he border wall and concrete levee of the Rio Grande River as an occasion of state, and indeed a military event, to identify himself with the commitment of funds reallocated for the military budget to commemorate the construction of four hundred and fifty new miles of brand new wall along the southwestern border. Did President Trump imagine that doing so would enshrine the monumental status of the border wall would be elevated to the image of national defense? Although many had scoffed at his purposeful diversion of military funds to create the wall, which was not allocated funds by the U.S. Congress as Trump had demanded, the visit sought to cement the border wall in a project of military defense, assisted by the striking historical memories of the battle between Texian revolutionaries and the Mexican government in what later became Texas, in a battle that first redefined the US-Mexico border. If the Battle of the Alamo was famously lost by insurgents, it was thel Lost Cause: the often recited memory of the loss as an affront and injunction anticipated nationalism, and would inspire the Texan Revolt that led to the formation of Texas as a Republic; the line of the Rio Grande that Texans compelled the captured General Santa Anna to order the Mexican Army to retreat in 1836 below, nearly ten years before Texas was annexed as a state, created a new “line in the sand,” now drawn far South of The Alamo, and in the border town of what would be Alamo, TX. Indeed, the Texas flag of a militia, with the bronze six caliber “Gonzalez Canon” Spanish munitions seized by Tejano revolutionaries conflated arms, right to enslave, and defense of the national border–reprising the 1835 battle cry of Tejano colonist militia as a defense of ancient liberties with modern militia’s defense of bearing arms, in one of the most popular flags sold online during gun control debates of 2015, and a popular patch for militia.

Flag of Gonzalez Canon at Texas State Capitol

The “line in the sand” demanded no real logic or precedent or land claim. Its cartographic virtue lay in its simplicity: as a line drawn in the sand, traced by the drawn sword of Col. William Travis or by a Texian boot before infantry or soldiers, to incite them to battle, or even as a battle cry, the line required no real justification or legal precedent, or international recognition. This was not a line in the sand, but a wall in the sand, on a concrete pediment, dotted by American flags, lest we forgot who drew it, to sanction the cartoraphy of the border as a state affair, worthy of being the final public or private event of the Trump Presidency, affirming the crudest cartography of all: the line in the sand was invoked as the crudest technology of border cartography, and was the crudest of archeologies of the border, an assertion whose logic demanded no justification, but provided its own triggers of nationalism and national pride, and demanded no justification but could be unilaterally affirmed. A line in the sand could be drawn where the man who drew it, and determined as a line of defense.

As a myth, it demanded no formal explanation as a claim of sovereignty, but was affirmed by a simple signature, in a final signing statement bequeathing the legacy of the Trump era to the nation–a dog whistle, more than anything like a legal act. Was the cartography of the border an appeal to a mythical notion of national distinction, conjured to being to fabricate clear distinctions one wanted to call into being on a map? If this was a symbolic and performative act, the erection of the wall Trump sought to take responsibility and to celebrate, as well as to deny American reliance on immigrant labor, was designed to demean Mexican claims to sovereignty and elevating an oppositional ethnonationalism by building a wall along that line, in implicit reference ot the line drawn in the sand by the ragtag militia of defenders of The Alamo.

President Trump signs border wall plaque on Jan. 12, 2021, in Alamo, Texas
(Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Trump seemed to salute the wall to turn his back on the abuse of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and rather to praise their service in to the nation as he toured the border wall on January 12, at the same time as over two million people were on the border, seeking to migrate across it, 60,000 having been returned to Mexico from Texas, to wait for their claims to be processed in camps. For Trump desired to recast the border wall as a historical achievement of Making America Great, turning a shoulder on the institutionalization of family separations, crowded and abusive conditions in ICE detention centers, and overwhelmed immigration courts. “Building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border [of the United States] is not a policy solution,” President Biden would soon proclaim on his first day in office, pausing construction work on the wall and calling for a reassessment of the legality of its construction.

In declaring a “National Emergency Concerning the Southern Boundary of the United States” in February 2019, Trump would diverted billions of dollars to the construction of the border wall, he fiction of the boundary that Trump sought to affirm in his visit, and had demanded in unilaterally fortifying the border as a subject of national defense, in treated as a National Emergency, rested on the need to “protect” American security, demonizing how migrants stand to “put countless Americans in danger.” shedding American blood and taking American jobs in order to redirect $8 billion to the border wall as a boundary that needed to be defended for national interests, without legislative oversight.

The legitimacy of the border was, of course, deeply engrained in our history and tied to our national mythos in ways that Trump was keen to exploit by staging his final signing visit to a section of border wall in a town called Alamo: as a Representative to Congress, Abraham Lincoln, later no stranger to the loss of life to determine national borders, detected the “sheerest deception” on the part of then-President James Polk in blaming the aggressiveness of Mexican soldiers across the Rio Grande as part of a campaign to admit Texas to the Union as state that would expand territories tolerating slaveholding: rebuking the mythic sense of the Rio Grande as a frontier of the nation, the barrier across which Spanish troops were forced to retreat in the aftermath of Tejano insurrectionists motivated by their loss at The Alamo, Lincoln doubted whether unquestioned acceptance of the Rio Grande as a frontier could serve as a basis to declare war: to rebuke charges that Mexican aggressors had crossed the Rio Grande to shed American blood, and rebuking the necessity of a national military reprisals against Mexico as inevitable–given that the determination of the boundary was contested. But the image of the “line in the sand” that gained incredible affective power as a statement of revolutionaries and in the Mexican-American war, provided the crudest of notions of the border’s stability and indeed of the border wall, not needing any precedent in law or in a mutual accord, but oddly naturalized into the landscape, at home within the construct of manifest destiny far more than in the legal record.

The fiction of locating the boundary line of the nation at the Rio Grande was a but a convenient invention, Lincoln had insisted back in the 1848, as it was, while asserted by Texans who looked to military treaties they had dictated for confirmation of their inclinations to take land, able to be manufactured as a sharp-edged mental construct of affirming value. The border of the Rio Grande’s course, Lincoln had observed, was claimed on paper by Texas as a western boundary for reasons of self-interest, but never internationally recognized as binding,–and had indeed never recognized by Congress as a question of American jurisdiction. Rather than accepting the groundless claim of a sitting President that “the soil was ours, on which the first blood was shed” in the Polk administration, eager to avoid a needless war, sending an army to fight with those Mexican resident who themselves never submitted to American sovereignty, Lincoln in 1848 found little in the historical record to accept the Rio Grande as the “boundary” of the nation, based on a unilateral declaration of the State of Texas, let alone as a binding basis for a cause of war between Mexico and the United States based on aggrandizement. Lincoln in 1848 sought to query the grounds for defending a boundary lacking mutual agreement as a boundary to be defended by American military. But the defenders of the Alamo, Travis, Crockett, and Boone, have been celebrated as patriots of Texas, and as defenders of a white tradition in recent years, as the Cenotaph in which their ashes were said to be translated in 1936 were defended by the Texas Freedom force, who in May 2020 urged members to “Defend the Alamo & Cenotaph if the need arises,” seeing the Cenotaph, as the statute of Col. William Barrett Travis, sword’s point touching the ground at his feet as he struck a pose of public oratory, on a plinth on the old Mission grounds, in Travis park, as symbols of national defense to be guarded against vandalism.

When Lincoln distinguished the international boundary line from where states claimed jurisdiction, he questioned the validity of unilateral assertion of a boundary line. Veneration of The Alamo elevated the drawing of the sand as a sacred event, a shrine for the defenders of the fortress, whose ashes in the Cenotaph have created a powerful monument to Anglo defenders, Travis, Crockett, Bowie and Boone, beneath the commitment to “never surrender-never retreat,” recently celebrated by the white supremacist militia as the “This is Texas Freedom Force,” that has urged members to “Defend the Alamo & Cenotaph if the need arises” in late May, 2020, standing guard over the Cenotaph and the statue of Col. William Barrett Travis, commander of Tejano troops who defended The Alamo, holding his sword’s point on the ground as he struck a posture of public oratory on the grounds of the old Mission. While the statue of Travis on a plinth deferred the final results of the stand–the all-out assault assault ordered at dawn by Mexican General Santa Anna left all one hundred and eighty nine defenders of the Mission grounds dead, its facade reduced to war-like visage of ruins–the heroic defense was embodied by the line in the sand, the poweful metaphor of boundary drawing to which the border town Alamo gestured. And although Travis’ statue voted to be relocated from the landscaped park that was once part of the Mission’s grounds, the confederate monument sought to be relocated in 2017, it still stands by The Alamo grounds.

In declaring emergency surrounded by U.S. Border Patrol members, the primary enforcers of the border with ICE, the very men who who become his personal agents since their early endorsement of his candidacy, and who he later visited at Alamo, TX, at the end of his term. Surrounded by the border patrol agents whose number had hovered about 2,000 until 1985, whose number peaked beyond 10,000 by 2000, Trump celebrated a border that circumvented congressional appropriations and the law, provoking a spate of lawsuits from many states and environmental preservation groups, extending the declaration of a state of emergency at the border in February 2020, and again renewing it, as he left office, two days before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 18, 2021.  President Trump was confident, playing it by the numbers, that lawsuits against the National Emergency only emerged from “blue” states he did not need to win to be reelected, counting on the border imaginary to be preserved.

The visit to Texas was an attempt to bolster that border imaginary, to the site where the greatest “immigration enforcement” efforts against refugee influxes had begun with deployment of a large, flexible, mobile Border Patrol Task Force, then in the INS, in the most severe “border build-up” in memory: “Operation Hold the Line” deployed armed Border Patrol officers along the border, along the McAllen Sector administrating the Rio Grande Valley, as Operation Gatekeeper grew along 194 border checkpoints to construct the first section of border wall on the western border, introducing a militarized border oriented toward stopping or physically halting the passage of unwanted migrants and refugees. If the San Diego initiative of “Operation Gatekeeper” evoked a mock-pastoral metaphor of the “gate” to cast migrants as animals, and mask the violence of migrant deaths–1,200 migrants died trying to cross the border from 1993-96, when it was in force, with the greatest number where Operation Gatekeeper was in force, as many more were detained as criminals. In parallel, “Operation Hold the Line” emphasized the placement of Border Patrol stations along the border, to compensate for perception of no coherent federal vision for the border management, to replace standard practices permitting migrants to cross the border before they were apprehended and deported, mandating continuous presence at the border of Border Patrol. Stationing Border Patrol across the border began in the lower Rio Grande valley, by a model of Border Patrol echoing Tejano defense of the line “drawn in the sand” at the Alamo, was later deployed at El Paso as “Operation Blockade,” staunching all cross-border movement.

The image of the defense of a “border” that existed as a “line in the sand” tapped a mythos of the Texas revolutionaries who defended The Alamo, a site of an old Mexican mission–a stone complex constructed by Spaniards in San Antonio as a Franciscan mission hat had, mutatis mutandi, become a garrison, for all of its Franciscan origins, venerated for its defense by Travis, as a line able to be drawn between the intermingling of Mexican and Anglo cultures, the mixture so intolerable it had to be defined along an edge. In rallying a small group of insurrectionaries hoping to defend The Alamo, and to extend the “rights” to extend plantation systems into Tejano lands, William Travis had drawn the “mother of all lines” in 1836 in the sands before the mission complex, perhaps the archetype of all maps of the southwestern border: in drawing a line before the assembled rag tag insurrectionary Anglo troops he would lead against the approaching Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The line whose drawing is an archetype in all films about Texas gives narrative prominence to the defense along a line in American film, as if tracing an archetypal cartography as a topic of attention, tension, and crisis, that “visiting Alamo” seemed to seek to reprise for a President who was long in touch with television producers about choreographing his public appearances to present his political persona.

In a different cinematic key, outside the Trump canon of action films, John Sayles’ Lone Star referenced in the taunt of the owner of tire repair store in a border town who traces a line before his store to taunt the Anglo sheriff from across the border who is adamant in his cartographic convictions, “Bird flying south, you think he sees that line? Rattlesnake, javelina–whatever you got!–[once] halfway across that line, they don’t start thinking different. So why should a man?” The crossing by species of the border, especially at the rich and delicate habitat of the Rio Grande, stand in contrast with the lines that the American government has been increasingly insistent to draw, and that Donald Trump convincingly coupled to a display of national identity and a showpiece for Making America Great. Was it a coincidence that it was at The Alamo, according to the cheesy poster publicizing the Technicolor western epic written, directed and produced John Wayne, that the dangerous troops besieging The Alamo held Mexican flags, in what was openly mapped as a military confrontation at a border in terms of a race war, circa 1960, between latino extras and Anglo cowboy combattants, eager to hold their ground?

The image of the tactical defense of the walls of the old Spanish mission, since restored by the U.S. military as a shrine to national combat, has been memorialized in multiple dioramas emulating cinemascope as a historical struggle for identity, created in a recreationist model designed b Thomas Feely, has been recently expanded in a still more detailed diorama to incarnate the threat of Mexican troops flooding the walls of the citadel in San Antonio, showing at its central moment of dramatic tension the amassing of Mexican forces to breach the northern wall to show “how really doomed” its remaining defenders were as they remain to repulse the mass of armed Mexicans, placing 2,000 hand-painted pewter figurines in an dramatization of an action-packed version of this cartographically generational conflict, intended to replace the fifteen by thirteen foot diorama that already exists at the History Shop, just north of The Alamo. While such models are far from Alamo TX, the investment of the dramatic moment of history as an inspirational event–rather than a failed insurrectionary event–was channeled days after the Capitol insurrection, in Washington, DC, seemed to stage a dramatic pseudo-coup replete with its own historical myths, as if to affirm the inspirational value of the defense of the border as a national project.

Did the fantasy of a border that could be held again at The Alamo, or at least at the Rio Grande, create a powerful mental imaginary whose simplicity underlay the cartographic crudeness of the deep history of Trump’s border wall? Operations of controlling the border, as a fixed line, grew to hold an increasingly prominent place in the mental imaginary and mythos of border patrol agents near McAllen, as Border Patrol vehicles were increasingly stationed every hundred yards o the banks of the Rio Grande: as “Operation Blockade” reverted to “Operation Hold the Line” in El Paso, in the mid-1990s, it reflected the extension of the metaphor of a “line in the sand” at The Alamo to the entire border, and a basis for understanding the demand for “operational control over the international land and maritime borders of the United States,” borders that Trump would conflate with the identity of the nation. The expansion of Border Patrol Operations to stop migrant travel across the entire lower Rio Grande was amplified in the 2004 deployment of boats, fencing, and lighting along the banks of the Rio Grande to reduce migrants’ entrance across the border at a cost of $3.5 billion. The dream of instituting a “line in the sand” along the Rio Grande hoped that the invasive construction, amplified noise and lighting disturbed sensitive habitat and breeding behavior “temporarily” without adversity and “little permanent damage,” as if failing to consider the long-term nature of the “grand strategy” as it mutate into a multi-year project from 1997.

Border Patrol operations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Cartography by Eric Leinberger. 
Eric Leinberger/US Border Patrol Operations in Lower Rio Grande against Migrants, 2011

The expansion of both border patrol officers, 20,000 by 2010, mirrored the allocation of $7 million for steel fences across the border, which expanded to Trump’s public requests for $8 billion for a border wall likely to cost as much as $25 billion. The huge sacrifice to the nation of building the border wall existed not only in the squandering of funds, but the legitimizing of a mindset of criminalizing and detaining trans-border migrants–and discounting of migrants’ lives. Migrants detained during the Trump Presidency in holding facilities along the border or in detention centers were willfully administered without humanity or dignity by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement: detention centers were sites of systemic abuse, operating with impunity in a culture of “dehumanizing physical, sexual, and medical abuse,” in the eyes of one observer, left over-crowded as President Trump sought to make them monitory examples to migrants. “Look, this is tough stuff . . . I know we’d see a system that is overcrowded,” adding on Twitter, “Tell them not to come to USA– . . . problem solved!” “Where do these people come from?”

Trump asked with open arms at a pro-border wall rally in February, 2019, anticipating the Presidential challenge of El Paso’s Beto O’Rourke, stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment, but ignoring the daily violence at the archipelago of Detention Centers that were administered by ICE. The project of wall building however became a monument in itself, the logic of whose construction as a monument to the nation consigned to oblivion migrants’ fates by being recast and dignified as a military project, and a military struggle–an elevation of the building of the border wall to a struggle for national identity that was referenced in the reference to defending the border at the celebration of the completion of four-hundred and fifty miles of wall at an American border town called Alamo, where the line in the sand could be firmly drawn by blocks of reinforced concrete with a rebar core–presented as the completion of a promise long made to the nation.

Trump in El Paso: Dueling rallies show border wall support, opposition
MAGA Border Wall Rally at El Paso Texas, 2019

The policy separation of migrant families at the border began in late 2016, before Trump was inaugurated. It was extended without public debate over the policy, however, and dramatically escalated in Trump’s Presidency. If the wall concealed America’s dependence on migrant labor, it also concealed the extent of this rampant abuse of human rights. The systemic family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border expanded despite documentation of its abuse–there are many cases of losing, abusing, and even killing children increasingly detained in centers in southeast Texas–but Trump tolerated and shouldered abuse as he had directed attention to the construction of the border wall that was financed almost two years ago, with the declaration of a National Emergency as Congress refused to apportion $5.6 billion he requested for its construction, but a fifth of his original request, with the assertion that the nation faced “tremendous dangers at the border” that demanded a border wall, seeking to secure the desired funds without the congressional approval by hyperbole, to use funds apportioned for military construction projects to redirect to a border wall he cast as a project for American armed forces as the funds were not forthcoming–but meeting legal challenge as only projects in which American armed forces were engaged didn’t demand congressional apportionment, and as, it was widely noted, border apprehensions were in decline. The steep increase in detentions at the border was cast as evidence of the need to build the wall, as policies of detention and increased numbers of those detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement created a sense of its increasing need.

But it was as true that the need for a wall as a shared cultural symbol grew to distract populations from the growing gaps of wealth, access to education, health care, and justice in the United States, and the growing wealth gaps between the super-wealthy and the rest diminished before the spectacle of the wall. The National Emergency was declared to secure funding for the border wall, concealing that the securing of the border was neither an emergency or a military operation, but a mythic redrawing of the border. Trump visited Alamo, TX in order to restore a timeless a mythic defense of the United States at The Alamo, linking the border wall with a mythic project of national defense, even if the defense of The Alamo during by Texian Revolutionaries was not fought at the walls of the old mission by the American government, but by the ancestors of the current vigilante groups and self-designated Patriots, who took in upon themselves to seize land that was Mexican–and under Mexican sovereignty–to claim it as part of the United States. The “Come and Take It” flags first flown as a symbol of defiance to Mexican soldiers in 1835 provided a false originalism that flew as it was elevated in the insurrectionary Capitol Riots President Trump had not distanced himself for several weeks; the defiant Confederate flag affirmed Second Amendment rights, and the President’s own rhetoric of “taking back the country,” familiar among militia.

Come And Take It': A Texan Symbol Of Defiance For Sale : NPR

The ease with which Trump described the building of the wall was in 2015 was confirmed by the visit to the border Alamo, by staging a revisionary and selective history of the border wall rooted in national triumphalism and American flags. Trump had convinced the American electorate building a wall across a border of almost 2,000 miles, extending from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, across rugged topography was a piece of cake for someone so practiced in construction was itself a map-trick. Trump in fact possessed little sense of the practicalities of building in such terrain, and barely registered the scale of the problem save its effectiveness of a wall that would render the legal identity of the migrant opaque. Rather than dwell its logistics or practicalities, Trump had promoted the performative promise of constructing a border wall in his campaign–displaying pseudo-maps promising national security–whose simplicity lay in its denial of rights of migrant, a simplicity of evacuating rights by the border wall that was a subject of pleasure, an inspirational image whose financing he presumed that the office of the President would help waive established mechanisms of appropriating necessary funds.

The image of the fantasy wall bounding the nation, concrete punctuated by what seem hexagonal towers of surveillance, was attributed to “The People,” as a new embodiment of the nation, separate from international conventions or law.

What Trump owes his supporters, and now, the country | PBS NewsHour
2016 Presidential Candidate Trump Shows Border Wall Map Allegedly Given by 2015 Rally-Goer in Fayetteville, NC/
Johnathan Drake/Reuters

The fantasy of the border wall that Trump was offered at a political rally for his candidacy was completed at Alamo. The evocative name of continued resistance, and refusal to give up, was evoked by the place-name alone of one town near where the border wall spanned Hidalgo County that popped as a trigger for transmitted memory far more than the other towns the section of border wall passed near Ft. McAllen–‘Mission’, ‘San Juan’, ‘Weslaco’, ‘Mercedes’, and Brownsville, a frequent stop of border visit, and popped out of the map for some time. Plucked from the map, its prominence drowned the fate of migrants or the protected areas the Trump administration sought waivers to cut through from 2017, wrangled by 2018 as regions the wall was only permitted to extend by declaring a National Emergency at the border; Customs and Border Patrol waived environmental regulations in the Lower Rio Grande, as regulations preventing construction of border wall in protected lands were extended to the western regions through 2019. Was the Rio Grande Valley not a model for the waiver of environmental regulations limiting construction that President Trump long sought to wrangle?

Border Wall | Sierra Club
Proposed Levee Wall Constructed in Rio Grande Valley, 2017
Expanded Levees Proposed along Rio Grande Valley
Existing and Proposed Border Wall beside the Rio Grande River and Valley (2017)/Sierra Club

By late August 2019, the problem of extending the border wall and levees along the lower Rio Grande Valley still remained on Trump’s front burner, and the nagging question of how to extend these sections of existing border wall in a defensive line along the windy course of the Rio Grande near McAllen was a thorny question of securing needed exemptions.

As a realtor, Trump was habituated in the construction of hotels and golf courses to move around regulations and obtain special clearances with the ease he might move across the globe’s surface, and as he flouted regulations and Congressional approval by declaring a National Emergency in February, 2019, to circumvent budgetary approval, allowing himself to flout regulations as in the past. As a real estate promoter, Trump had mostly used maps to skirt regulations, gain tax breaks, tax-forgiveness, or debt relief, to generate much vaunted “gross operating products” to “pay as little in taxes as possible.” Tax-avoidance is the major strategy of wealth preservation of the ultra-wealthy, and the range of tax breaks that Trump gained in what constitutes as public assistance benefit all fifteen buildings at the core of his Manhattan real estate empire; circumvention of regulations of appropriation was the only way to achieve the building of the border wall, and was probably what Trump meant, if anything, when he argued that his expertise in building would allow the border wall to be publicly funded, even if he argued that deal-making skills would allow construction of a “big, beautiful wall” that no previous President had been able to deliver–and which demanded a voice outside the corrupt American political class.

Donald J. Trump, left, with Mayor Ed Koch, center and New York Gov. Hugh L. Carey, pointing to a rendering of what would become the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in June 1978. A crucial factor behind the hotel’s construction was 40-year tax break that has cost New York City $360 million to date.
Trump at June, 1978 groundbreaking for Grand Hyatt, Associated Press

The wall was a symbol of the popular mandate on which Trump promised to deliver, providing a monument of public safety no other president had been able to offer. The very narrative of its imminent construction had long offered a performative basis to save the Trump presidency, returned to several times as if it were a promise that was the basis of his alleged popular mandate and a demand for safety only he could meet or discern. If Trump clothed the construction of the wall and its funding in questions of border security, and the needs of economic and criminal security that he argued the lack of a border wall imperiled, arguing for the basis of domestic security to attract the broadest base, as an act of love–“you build a wall around your house not because you hate the people on the outside, but because you love the people on inside” (January, 2019), Tump was selling us a vision of domestic security akin to luxury living at a remove from the city’s sounds and diversity, concealing the economic dependence of the nation on immigration, and the violence of the border security apparatus, more costly, perhaps, if far less beautiful than the “big, beautiful wall” he promised.

Love? The wall emblematized an independence from international protocol or conventions, and human rights requirements, as a “line in the sand,” and was able to be drawn in the sand as the site to build the towering, opaque wall able to blot out what lies across the border, replacing the sovereign state with a model of border defense of earlier eras, eras predating sovereign claims we would recognize, and suggesting a Hobbesian state of nature. Trump saw the wall as, one might argue, a similar part of the landscape, able to blend seamlessly with its surroundings and necessitated by them.

–in a performance of sovereignty, rather than a sovereign discussion with other states: the border wall was long for domestic consumption as a spectacle, if it was argued, and presented, to be , and was involved in a mythos of the nation that was for domestic consumption, displacing claims of sovereignty in the ceremony of defining a dichotomous divide by fiat, on a reality show that was for national broadcast, rather than framed by a language of international law.

Trump staged his final visit to the border at Alamo, TX, seeking to savor the triumphant construction project he now cast as a monument of national achievement of what he had campaigned would be akin to the Eisenhower Highway System, funded by defense appropriations even if they unapproved by congress, but The wall provided a monument to the Trump Presidency, emblazoned with his name or his signature, as if in a gambit to claim that the structure deserved to be named after himself. He visited the poured concrete levees on the Rio Grande as a fruit of his presidency, the only concrete walls left of the entire border wall, which was vertical steel beams filled with concrete to replace fencing, but judged to meet the “operations requirements of the U.S. Border Patrol” in 2019–until, that is, they were found easy to be sawed through by a circular saw. Such “high security fencing” would cost 1.6 billion, but a fraction of the $25 billion Trump desired to allocate for border building, promising at the start of work “not only on some new wall, [but] . . . fixing existing walls and existing acceptable fences” very quickly. He had accelerated the pace of border construction in ways that seemed to be timed to the election, and had probably planned to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, win or lose the election, as a platform of expanding the need for allocating more funding to the wall. When he came to “highlight his administration’s work on the border wall,” the valedictory visit sent the message that he. had done his hardest to keep the barbarians on the edge of the empire on the other side of the border, and sought to transmute into the national memory.

All of this was far from the town of Alamo, and even father from the mythic imaginary of The Alamo that had assumed a sacred importance in many Americans’ collective memory that Trump was eager to transfer to the Border Wall. President Trump’s visit was to a site near McAllen, Texas, rather than The Alamo, but the questions of how they were related quickly rose to the surface of newswire accounts. AP and other news outlets quickly reminded the nation, as the White House had left it unclear, that the city of Alamo TX near the military base was, indeed, not The Alamo in downtown San Antonio. But Trump had long claimed to love the uneducated, and the faithful, and the possible geographic confusion seemed an opportune way to fulfill the mission of the trip to tally achievements by affirming the threat came from south of the border at his term end–and elicit continued fears that the failure to complete border construction projects would not Keep American Great less cross-border flows of population continued to be stopped, as important to the nation as the historic “border conflict” by the so-called “defenders of the Alamo,” who had in fact started an insurrection in Mexican province.

As if visiting an outpost on the border of the empire where he sought to protect barbarians from invading, days after having incited riots that had staged an actual insurrection, at a rally where the President claimed Democrats “threw open our borders and put America last,” reminding them at President Biden would “get rid of the America First policy,” he ceremonially visited the border as if to mythologize it. Trump arrived in full regalia, as if denying his loos, but as if visiting the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, as if it were a privileged site of national defense, near the river whose meander had long defined the international boundary between Mexico and the United States, and indeed was a return to the Rio Grande Valley he had already visited to discuss border security in January, 2019, and sought to confront questions of the need to seize privately owned land to do so by eminent domaine. If the border wall was to be tall, daunting, fitted with flood lights, sensors, cameras and an enforcement zone that was a hundred and fifty feed wide was a steep goal, Trump treated government shutdown as a small price for 450-500 miles of border wall on track to be completed by the end of 2020, promoting a border wall whose construction would be completed by March 2021.

It still existed, even if that moment in history would never arrive. And although the story was told of population movement across the border, another story could be told about the disappearance of the boundary that almost seemed imminent by the mid-1990s, even as anti-migrant feelings grew: the expansion of the transboundary cooperation along much of the border that responded to the growth of the border region to almost a billion inhabitants in the 1990s, through which increasing billions of exports moved yearly–$3.3. billion at the San Diego checkpoint alone by 1990–that led Border Mayors Conference to request a transboundary zone allowing free movement to all of twenty five miles, as the increasing economic importance of the boundary brought an increased interest in drawing a boundary able to define the exclusivity of the wealth of an imagined community of Americans from outsiders, as a porous border region seemed less in control of the United States government, and almost a separate nation.

The line between nations that Trump chose to emphasize along the river delta where Alamo TX is located and which Trump visited is one of the sole places along the entire US-Mexico border where steel panels appear, fully mounted on large concrete levees. As one of the rare sites where the concrete wall that Trump promised actually exists, it became an important backdrop to conclude his Presidency in a final photo op, as well as to rehearse a new national imaginary.

The visit to the concrete levees of the Rio Grande Valley that were mounted by concrete-core steel fencing were a display of Presidential authority on a line drawn in the sandy riverbanks far from the Alamo, as newspapers had to remind their readers, but provided a tableaux vivant of sorts, eight days before the end of Trump’s presidency, to defend the necessity of drawing a firm line in the sand.

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

The actual geographic distance between Alamo TX and The Alamo seems to have shrunk symbolically, if the car ride was still three and a half hours: Trump seemed to treat his visist as a retrospective view on the grand project of national redefinition on which he had coasted as he teared up in remembering the “great honor” after working so “long and hard” on the border wall as he found himself “here in the Rio Grande Valley with the courageous men and women of Customs and Border Patrol.” The encomium that he planned to the four hundred and fifty miles of wall built so far was an occasion of deep personal bonding with the built, akin to the ties Trump promoted to many real estate projects of construction over the years, on which he had affected the same deep tie by affixing his name in ways that we had understood as a promotion of his brand as much as a canny extension of self to a distributed global network. He had forged deep bonds to the wall, so it was difficult to decide where the wall ended and the candidate–or the man–began, as the monument he had promised so fulsomely from the declaration of his candidacy became a sign of the nation, a sign of national security, and a sign of the vision of national security that he, Trump, and only he could promise, akin to the visions of luxury lifestyle that he, Trump, could guarantee and promote.

The term that he had served out, and was now coming to a close, became an occasion to express, in mock humility, his gratitude for the very experience of having “gotten to know [the members of the Border Patrol] very well over the last four years,” praising the “incredible . . . really incredible” people at Border Patrol he had promised the wall to be built, and was now there to say he had delivered, and the promised were indeed kept. “We got it exactly as you wanted it–everything!–including your protective plate on top . . . for extra protection,” he noted, the real estate promoter returning as he surveyed the levees, and the reinforced concrete, ignoring the detention centers and the human lives lost in its construction, as well as the habitat destroyed, a concern which he was successful at having dismissed. The delivery of border wall concluded a transactional relation to the Border Patrol, as much as to protect the nation. Looking at the reinforced concrete structure with heavy slats, Trump channeled his identity as a builder that could be cemented with his status as an American President, explaining how it was “steel,” “concrete inside steel–and then its rebar–its rebar–a lot of heavy rebar inside the concrete,” channeling his inner engineer–“as strong as you’re going to get and as strong as you can have . . . . 100% of what you wanted!” The swansong speech promoting the achievement of an “extraordinarily successful building of the wall on the southern border,” of four hundred and fifty miles bookended Trump’s October 2018 speech at Calexico, CA, to commemorate the construction of two hundred miles of a “full wall system” looking suspiciously like a fence.

Gregory Bull, AP/President Trump Approaches Improvised Podium at Calexico, CA (Oct 26, 2018)

The border wall sections that had been commemorated for three years running revealed increments of two hundred miles by rolling out the border as a prop–a talking point, and a monument, more than an accomplishment. As monuments, each roll-out of border wall and affixed with the commemorative plaque crediting construction to President Trump staged a new era of border protection and defense. But the monuments to the militarization of the border wall and exclusion of refugees from the nation was based not on actual precedents, or a map, but gestured to a new national imaginary, and increasingly did so by comparisons to mythic events of the nation, rather than to actual events, migrant surges, or need.

Trump’s speech before the concrete levees in Alamo TX seemed uncoded. He deliver hope and a prayer that the piece of national infrastructure would survive as a personal legacy. But the comparisons he made were deeply coded, from the billing of the wall as a project of national infrastructure to the gesture to celebrating the militarization of the border at a city called Alamo, which effectively placed the border wall on two imaginary maps, neither coinciding with the lay of the land or the geographic situation of the border wall as a project of massive environmental destruction of sensitive habitat, inhumane treatment of detained migrants, and disrespect or acknowledgement of a world of increased displaced persons and refugees. Trump had bizarrely compared to the Eisenhower National Highway System from his campaign of 2015 would survive as a personal legacy for national development and will ensure memories of the success of his Presidency defending national security. When Donald J. Trump had first refurbished a political identity, he not only added a middle initial to his name in the fashion of Eisenhower, but presented “America’s Infrastructure First” as in the mold of Eisenhower, promising a transition that echoed the commander of allied forces in hopes to “implement a bold, visionary plan for a cost-effective system of roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, and pipelines in the proud tradition of President Dwight D Eisenhower, who championed the interstate highway system”–as a basis for his credibility and perhaps legitimacy as a President. To be sure, the marquis project of a Border Wall System exhausted the budget and federal funds available. But in the way that Eisenhower mandated the highway system be federally funded as a national defense program in 1954, linking the need for roads to imminent the fears of nuclear attack, as much as for transportation needs, based on his experience in rebuilding Europe, the massive cost of the Eisenhower Highway System–which had unprecedentedly cost the United States $101 billion, far beyond the original federal bond that Congress had approved, provided the only comparable form of expenditure to the border wall that he had proposed. Even as the cost of the border wall had expanded,–and left President Biden noting that stopping the construction Trump had arranged by classifying it as a National Emergency might save the incoming administration $2.6 billion, freeing up needed funds for needed projects of national health, border barriers would have become the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation.

If being run by the Army Corps of Engineers, the visit to Alamo TX keeps alive the defense of the border and conjures the streaming of Mexicans over another wall, and the gesture to the improvised insurrection of The Alamo that might be effectively enlisted as a new model of service to an imagined nation. As he looked at the wall, the outgoing mused in his final days in office, unsubtly reminding his audience of the potential sacrifice to the nation of stopping the project, that the current wall was “as strong as you’re going to get and strong as you can have.” His audience new well that all bets were all off about building more wall in the Biden administration, and his words seemed to seek to rile up his long-term allies at Customs and Border Patrol, whose union had been the very first endorsed his presidential candidacy, excited by the priority he gave building a border wall in the first days of his campaign. For this real estate promoter turned salesman of a vision of the nation was most familiar with maps as a basis to evade building codes, zoning restrictions, or municipal regulation, by means of winning exemptions through wand-waving reclassifications that seemed a sort of grand opera of “deal”-making.

For Trump, such canny framing metaphors as a reference to infrastructure and a visit to Alamo helped to frame the project of the wall as one of national defense, requiring a reclassification of budgetary appropriations, and indeed fast-track prioritization as a project of national need. Both Eisenhower’s unprecedented achievement of infrastructure investment and the saber-rattling reference to The Alamo seemed to reframe the project in credible terms for a base, independent from the lay of the land or the practicalities and logistics of the border terrain: both metaphorical gambits removed the wall from the map, and mapped the border wall within a new logic of nation-building. Such reference to the Eisenhower Interstate, a model of expansion of infrastructure that had creeped up on the nation slowly, to become part of its national identity over time, had slowly created the expanse of national highways that fit with doubling of highwasy after World War I in the United States, as, the paved mileage of but 257,000 miles grew over time to almost 522,000, as the plans Eisenhower had laid were solidified as the Federal-Aid Highway Act would pave concrete interstates of 41,000 more miles–and adding 5,000 miles beyond Eisenhower’s mandated 41,000 miles of interstate provided, few have noted, a memorable event in Trump’s life, whose construction was elevated as a powerful model of what passed for public service in Trump’s youth. If Trump had ben celebrating the building of four hundred and fifty miles of wall, Trump framed the innovative nature of his future vision of a nation that was walled, by many more miles, as well as securing an image of the strength and identity of the nation that he had tried to cement. Eisenhower, famously, had mandated the project of the interstates during the Cold War as a project of national defense of the economy, in the event of attack, allowing federal dollars to flow to local projects. Was it only coincidence that Trump entertained audiences at his rallies, as if flying a trial balloon from August, 2105, “Maybe someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall,” he mused early in his candidacy, recognizing the power and unique privileges that the office of Presidency might bring. The fantasy became a near-actuality in his public platform as a candidate when by December of the same year he described the “Trump Wall,” in mid-July 2016, after he left the official campaign trail, promising a project of needed national infrastructure “someday named after me.”

The final days speech delivered with the dateline “Alamo” was hardly valedictory. It affirmed the section completed border wall as a great piece of infrastructure almost a personalized as a gift to the nation’s security. He cast his visit to the wall as forward-looking, for the right audience, as what might be a personal salute to his legacy of border defense, the trademark promise Trump made as an American politician, was not a retrospective but a final epideictic of the promise to Make America Great Again, elevating the conceit of a mythical defense against “illegal aliens” on the southwest border he had personalized as integral to the logic of his Presidency and the prime evidence of Presidential authority. Trump’s Presidency, he wanted to claim, might be remembered as a time of the building of a similar basis of the nation’s strength and architecture, as he sought to secure the centrality and preeminence of concrete wall-building to a vision of the nation. From his speech, one would think the wall had become a testimony to the strength of the nation in the Trump Presidency, and he championed the vision of the nation’s strength that he had long sought to promote, as if to celebrate and acknowledge a change in the topography of the nation and people’s relation to the nation, analogous to the highway system. It hardly mattered the drive to The Alamo was a couple of hundred miles, on Route 35 (three hundred and nineteen miles) or Route 37 (just short of two hundred and forty miles); the symbolic link of the wall to the nation was echoed, despite that quite considerable real world distance, to the map between a place symbolic of saving of a vision of national identity and a mission to defend national lands and liberties.

The link left salient during his speech was perhaps the greatest and most significant take away for the right audience, as it was its figurative intent: even in the light of failure of one battle at The Alamo, the fight was long, ongoing, and would in the end prevail as a new vision of the nation, and in the end, win out as a definition of the border in the national imaginary: if Representative Abraham Lincoln saw little precedent for the border to be drawn on the Rio Grande either in treaties or in law cases that showed recognition of the river as a mutually consented boundary line, save in the conceit of manifest destiny all abolitionists and Republicans disdained locating justifications of the border in God-given right to territorial expanse, Trump appealed to the very manifest destiny for which Lincoln demanded proofs in visiting Alamo–a “line in the sand” grounds to defend a nation, reprised as a myth of national defense in 1836, heroized by John Wayne in technicolor in the 1962 extravaganza Wayne starred, directed, and produced to promote Cold War principles of national defense.

The Alamo,” uncredited poster (1961)

While Trump had increasingly used history both strategically and purposefully as a distortion of bonds that tied the nation and its citizens, the heroic battle that the visit referenced was more likely the film version of The Alamo as a racialized struggle of white defenders against Mexican extras playing invading forces: the film, which itself downplays the location of The Alamo in Mexican Territory, and indeed the status of Texas as a Mexican state that belonged to a nation which prohibited slavery and enslavement, provided an iconic image of division that mapped onto Trump’s intent to divide the nation as he had devoted the summer of 2020 to address a broad and merciless left-wing attack to “wipe out our history,” conscripting numerous iconic images of the nation as props in his attempt to divide the nation by staging iconic patriotic tableaux to evoke a dogmatic use of historical memory.

The skill of wielding historical memory to further divides that was on show for most of 2020–from Trump’s bemoaning of attempts to “demolish our heritage” were long tagged along racial lines, from the defense of memorials and monuments to confederate soldiers, slave-owners, and anti-abolitionists he sought to preserve in our national memory, to the statues of colonizers as Christopher Columbus, who had introduced trade in enslaved peoples, to expand a sense of moral reckoning in response to social justice movements, opposing an official “patriotic” history against those who would “defame” our heritage, not acknowledging the erection of monuments to Confederate soliders belonged to a Jim Crow era designed to glorify segregation and disenfranchisement. Did the gesture of a visit to Alamo not situate the border wall in a context of defending a “line in the sand,” at the site of “Operation Hold the Line”? If this was not rationalized similarly, it was meaningful to members of the Border Patrol he visited there.

Trump Uses Mount Rushmore Speech to Deliver Divisive Culture War Message -  The New York Times
July 4, 2020/Anna Moneymaker, New York Times

The President has long lavished attention on the projected construction of border as if inhabiting the role of the public official, the enabler, and the fixer all at once in the unveiling of an even more majestic and far more grandiose national monument. Without ever conceding the election–and indeed instructing those who supported his candidacy in 2020 to “never give up, never concede,” Trump appropriately visited the border city that was named after a spirit of independence revealed in the refusal of the armed insurgents of 1835 to ever leave the garrison in Tejano lands that they sought. to hold, as if to hold off the advancing Mexicans soldiers that were valorized as creating a needed “barrier of safety to the southwestern frontier” long, long before it was ever described as a border, back in 1836. If that struggle was remembered in its day as a battle waged, as Stephen L. Austin wrote, in a May 4, 1836 letter to Senator L. F. Linn of Missouri, “by the mongrel Spanish-Indian and Negro race, against civilization and the Anglo-American race,” preserving what was enjoined to be “remembered” in public memory as a purification of ethnic and racial contamination.

