Like blood-soaked characters out of a Greek epic, President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are engaged in a titanic battle of wills that’s enthralled the nation, shut down the government, and stymied Congress—all over funding for a fancy fence. Obviously, as many other writers have already pointed out, a significant component of the ongoing debate isn’t legislative but symbolic. However, that this evidently symbolic matter is so contentious is significant.
Trump’s oft repeated calls to “build the wall” frequently include some colorful variation of the words “big beautiful wall.” This is revealing because walls are generally described as “protective” or “sturdy,” but rarely “beautiful.” The only context where walls typically elicit such zeal is religious (as with the Wailing Wall), and that’s no coincidence.
Robert Jeffress, an evangelical pastor in Dallas, recently championed Trump’s wall on Fox News, referencing biblical sources such as the Book of Revelation, which describes heaven as possessing walls “of jasper…garnished with all manner of precious stones.” Jeffress also cited the Book of Nehemiah, whose titular figure famously declared, following his miraculously quick rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, “the wall was finished…and it came to pass that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.” Trump is no Nehemiah and the southern border no Jerusalem. Yet the building of Trump’s wall would, for Republicans at least, yield similar results. It would stand as a testament to the providential success of the administration in securing “American Greatness.” With “bad hombres” on one side and Democrats on the other, there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the expanse of its shadow.
Unsurprisingly, Democrats have a precisely contrary view. Pelosi recently said of the wall, “It’s an immorality. It’s not who we are as a nation.” Indeed, for many on the Left, the wall is understood as a radically unprogressive proposal symptomatic of a backward, doomed nationalism. For example, in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown, a prominent left-leaning political theorist, writes that walls of the sort that Trump proposes tend to come at “a time after the era of state sovereignty, but before the articulation or instantiation of an alternate global order,” and that “they appear as signs of a post-Westphalian world.” Essentially, Brown argues that Trump’s wall, which would impede illegal immigrants rather than invading armies, is symptomatic of a country desperately trying to cling to its identity as nation states become outmoded and sovereignty is gradually usurped by transnational entities.
These contrasting views are both shaped by the same facts of history. Early on in our national development, we were a nation of open frontiers, a giant ocean-to-ocean project to root the rarified ideals of the Enlightenment in real soil. Today, there are no more uncharted territories for the descendants of Lewis and Clark to explore. Our maps are detailed and our borders defined. We find ourselves less worried by the threat of invasion by some foreign power than by threats of economic stagnation, religious apathy, and cultural malaise. Anxiety over our geography, once the stuff of the Mexican-American War, has given way to anxiety over geopolitics, which has entangled us in dozens of far-flung wars and enmeshed us within increasingly powerful international entities. These are the problems of a nation that has undergone much development and maturation.
It’s no accident that it was in 1945, directly after the Second World War, exactly when America developed its most coherent sense of national identity, that the first substantial physical barrier went up along the southern border. Since then, the history of the border wall has been one of both rapid expansion and denial. For example, in 1993, when President Bill Clinton built heavily along hundreds of miles of the southern border, the Clinton White House doggedly avoided describing the concrete structure as a “wall.” One federal public affairs official at the time put it thusly, “We call it a fence…. ‘Wall’ has kind of a negative connotation.”
Sigmund Freud once advised a friend, “Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.” So for a moment, let’s all be honest with ourselves. The wall would improve border security, but this hullabaloo isn’t about border security. It’s the adolescent howling of a country that’s just emerged from its youth. Over 300 years ago, John Winthrop memorably exhorted our pilgrim forbearers to build “a city on a hill.” Now that we’ve got much of the building done, we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that cities on hills have walls.
Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in outlets including The American Conservative, National Review Online, The American Spectator, and The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelShindler.