The wall of Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency has always operated both as a discrete proposal — an actual structure to be built under his leadership — and as a symbol with a clear meaning. Whether praised by its supporters or condemned by its opponents, the wall is a stand-in for the larger promise of broad racial (and religious) exclusion and domination.
It’s no surprise, then, that some Americans use “Build the wall” as a racist chant, much like the way they invoke the president’s name. And it’s also why, despite the pain and distress of the extended government shutdown, Democrats are right to resist any deal with the White House that includes funding for its construction.
That’s not to say there aren’t practical reasons for Democrats to resist the proposals on hand. The president calls his most recent bid a major compromise, but its headline provision — protections for immigrants covered by either Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or Temporary Protected Status — are short-term and limited. It also puts a cap on the number of Central American migrant children and teenagers who can receive asylum, requiring them to apply in their home countries, while also eliminating automatic court hearings for minors who arrive at the border in order to streamline the deportation process. Together with its $5.7 billion for “the wall,” it’s less a compromise than a near capitulation to the president’s vision for immigration policy — a vision he could not get through Congress when he had Republican majorities in both chambers. A border wall also just won’t work — erecting a barrier does nothing to solve the political conflicts and economic pressures that drive migration to the United States.
Agreeing to this deal — or any deal beyond a straightforward bill to end the shutdown — would only validate the president’s extortion tactics, adopted after conservatives pressured him at the end of last year to reject a so-called clean bipartisan bill to fund the government. To agree to wall funding in these circumstances would guarantee a repeat performance the next time President Trump wants to secure a legislative “win” without the difficult work of negotiating with Congress, much less his opposition.
But the paramount reason for resisting this deal, and any other, is what it would mean symbolically to erect the wall or any portion of it. Like Trump himself, it would represent a repudiation of the pluralism and inclusivity that characterizes America at its best. It would stand as a lasting reminder of the white racial hostility surging through this moment in American history, a monument to this particular drive to preserve the United States as a white man’s country.
In fact, you can almost think of the wall as a modern-day Confederate monument, akin to those erected during a similar but far more virulent period of racist aggression in the first decades of the 20th century. Built as shrines to white racial dominance as much as memorials for any particular soldier, they were part of a larger, national drive to uphold white supremacy against what one nativist thinker termed a “rising tide of color.”
This manifested itself across American society. At the grass roots, there was the reconstituted Ku Klux Klan, inspired by D.W. Griffith’s heroic 1915 depiction of Reconstruction-era “night riders” in “The Birth of a Nation.” The Klan strove to secure the power of the white petite bourgeoisie against perceived threats from capital and labor as well as uphold a stridently anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-black vision of white patriarchal authority. At the elite level, likewise, lawmakers and intellectuals fretted about the impact of an influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as China and Japan. Their answer was something of a legislative wall — the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which sharply limited European immigration and all but banned it from much of Asia. (A former influential member of the Trump administration praised that law for its severe restrictions on who could enter the United States.)
The wall of Trump’s rhetoric and imagination channels all of this, up to and including the nativist tropes that associate nonwhite immigrants with crime and disorder. “BUILD A WALL & CRIME WILL FALL!” the president said in a Wednesday morning tweet.
It is true that Democrats have backed both barriers and harsh border policies in the past. President Barack Obama repeatedly offered strict immigration enforcement in return for Republican buy-in to comprehensive reforms. Now Democratic leaders have committed to new funding for additional border security. And the House majority whip, Jim Clyburn, has floated the possibility that Democrats could be moved on funding for the wall, provided it’s a “smart” wall. If, beyond Trump, the larger concern is policies that militarize the border and dehumanize migrants, then Democrats have had a significant part in creating the status quo.
But the president’s wall still looms as a racist provocation, a total repudiation of what the historian John Higham called “America’s cosmopolitan faith — a concept of nationality that stresses the diversity of the nation’s origins, the egalitarian dimension of its self-image, and the universality of its founding principles.” For Trump the wall signals his commitment to upholding existing hierarchies and strengthening their material foundations; for his supporters it validates their fears of cultural conquest. For the targets of their anxiety and aggression, it is a threat.
Early into the government shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the wall “immoral.” She used the right word. The wall is a symbol of exclusion. If even a portion were built, that segment would serve as a modern monument to the worst of our nation’s heritage. No deal or compromise could justify that moral cost.