Throughout this heated and divisive presidential campaign, no item has generated more controversy than GOP nominee Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the southern border. Mention of the wall sends Trump’s opponents into a lather of outrage and consternation: “stupid,” “idiotic,” and “chauvinist” are some of the more restrained epithets we have heard about the wall. Anger about the wall is so reflexive and ingrained that the image of an enormous barrier slicing through the desert has almost become an externalization of how Trump’s opponents view his supporters: dumb, blank, and obstructive.
The most impassioned arguments against Trump’s wall draw a poetic contrast between architectonic forms. “We need to build bridges, not walls,” says Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “Instead of building walls, we can help build bridges,” said Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” said Pope Francis. “Life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls,” said Billy Crystal (at Muhammad Ali’s funeral). The former president of Mexico, the Canadian trade minister, Kim Kardashian—everyone agrees that it is better to build bridges which join people instead of walls that divide people.
While the bridges/walls theme has a certain campfire resonance of brotherly togetherness, its advocates seem to forget that they are speaking metaphorically about bridges. Trump wants to build a real wall. While a real bridge might pose a separate and contradictory purpose to a real wall, imaginary bridges and actual walls could co-exist and serve complementary functions.
Immigration enthusiasts have long pointed silently to Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” as the final word in their argument. Trump’s opponents have made Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” their prooftext. “As Robert Frost reminds us: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’” writes Brookings Institution senior fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown. Something there may be, though the same poem states the opposing sentiment—“Good fences make good neighbors.” The speaker of that line is the narrator’s neighbor, who emerges from darkness, “a stone grasped firmly by the top/In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.” Frost’s poem is steeped in ambiguity about the purpose of fences. Its very meaning balances precariously atop the titular wall, like one of the rocks that the narrator places and prays to remain where he put it. Poets may be, in Shelley’s words, the unacknowledged legislators of the world; but the fact that they are unacknowledged is precisely the reason why we don’t apply their words literally.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan issued one of the most quoteworthy presidential statements of the twentieth century when he commanded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Taken by true believers as prophetic, Reagan’s words are today held out as an example of how degraded Trump’s vision is compared with that of the man whose shoes he seeks to fill. The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson savors the irony of Trump, “boisterously claiming he wants to build a new [wall], not to keep out Communists, or even the ISIS terrorists he mysteriously claims to know how to eliminate, but people from Mexico, our closest neighbor to the south, a friendly nation.” Doug Elmets, a former Reagan speechwriter, spoke at the Democratic National Convention. “Reagan famously said, ‘Tear down this wall,’” Elmets said. “Trump says, ‘Build the wall.’”
The Berlin Wall was a prison designed to keep people in. A wall on the U.S.-Mexican border would be intended to keep people out. That difference is as significant as the difference between capitalist democracy and a Communist dictatorship, or between lawlessness and the rule of law. Nobody has to agree with Trump, or think that building a wall is more than an empty campaign promise that elicits hoots and cheers at arena rallies. But it’s amazing to see how far critics will go in abusing rhetoric in order to level the wall before it’s even built.
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