Politics

The Wall

In a campaign that included many startling pronouncements, Trump’s pledge to build the wall in June 2015 became the iconic phrase that stitched together a right-wing nationalist tapestry of resentment, nihilism, and violent nostalgia. Mexico would pay for it. A form of imperial tribute recast as reparations to a wronged and aggrieved America, whose sovereignty had been violated by unchecked “illegal immigration,” unfair trade deals, and unfavorable inter-state alliances. Justice would finally be secured by a president with the boldness to reassert the rightful order among nations. The American people would remain composed of the white citizenry the founders envisioned.

Trump’s embrace of the Wall as a big concept was new. On a policy level, however, Trump’s wall as a physical barrier looked a lot like what the Republican and Democratic establishment had been building for years, though they had called it “fencing.” But in August 2016, Trump, in his campaign’s landmark immigration speech in Phoenix, promised that the Wall would go beyond the standard fare. Instead, it would be a metaphor for a comprehensive nativist agenda to not only crack down on “illegal immigrants” but also “control future immigration” so as “to keep immigration levels measured by population share within historical norms.” He even referenced the year 1965, when President Johnson ended the racist national origins quota system. It was a clear signal to the hard-core nativists in the powerful network founded by John Tanton in 1979. And they loved it.

“This kind of emphasis on dealing with legal immigration in this way is not something a major nominee has done in the last 60 years,” said NumbersUSA head Roy Beck. “It was probably the best immigration speech any major party’s political candidate has delivered,” said Center for Immigration Studies executive director Mark Krikorian. White power activist Richard Spencer was thrilled too, reading the clear racial subtext of Trump’s paean to national origins quotas and call to limit immigration to those who could achieve “success in U.S. society.” “Trump is returning to the ideas of the 1924 Immigration Act,” he tweeted. “Immigrants will reflect the racial makeup of the country.”

After Trump won, Tanton-network nativists and their allies entered the administration. Jeff Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump’s primary bid, became his attorney general. Sessions, among Congress’s most hard-line nativists, also provided Trump with his leading immigration strategist, former Senate aide and zealous xenophobe Stephen Miller. Many who had worked with FAIR joined too. One was Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway, its longtime pollster. Another was Kansas secretary of state and Immigration Reform Law Institute attorney Kris Kobach, who led Trump’s conspiratorial hunt for “voter fraud,” continuing the long white supremacist tradition of doing everything possible to ensure the electorate’s maximal whiteness.

The war on “illegal immigrants” had thrived within rather than outside the reigning post-1965 liberal ideology that celebrated America as fundamentally a “nation of immigrants.” This worldview took root amid the elimination of the racist national origins quotas and the mass criminalization of Mexican migration. The mainstream demonization of undocumented immigrants had been vicious but was waged in the name of defending the good legal immigrants who came the right way. For organized nativists, however, the goal was to smash that model and sharply curtail all immigration—to reverse the 1965 reform that today threatens the “white” majority. In 2017, Trump again lifted their hopes, announcing his support for legislation that would ultimately slash authorized immigration by an estimated 50 percent through cuts to family-based visas (stigmatized as “chain migration”) and an end to diversity visas.

Even though Democrats had made it clear that they would provide Wall money in exchange for protecting DREAMers, Trump seemed committed to a full nativist program. In his 2018 State of the Union, he laid out in detail a radical proposal to sharply limit legal immigration, build the Wall, and hire more ICE agents. All in exchange not for the major legalization of more than 10 million that was at issue under Bush and Obama but merely for protecting roughly 1.8 million DREAMers, many of whom so urgently needed protection because Trump’s attempt to eliminate DACA (a move blocked by federal judges and heading to the Supreme Court at the time of this writing) had put them at risk of deportation. Bush and Obama had responded with stand-alone enforcement escalations against undocumented immigrants after comprehensive immigration reform “grand bargain” proposals repeatedly failed. Trump rejected the bipartisan war on “illegal immigrants” and tried to replace it with a war on all immigration.

Ahead of the midterms, however, Trump reverted: the full nativist agenda receded, and scaremongering over the caravan of Central American asylum seekers and demands for the Wall took its place. Democrats then retook the House. The Wall delivered short-term political gains that consign Republicans to a strategic dead-end in their long-running battle to defend white America. Yet they cannot choose otherwise: the Republican base is diminishing but it’s the only base they’ve got. Republicans can’t pivot toward the center without committing suicide.

By late 2018, the full nativist agenda had mostly disappeared. Trump shut down the government, refusing to sign any budget that did not include $5 billion for the Wall, all the while falsely insisting that Mexico was indeed paying for it through a renegotiated NAFTA. True to form, Democrats instead offered $1.375 billion to fund border barriers that were somehow not the Wall. Trump ended the shutdown, took those funds, and then signed an emergency declaration to raid the military budget to build the Wall anyway. As of August 2019, the Supreme Court has greenlighted construction pending a lawsuit challenging the president’s end run around Congress’s power of the purse. Trump will continue to rally his base: Build the Wall.

Trump, however, had initially blinked and sought to avoid a shutdown. In response Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and even Steve Doocy on Trump’s beloved Fox & Friends attacked the television president. And harshly. “The chant wasn’t ‘SIGN A BILL WITH B.S. PROMISES ABOUT ‘BORDER SECURITY’ AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE, GUARANTEED TO FAIL!’” Coulter tweeted. “It was ‘BUILD A WALL!’” If he failed to build the Wall, Coulter said, Trump’s would be “a joke presidency that scammed the American people.” FAIR, which developed a particularly close-knit relationship with right-wing media, joined the call. But other Tanton-network leaders didn’t care so much about the Wall. In fact, they worried about it. “Note that better control over illegal immigration—walls, mass deportations, whatever—isn’t going to fix this,” Krikorian wrote in the National Review. “Most immigration is legal immigration, and that’s where change is most needed”; otherwise, demographic change means “conservatism will be toast.” The shutdown over the Wall, NumbersUSA research director Eric Ruark lamented, “really isn’t an immigration fight” at all. What concerned Krikorian was that Trump might trade something that organized nativists care about (like stopping the DREAM Act) in exchange for his Wall fetish.

Krikorian’s fears were soon realized. In Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Address, the president declared that he wants “people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever but they have to come in legally.” Trump, after flirting with legal immigration cuts, had returned to the “nation of immigrants” model: a war on “illegal immigrants” to protect the ones who come the right way. “If the White House follows through on this it’s going to blow up in his face,” Krikorian said. “The president has said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and his base would stay with him, and that’s probably true. But this is one thing that he won’t be able to get away with.” But what Krikorian thought was a secondary consideration at best. Nativist organizations didn’t control nativist politics and never did. The right-wing media does. The day before launching his reelection campaign in June 2019, Trump played to the only audience that mattered, pledging not cuts to legal immigration but to begin mass deportations.

Trump’s right-wing presidency was seemingly not what nativist movement founders at first had in mind. In the 1980s, the Tanton network tried to build a nonpartisan coalition for anti-immigrant politics, winning support from Warren Buffett, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Cronkite along with often friendly mainstream press coverage of restrictionism. But the network’s leaders ultimately found that mass nativist politics could be most powerfully mobilized through a right fired up to stop government from providing “amnesty” to “illegals.” In doing so, they revolted against the bipartisan centrists who administered the long war on “illegal immigrants” but ultimately sought comprehensive reform. Ironically, however, nativists and the establishment both helped to narrowly and fanatically define the problem as one of migrant illegality. Today, the base isn’t motivated by arcane legal immigration policy; in fact, many point to their support for people who come the right way as evidence that they’re not racist. As Sheriff Joe Arpaio put it: “My mother and father came from Italy legally.”

The Tanton agenda has been supplanted by ambient, culture-war dysphoria. Coulter and Fox News don’t prioritize wonkish restriction but rather right-wing mobilization, ratings, book sales, and a cornucopia of garish personal brands. The Wall, perhaps the most powerful synthesis of popular anti-immigrant sentiment ever, has become remarkably disconnected from actual immigration policy. The border has long since been more an idea than a place: militarization more than anything has moved the sites of unauthorized border crossings rather than stopped them, and many undocumented immigrants simply overstay their visas. Trump has eroded what little realism still adhered. The Wall is the now-indispensable tool for mobilizing white fear and grievance into an electoral force, scaring just enough ancient reactionaries out of their Fox News–facing recliners and into the polls to eke out popular-vote losing, electoral college victories.

The Wall is more than a monument to popular xenophobia. It’s a symbol of Fortress America, the promise of total protection against not only a coming so-called majority-minority country but also terrorism and the ravages of corporate globalization. It is the smashed neocon dreams of the war on terror and dashed neoliberal promise of flat-world prosperity coming home to roost in the Garrison State. It is the Great Migration undone and the Civil War ended differently. It is the seizure of northern Mexico without Mexicans, the vast wealth produced by American capitalism without the people doing its most degraded labor. It’s a country founded on Native genocide where the genocidaires’ descendants native status goes unquestioned. It is the very impossibility of these fantasies that has always imbued them with such violence.

As Greg Grandin writes, the Wall is “a tombstone” to America’s founding and recently deceased frontier myth, which can no longer even pretend to deliver on its promise of “perennial rebirth.” “Instead of peace, there is endless war. Instead of prosperity we have intractable inequality. Instead of a critical, resilient and open-minded citizenry, a conspiratorial nihilism, rejecting reason and dreading change, has taken hold,” Grandin writes. “Trumpism is extremism turned inward, all-consuming and self-devouring. There is no ‘divine, messianic’ crusade that can harness and redirect passions outward. Expansion, in any form, can no longer satisfy interests, reconcile contradictions, dilute the factions, or redirect the anger.”

The Wall is a structure of political feeling. It is a sadistic, gleeful performance of transgression against political correctness, a proud insistence on the very idea that Mexicans are “rapists” and “criminals.” These are notions that draw much of their emotive force from the offense they cause to liberal propriety—even though it was liberal leaders who energetically helped to criminalize immigrants for decades. The Wall has come to stand in for Trump himself and thus for the entirety of the politics of white, nationalist grievance that he singularly embodies. By contrast, boring policy measures that might actually preserve a white majority are drowned out by soliloquies sung to a giant real estate development project. “We want that stuff too—but we also want a wall,” said Coulter. “The chant at every campaign rally wasn’t, ‘Enforce E-Verify!’” When it comes to nativism’s popular appeal, what matters most is performance, not policy.

Excerpt from All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics as We Know It by Daniel Denvir, published by Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Denvir.