The preservation of the memory of these insurgents as heroes had led them to be extolled President Trump in a historical pantheon, among public models of American heroism in a fiery State of the Union address of May, 2020 that extolled “our glorious and magnificent inheritance” as an alternative history to that of civil rights. He had praised the “beautiful, beautiful Alamo,” urging that all school children in America continue to learn the names of the “Texas patriots [who] made their last stand at the Alamo–the beautiful, beautiful Alamo,” beside the name of pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock as a foundational myth of the nation that confirmed its Manifest Destiny, eulogizing the defenders of the Alamo beside Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock as Americans who “changed history forever by embracing the eternal truth that everyone is made equal by the hand of Almighty God.” Supported in their seizing of the Alamo-and the lands of Texas–by Trump’s hero, Andrew Jackson, who saw the benefits creating a “slavocracy” extending plantation lands across the South; the New Orleans Bee 1834 lamented the racial degradation Mexico embodied in bemoaning “the unfortunate race of Spaniard, Indian and African, is so blended that the worst qualities of each predominate.”   The visit to Alamo TX, named after the rebels whose leader had solemnly vowed “I shall never surrender and never retreat” seemed quite opportune as Trump sought to re-iterate the notorious vow he took January 6 to never give up and never concede.

The Associated Press

The speech memorialized a refusal to concede or Alamo to make a final performance of border security before the Rio Grande, and to acknowledge the depth of his commitment to boosting border security. The very emblem of the Alamo was among the flags of current militia who had arrived for the January 6 riots, and a powerful emblem of the Texas militia groups who had defended the commemoration of The Alamo as a nationalist cause, verging on white nationalism. In returning to the Rio Grande Valley, Trump announced in the Texas border town of Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” he exaggerated as either in “construction or pre-construction” at pains to deny he had left the “wall,” the impressive centerpiece of his political promise to America, as scattered unbuilt fragments, after having rallied his candidacy behind the construction of a continuous concrete wall.

The collective struggle was ongoing and undying, in the post-Presidency of Trump, as the project of wall-building, he insisted, would continue in the appeals he had made in his candidacy, American flags draped behind him, to the flags behind him as he spoke at the wall he had guaranteed would be built, and the wall that would be a reason that folks had once sacrificed their lives. It is hard to imagine the huge costs of this project of wall building, and the expanse of an archipelago of detention centers that now existed along the border of the United States. (One might remember that it was in the Austrian border village of Braunau a son was born to the Customs Inspector Aloïs Hitler was born a future Führer.)

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Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

A pandemic is by its nature both local and global by definition–and begins from a local outbreak. But if the only way to gain orientation to a pandemic is by accurate local counts, the problem of balancing–or toggling between–the local and global has become staggeringly pronounced in the case of COVID-19, as if the point-based cartography that we use to track the disease has the better of us, and upper hand, with the absence of accurate local counts. The lack of clear data that came from Wuhan in the days that followed the outbreak of the virus revealed worrisome problems of transparency. The difficulty that the Chinese government had in getting a clear bearing on the zoonotic virus raised problems of even trying to map its rise, to which all data visualizations since seem to respond: as local officials were loathe to shoulder responsibility, the tally of infected in Hubei Province jumped, astoundingly, forcing the government to recognize the ease of its transmission among humans, was far more virulent than believed. But at this point, looking back in the mirror provides little sense of orientation to the multiplication of dispersed local outbreaks of coronavirus that we are increasingly challenged to map in relation to ourselves.

The sudden uptick of cases reveals a reticence in tallying the infected out of fears of reprisals for apparent incompetence, an institutional blame-shifting triggering mechanisms of concealment that has led American meat-packing plants to hide numbers of infected workers, and numbers of tests for infection to be far lower than official records suggest: the absence of ability to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 led us to proliferate maps in hopes to grasp its rapid doubling, uncomfortable at the world they began to show, apprehensive at how to come to terms with the rapidity of local outbreaks of confirmed cases with sufficient granularity, and enough continuities, hoping to track contagion as hopes of containment were beginning to fade in the new aggregates that were increasingly evident.

New York Times

The warning of the virus’ spread was raised by Li Wenliang on December 30 from Wuhan, inter-agency shifting of blame and responsibility in Wuhan– a reflexive institutional blame-shifting by “throwing woks”–abruptly ceased with summons of Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, he who lured Elon Musk to Shanghai, to restore order: as a new hospital was built, tallies of new cases of coronavirus in Hubei astronomically grew by nine from 1,638 to 14,840, shocking the world–a figure was in keeping with the nearly 1,400 people dead in the country, but suggesting a viral load of unprecedented proportions. Americans apprehensively watched the disease afflicting passengers of cruise liners as if it would arrive ashore, its virulence was in fact already of pandemic proportions: yet American disinformation here took over, as we were told to stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, as fears were overblown, and tried to keep calm. And then, the tables were turned, as the United States President described, or suggested, a national policy of intentional undercounts, and limited testing, lest the counts discovered tank his popularity–the stock market value of Trump, International, or, rather, Trump-in-Office, Trump-as-Chief-Executive, whose new season might be canceled due to low ratings. And although the virus began in China, how the United States increasingly came to be the outlier in the numbers of infection confirmed weekly suggested a national story of mismanagement, as the narrative we told ourselves of American exceptionalism before illness seemed to have boomeranged, with the three-day averages of confirmed infections skyrocketing, and setting us apart from the very nations we compare ourselves to, but whose health-care policy we increasingly realize we are distinct from.

Americans were soothed by deceptive common-sense talk. But the results of a lack of investment in public health are all too evident, if our maps are . Robert Redfield, a virologist who served as the public spokesperson of reassurance who had long sustained false theories about retroviruses causing HIV and AIDS, argued that even if the fourteen confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were monitored and traced, “the virus more exploded . . beyond public health capacity,” he seemed to forget he had not developed that capacity. Virology is of course Dr. Redfield’s area of expertise, but he won his political post in no small part by being practiced in massaging truth statements for political ends. During AIDS outbreak, the last major plague in the United States, he had advocated unproven drugs billed as HIV vaccines and encouraged quarantine, abstinence, and stripping the medical licenses of HIV-infected medical workers, more than accelerating cures; Redfield took time to blame the Obama administration for implementing clinical tests, to please his patron. Bt he obscured the level of infections that in truth were not known, blinding the nation to a cartography of COVID by not advancing adequate levels of testing, that returned us to the simple equation of the dog days of AIDS, only able to make us yell, yet again, this time with Larry Kramer, stalwart resistor of the silencing of AIDS by the failure to use on-trial medicine–

–at the utter deception with which we met the pandemic. Dr. Redfield must have met his commission to radiate calm by assuring Americans in late February. As he assured us only fourteen cases had been diagnosed in the United States, the number meant little, as any virologist should kmow; while hindsight is a benefit that obscures us from the need to life life forwards, we suspect urban hotspots were already laden with infected individuals by March 1, a silent ticking bomb of urban outbreaks already infecting 28,000 as it spread broadly its “hotspots”–New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago–all of massively different density, without tests being able to affirm the scale of its spread.

There was no map. And then, all of a sudden, the globalization of coronavirus hit home; any place in the world could be related to any other place, as rates of infection bloomed globally in geographically disjointed hotspots, spatially removed from one another, even as a standard for uniform testing lacked. And there was no sense of an art of dying, as the amazingly rapid contraction and worsening of illnesses left many without a script, and many more silent before a dizzying multiplication of statistics of mortality in the face of COVID-19, several weeks later.

