The Aesthetic Meaning of Trump’s Wall

“Your door is shut against my tightened face / And I am sharp as steel with discontent.”

— Claude McKay, “The White House”

“I pity the poor immigrant / When his gladness comes to pass.”

— Bob Dylan, “Pity the Poor Immigrant

In the context of NAFTA, we must think of the Wall on the southern border as a barrier that simultaneously facilitates and restricts entry. The idea of the Wall really took off in the 1990s as the depth and scope of U.S.-Mexico relations increased along with new manifestations of globalization. Thus we must think of the Wall as not the metaphoric impermeable entity it evokes, but as a form of transboundary interaction that enacts visions of discipline and authority.

In earlier periods of American history, the matter of “unauthorized” or “illegal” immigration has not caused quite as much consternation, such as during the peak of immigration from the late 19th century to the early 1920s. But it was only when integration assumed transparent forms in the 1990s, 30 years after the enactment of the 1965 immigration liberalization, that the border suddenly began to be seen as “out of control”—and in need of a physical wall. Restrictionist measures were imposed in the 1920s, and again in the 2000s, just as immigrants’ ability to assimilate reached peak levels in both periods.

In other words, so-called illegality is a matter of perception, the state creating new ways of seeing immigrant populations that have really nothing to do with actual legality or illegality.

The Wall that Trump envisions therefore becomes a way of iterating American nationhood. Social relationships within the nation-state are informed by class dynamics, whereas the Wall creates the illusion of a supra-nationhood beyond class, gender, race and religion. Precisely to the extent that the “nation” becomes irrelevant to the actual realities of science, technology, economics and culture today, the Wall arises as a fantasy to establish patterns of communication about good versus evil that have become superseded in the midst of the postmodern challenge to nationhood.

The kinds of national regulation of the movement of migrants that have manifested since the beginning of the 20th century are inimical to the logic of liberal citizenship. The two have existed in difficult juxtaposition for well over a century, but it is a perpetually unresolved tension that is eventually going to break our notions of citizenship, nationhood and immigration.

The Wall is a sadomasochistic fantasy that indicates submission to as well as pacification of the alien other, simultaneously generating systems of difference (border towns on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border, such as San Diego/Tijuana, or Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, assuming distinct, nonparallel forms) while establishing a noncompetitive method of eradicating such systems of difference. If twin cities on the border are divided by a physical Wall, then their distinct status becomes reinforced; this goes without saying, and is the more obvious aspect. However, if twin cities on the border get divided by physical barriers, then it is also an open invitation for “illegals” to break the law and enter. It is not always possible to say which aspect of the duality the state desires at any given point.

One can look at deportations in the same metaphysical manner. The more the number goes up, the less the state feels in control. But the state feels it can’t act otherwise than to accelerate deportations to higher and higher numbers, in order to regain a sense of control. Yet the more it deports, the less it feels in control.

What does border enforcement mean? It means that one side asserts the right to keep out another side. There is, by definition, a dominant element in border enforcement and a subservient element. Border enforcement is class politics by the most vicious measure, the most brutal way it can manifest. Within the border class politics takes place, of course, by way of any of a number of subtle means strengthening inequality, but at the border class politics is naked and unrepentant. Thus, in order to understand the true state of a liberal polity’s health or otherwise at any given point, one must look at the border and what is taking place there.

The border is never about enforcing immigration law; it is about making concrete a dream of internal order, which within the country is dressed up in a language of rights, while at the border, the point where the secure liberal construction meets the hostile other, the actions are accoutered in the language of pure violence. Outside a country’s border, the same class politics manifest in war. Not to see the direct link between internal class politics, border politics and war is to ignore the most important dimension of the construction of citizenship rights.

We speak, when it comes to the Wall and the border, in the language of the perils of “drug trafficking.” Of a “crisis” confronting sovereign territory. Of the hypervisibility of Mexicans and other aliens that bring about such measures as Operation Gatekeeper, the forerunner of the present Trumpian chimera. When I was young in California in the 1970s and 1980s, the border between San Diego and Tijuana was splendidly permeable, and there wasn’t a sense of imminent crisis because the border didn’t exist in the form it does today, presuming a sense of crisis as a condition of its existence.

The border can supposedly be militarized or demilitarized at will, depending on relations between two neighbors, but in reality, once the language of violence takes hold, the only option open to the state is to escalate militarization. Again, to look to the reasons for the emergency calling for the Wall, look no further than the country’s military budget.

FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), perhaps the white supremacist organization that has been the single most influential institution in our recent history, is always inflaming fears of unprecedented numbers of refugees. If there were no Wall, the fear of refugees would not exist. The fear of refugees persists only because they must cross a Wall, a physical barrier which decides interdiction and repatriation.

The state, in the contemporary globalization era, lives in mortal fear of who to let in or not, it wants to be in total control of those allowed in. We must know everything about immigrants (“extreme vetting,” to use Trump’s terminology, which is not necessarily a new phenomenon, or to look into their social media accounts, as the latest initiative would have it).

We are compelled to establish a historical bounded space that is outside the networks of fear and anxiety that globalization otherwise creates. I repeat, the Wall as Trump sees it is a byproduct of the nature of contemporary globalization, and is not at all in contradiction with it.

The more that different groups of targeted “foreigners”—Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans—try to correct the images of fear associated with them (since they are border-crossers), the more the border will become a concrete reality. The kinds of negative images—such as the spoilage of the environment by Mexicans, or their proclivity to excessive fertility—that the state can create will always outcompete any attempt at positive image-making.

Whenever there is an economic crisis—as with the Mexicans targeted during the Great Depression—there will always be an out-of-favor group to persecute, to literally put in “concentration camps.” When we speak of the border, we are making a conscious attempt not to repeat the words “concentration camp,” because that is not allowed, though the Wall is. And yet the Wall and the concentration camp are all but imaginatively and physically indistinguishable; one can’t have the one without the other.

If the Wall doesn’t exist, we believe that the illegals will roll over us and seize our welfare, jobs, schools and hospitals. The more the Wall catches on in the public imagination, the worse this fear gets. A stereotype about an immigrant doesn’t come from nowhere; it is a reflection of the most liberal side of our politics, a necessary counterpart. The Wall desires, creates and implements overt racism, which we can’t express in the old racist forms, but which become expressions of the construction of a space within which the rule of law reigns supreme.

Again, in our imagination there are migrants and smugglers. There is the war on drugs and then there is NAFTA-approved trade. There are terrorist threats to security and there are the good immigrants, the Dreamers. There is the Constitution, which applies within the wall-bounded U.S. territory, and there is the realm outside the Constitution, which is everywhere else, including at the border. A citizen operating under the rule of law of the Constitution inside the United States may commit a crime which would not be an “aggravated felony.” The same crime committed by a non-citizen operating outside the rule of law though inside the country will be classified as an “aggravated felony,” subjecting the unwanted person to deportation.

It is the Wall that allows our innocence toward the Constitution to continue unchecked. The border brings into play a fantasy of social control that lets us pretend, as during the administration of Barack Obama, that we do not oppress or exclude large numbers of immigrants for whom this is the only home. We can talk about the illegalities of ICE agents (who operate perpetually in a shadow zone of extreme interpretations of the Constitution) during the reign of Trump, but not under Obama. ICE agents become visible during a regime such as Trump’s or Bush’s, but remain invisible under Obama or Clinton, though they perform the same work of exclusion.

What is a deportee’s “home country?” It exists outside the Wall. Again, we allows ourselves a fantasy where we “humanely” exclude people, send them back to their “homes,” though they are being sent away from the only homes they may have known. The Wall is the mechanism that sets in place these guarantees of the simultaneous production of security and insecurity. To the extent that our feeling of security goes up, our feeling of insecurity goes up too, under the current post-liberal, post-constitutional, post-democratic dispensation.

The Wall makes talk of freedom inconceivable. Freedom is an impossibility when there are the low-skilled ones not qualified to cross the border, at the same time as there are the high-skilled ones qualified to cross. The “law” slowly replaces justice, or freedom, or the right of movement. The law separates and divides, it becomes a matter of infrastructure in the shape of so many miles of fencing or Border Patrol guards, so much traffic that is monitored.

The Wall allows the state’s ultimate glance, which is directed inward to monitor its own “citizens,” to proceed unchecked—almost lawlessly, if you will. Our present conception of the southern Wall—like every wall when it reaches a certain dimension of political reality—performs this function of needing to be witnessed and annihilated at the same time. To us, it is invisible, we are too far to see it. To those on the other side, it is intended as the only thing they can see (Trump desires to build a Wall high enough to provide no glimpse of our side).

But it is not Trump alone who is obsessed with the Wall. It is who we have become as a nation, which once was constructed on the very idea that there couldn’t be a Wall, that the Wall meant a form of control that would be catastrophic to the Constitution.

Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Approach to Immigration, and Confronting American Fascism