Tag Archives: national memory

Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View?

Trump chose to visit the border wall for a final time in his Presidency, in a disarmingly valedictory way, to offer a summing up of his achievements as chief executive, that combined the ceremonial fanfare with which he had visited the groundbreaking of a new hotel, accompanied by city officials, but as if he was now 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. In a visit of the U.S. President that to some might recall the triumphal visits to sites of real estate developments, Trump announced in Alamo that the border wall had progressed from a development project as “completion of the promised four hundred and fifty miles of border wall” transformed what was but a “development project” to border wall sections in either “construction or pre-construction,” whose existence he seemed intent to observe before he left office. The visit marked an end to his attempts to remap the border in the public imaginary of Americans, and to entertain myths about the border, at the same time as to situate the southern border still more prominently in the national discussion.

But if Trump was a reactionary in returning to a national system of mapping, fending off global mapping tools that promised to erase borders in a network of global coordinates, Trump’s long campaign offered a way of remapping the nation. We dismissed as vanity the bizarre comparison of the wall as a project of national infrastructure comparable to the Eisenhower National Highway System survives as a personal legacy for national development, rather than as compromising national ideals. Before he took to signing the plaques of sections of border wall, the comparison to the earlier infrastructure project elevated the border wall to a central place of the national map. And Trump’s visit was an affirmal of the place of the wall in the nation.

Trump long imagined the border wall would be a sight of national grandeur and historical memory. He had introduced it as comparable to how Eisenhower, mesmerized by the banks and multi-lane Autobahn he had witnessed in Germany as commander of Allied Forces, had commissioned 41,000 miles of interstates Eisenhower as the largest public works project of its time. But Trump must have realized the highway system had changed not only the national topography but all Americans’ relation to space in profound ways, as he had lived through it: surfaced road mileage almost doubled after World War I, 1914-26 from almost 257,000 miles to almost 522,000, the Federal-Aid Highway Act promised to pave 41,000 miles of interstates.

Transcontinental Motor Convoy, 1919

Eisenhower developed deep convictions of the benefits of better roadways after driving in an often perilous Transcontinental Motor Convoy from Washington DC to San Francisco in 1919, leading him to prioritize resurfacing; the nation by 1991 had completed paving of 46,876 miles of interstates in one of the largest infrastructure supported by a dedicated fund. Trump’s image of the border depended not on traveling its 2,000 miles, but epic films of border fantasies–among them, John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” which cast defense of the border as a sacred mission and a border fortress as national shrine: “The Alamo” showcased defense of the mythic San Antonio garrison in the Texas Revolution as a mythic border whose defenders played a foundational role in American democracy.

“The Alamo” (196), not credited

The expansion of 5,000 miles beyond Eisenhower’s mandated 41,000 miles of interstate had long offered a major point of comparison in Trump’s life. When Donald J. Trump sought to refurbish his political identity, he not only added a middle initial–like Dwight D. Eisenhower–but modeled himself after Eisenhower in “America’s Infrastructure First,” a forgotten promise 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”–but his marquis project of a Border Wall System exhausted the budget and federal funds available. 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. Was it a coincidence that the Eisenhower Highway System had cost the United States $101 billion, far beyond the original federal bond that Congress had approved? Yet cost was now on the table: stopping construction on the border wall would save the incoming administration $2.6 billion, and free up funds for needed projects of national health.

While the cost of the most pricey piece of infrastructure in the nation are still being ironed out by the Army Corps of Engineers, Trump felt that the particularly complex Border Wall System by the Rio Grande could be a deeply personal legacy to the nation’s security that could be presented as a capstone to his basic campaign promise. After all, the notorious meander of the Rio Grande had created a deeply problematic basis for engineering a national divide: the massive geo-engineering of the flow of the river was chosen, despite the warning from 1857 by the surveyor general Major William H. Emery that if the river is chosen as the line for drawing an international boundary line, as rivers run by different meanders and in different beds, any change of course would mark a change in boundary and no mere “survey nor anything else can keep [the course of the river] from changing,” and constitutes “itself a more apparent and enduring monument of the boundary than any that can be made of art.” Despite awareness by surveyors of the difficulty of taking the historically shifting nature of the Rio Grande’s meander made the deepest point of its channel a poor proxy for an international boundary-line in surprisingly accurate early twentieth-century maps of its meander–

Relative Positions of the Rio Grande, 1852-1907 (1911)/Boston Public LIbrary, Leventhal Map Center

–Trump seems to have followed how the United States government, in search for a stable boundary, had pursued the attempt to rectify its natural meander as the International Water and Boundary Commission at the start of the century sought to remake the course of the river by the channelizing it to match the crisp lines mandated by boundary law, that continued aspirations to construct a concrete-lined cannel in 1962, despite longstanding acknowledgment the course changes with flooding and rainfall. Trump’s visit appeared to celebrate that concrete levees might grant permanence to a riverine border, as if to transcend natural change that had complexified the idea of a riverine border, so difficult to determine by fluvial geomorphology known for over a hundred years.

which sudden shifting of the riverine course of the Rio Grande rendered a less fixed boundary-line between states than the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ascertained in 1848, when it determined that the international boundary would run along the river from its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico by the deepest point of the channel until it met the southern border of New Mexico, as if the river’s course would be a proxy for the boundary, as was fixed by the first construction of a concrete-lined channel in 1962, despite the historical difficulties of drawing a boundary along a fluvial meander.

Reversion of La Burrita Banco–which the Avulsion of 1895 removed from United States Territory by the 910 International Boundary Commission Survey

Or was it only that? Something deeply personal was going on for the builder of Trump Tower who was trying to frame a political brand that transcended nature. As President, Trump acted Presidential by treating the border wall as a basis for sovereignty, almost as a form of absolutist understanding of presidential authority in a personalized manner, imagining the border wall commemorate his image of American sovereignty and adopt his name–as the Eisenhower Highway System celebrate the acknoweldgement of the nation’s interstates as a form of national defense. Trump mused “Maybe someday they’ll call it the Trump Wall,early in his candidacy in August 2015, as if appreciating the power the Presidency might bring; by December 2015 he described the “Trump Wall,” as a platform of his candidacy long before he was elected, again imagining the project would be “someday named after me” in mid-July 2016. Rather than a forward-looking, the valedictory visit was a personal salute to his legacy of border defense, the trademark promise Trump made as an American politician, a retrospective epideictic of the boast to Make America Great Again, a conceit of a mythical defense against “illegal aliens” on the southwest border, integral to his logic of Presidential authority.

Perhaps the visit was in fact occurring not at the border wall, but at the site of the namesake of the border town he visited–Alamo, TX–and the place of The Alamo in the historical imagination as a final line of defense of Texian revolutionaries against Mexican sovereign claims. Trump claimed he intened to curtail “illegal” migration from the start of his first candidacy, prioritizing “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border,” five days after inauguration, as a pivot in immigration policy to “get back control of our borders.” The claim was removed from any actual map, but it seems fitting the final visit to Alamo TX celebrated a border wall in an imagined and real geography, more than on a map. If the visits to the US-Mexico border became a basis to perform his identity as a President, with little familiarity of the situation on the ground, one couldn’t help but think that in he relished the visit shortly after the Capitol Riots to return to that interface between real and imagined geographies of the border.

US President Donald Trump waves after speaking and touring a section of the border wall in Alamo, Texas on January 12, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
American President Donald Trump Touring Border Wall in Alamo, Texas on January 12, 2021/Mandel Ngan, AFP

The visit to the border was a final salutation to the very issue that had began Trump’s political career and seemed to be equated with his sense of sovereignty: there is no such thing as a state, as Trump had it, without a border, and the border had been sacralized as a claim to sovereignty in the Trump administration. If the Trump administration had expanded border wall contracts on private land in a Declaration of Taking in the Rio Grande, however, some fourteen incomplete projects of border wall construction left to a Biden administration provided an occasion to affirm a personal promise and pledge to Customs and Border Patrol as if they would be preserved against the specter of illegal population movement that he had painted as a deep danger to national security. While Texas congressman Filemon Vela of Brownsville hoped that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi would with Senator Schumer “draw a line in the sand and oppose money for even an inch of border wall construction,” Trump rallied a different border imaginary of ‘a line the sand’ in visiting Alamo, a line which he drew with a Sharpie on the Border Plaque, rather than on the Texian sands with a sabre, symbollically affirmed his Presidential authority and identity, as he was leaving office and entering civil society, with little sense of what was ahead.

The sense that Trump lost sight of the broader context of his mismanagement and disengagement from the actually pressing threat of COVID-19 that had engulfed the country on his watch was apparent only if you pulled back, placing the crises he had manufactured at the border in the unprecedented threat of a pandemic which he had also cast as a problem of border policy.

Doug Mills, New York Times
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Filed under border policy, border politics, border wall, Donald Trump, US-Mexico Border