Every other map of COVID-19’s spread seems an attempt to persuade the viewer of its accuracy and totality, in retrospect, even as we have no clear sense of the total figures of infection-or even of the paths infection takes. We are mystified by the geography and spatial dynamics of the virus’ travel, but realize the severe communicability of a virus whose load is stored in the naso-laryngeal passages, and can be communicated by airborne drops. Is distancing the best way we can constrain the geographic spread of infection? Can statistics demonstrate the success of curtailing its spread?

It was a hidden agenda in the maps of news agencies and to register the accurate levels of infection, promising the sorts of transparency that had been clouded in much of January. And while we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, there is a sense of truth-telling, as a result, of revealing the scope of the virus’ actual spread that compensates for the lack of clarity we once had. But it is also increasingly difficult to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, for we still are looking at pretty limited and almost superficial data, in the sense we have trouble plotting it in a narrative context, or find a reaction more than shock. The virus is easy in ways to personify as a threat–it wants us outside; it comes from afar; it pervades public spaces and hospital grounds; it demands vigilant hand-washing and sanitizing–but the very numbest are elusive. While we try to track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, we have been lumping numbers of tests that might be apples and oranges, and have not found a consistent manner of testing. Deaths are difficult to attribute, for some, since there are different sites where the virus might settle in our bodies.

Even while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19. It is frustrating that our GPS maps, which we seem able to map the world, can map numbers of surrogates for viral spread, but we have yet to find a way to read the numbers in a clear narrative, but are floored by the apparently miasmatic spread of such a highly contagious disease that makes us feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, that we are in “ground zero of empiricism,” as if we are now all in the seventeenth century, not only in being vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, but without explanatory and diagnostic tools.

This was, to be sure, a past plague come to life, requiring new garb of masks, face-shields, and protective gear for health workers–

–as the cloaks, leather gloves, staffs and masks that made up early modern protective gear returned to fashion, as if in a time warp, in new form.

We find a leveling between folk remedies and modern medicine, as we live collectively in what she calls a “ground-zero moment of empiricism”–if one in which we are deluged by data, but short in knowing what is data, as we are lacking in explanatory models. This is a bit unfair, as we still can profit from autopsies, and have been able to contain spread by hand-washing–but the images of a single magic bullet, or antiviral cure, are far, far away in time. But there is no longer any familiarity with an art of dying, although we found we encountered death with an unforeseen and unpleasant rapidity: we moved from hopes for awaiting immunity or antivirals to a basic need for some consolation of our mortality. There was no possibility of transcendence in a crisis of mortality of dimensions and scope that seem outside the modern era.

And it is ironic that distancing is the best mode to prevent infection–and many deaths may have been enabled by quicker decisions to adopt practices of distancing that could manage viral spread, Trump seemed not to notice that the very globalization he had resisted, and swung against with all his force to win votes, had facilitated the spread of a viral agent whose arrival was denied even as SARS-CoV-2 had already begun to flood the United States, in ways we only mapped in retrospect, as a global village that by March 1 had already grown satellites of viral loads in South Korea, the Middle East, Iran (Teheran), Europe (Milan; Gotheborg), South East Asia, and Hong Kong, as we anticipated its arrival with no health policy in place and no strategy for containing what was already on our shores. The global crossroads defied any choropleth, but we had only mapped the virus for some time in choropleths, as if believing by doing so we could not only map it by national boundaries to keep the virus at bay.

New York Times

But if we lacked a model of infection and communication of COVID-19, we lacked a sense of the geography by which to understand its spread–and to map it–and also, deeply problematically, an inter-agency coordination to assess and respond to the virus’ spread as we sought to contain it: and in the United States, the absence of any coordinating public health agency has left the country in something like free-fall, a cluelessness emblematic by a map cautioning American travelers to take enhanced protections while traveling in Italy or Japan, two major destinations of travel, and avoid all nonessential travel to China, but refrained from ceasing travel plans.

1. The most compelling language of the novel coronavirus is “false positives” and “false negatives,” that seem to betray the unsure nature of standards; the most haunting is the multiple sites COVID-19 can appear in the sites of the body we use to map most disease. While we associate the virus with our respiratory tracts, the virus can do damage to multiple organ systems, as well as create blotchiness of “covid toes” due to burst peripheral blood vessels; it can damage multiple organ systems simultaneously, including the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and linger in our intestinal tract where it can flourish and proliferate; the virus can reduce the ability of our blood to form clots, or disable our ability to form clots.  The ACE-2 receptor protein, a launching pad for viral infections, lies in our lungs and respiratory tract but in stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. Increased sensitivities among those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes reflect the nosological difficulties of classifying the virus as a cause of death or to grasp it as an illness, let alone to read data about the disease. If the virus lodges in the most delicate structures of the alveoli, which it causes to collapse as it infects their lining, it can take multiple pathways in the body, and as its pathway of infection may be multiple, medical response must be improvised with no playbook for clinical care.

All we know is that our medical staff desperately need protective gear. On top of that, it hardly helps that we are without a clear national policy, and find that the United States government has engaged in far less transparency that one could have ever expected.

We can only say its spread is accelerated dramatically by structures of globalization, and it stands to disrupt them. utterly Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? Or do we even know what sorts of data to look at–indeed, what is information that can help us process a sense of what might be the geography of the contraction or the transmutability of the virus? Is the virus eluding our maps, as we try to make them? These sort of questions of making sense may be the process of science, but they trace, suddenly, a far steepder learning curve than we are used.

A dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine cautioned that we still lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response.” Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, bemoaned the limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.

2. And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.

April, COIVID-19Iinfections Globally by Country/Clustrmaps May 12, 20202020

For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?

Global Covid Infections/Datascraped by Avi Schiffman, May 11, 2020

The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.

These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?

Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–

Select States for Project Baseline Testing/Verily

–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. Even if the Center for Disease Controls had never done clinical tests on hydrochloroquine, whose dangers on humans were not studied, and despite some benefits of the antiviral on cell cultures, none appeared in mice, the drug was promoted widely on social media as late as April, although its mention on Twitter grew, even as the government delayed any roll-out of testing sites.

The demand to calm the nation, a position dangerously close to concealment, delayed action on a wave of infection that President Trump had long sought to deny, claim to be overblown, or call Fake News. The lack of a public testing initiative, and rejection of the tests of other nations, forced the United States to adopt a disorganized go-it-aloneist approach, akin to isolationism, not benefiting from the potential ties to Chinese doctors’ response, or the testing kits that would have been available that the World Health Organization (WHO) had suspected since January, and made test kits for poorer countries that might be replicated in the United States–which chose to make its own tests to ensure the highest quality. When WHO had urged countries “test, test, test” for the coronavirus to contain its spread, the global health organization provided 1.5 million tests to 120 countries who lacked the ability to test by March 16; the United States went without the diagnostic tests developed in Berlin by la Charité, implemented in Germany. If the United States had submitted a test to WHO as well, the German test the health organization adopted was never used or ordered–and by mid-March processed a sixth the specimens as in Italy, with found over six times as many cases, and an eleventh as in South Korea, which found double the cases.

By April, the picture had improved, but not much.

COVID Tracking Project (Data)

And based on later data of the virus that spread to other American cities, the virus that had infected so many in New York seems to have spread to other American metropoles by May, as we were still awaiting broad testing.

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Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics

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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