Trump wants his wall, and his current $5.6 billion temper tantrum is an object lesson in playing to the lowest common denominator in American politics.
When I was a child in the late 1970’s, I would regularly visit family around Pittsburgh who made their living in the construction industry. More than a few times, I would meet workers who could barely speak English and were on the work teams my family members would supervise. Invariably, their stories would be about coming north in March to find work, stay until October or November, and return home with money to make it through the winter months. They would talk about cousins who did the same kind of thing in other parts of America, only they were farmers. I knew they came here illegally, but I also knew that part of the reason why my own family was able to make as much money as they did was because of the low wages these workers were willing to accept for low level labor.
Today, I know some people might accuse my family and their employers of being racist for taking advantage of illegal migrant workers, while others would say we are part of the illegal immigration problem. But, my family is an illustration of how this works, a fact that even Trump should be fully aware.
Right now, we are watching a battle of political wills between the House and the Oval Office, and as is all too often the case, both sides are wrong. Failing to fix our immigration system while leaving the border as it is now is just as wrong as trying to build a wall (again while failing to fix our immigration system.)
Like it or not, there are many jobs in this country that need to be done at exceedingly low rates, if companies want Americans to be able to afford the end products, whether its fresh produce or buildings, among other things. Before 9/11, President George W. Bush was acutely aware of this, and was preparing to approach Congress with plans for a guest worker program – something that probably would have looked a lot like what Sanctuary Cities were meant to be. It either would have protected migrant workers whose only crime was crossing the border without a visa, or it would have given short-term visas out to anyone who simply wanted to fill low wage labor jobs on a seasonal basis. No matter what, it would have exempted employers from meeting minimum wage requirements with these workers, otherwise it would have defeated the purpose.
The Politics of Fear
That all ended on 9/11, because our focus shifted to keeping terrorists out of our country. Since then, the fear has been kept alive, but now it’s being expanded to include criminals and drug cartels south of our border. Those fears are both of a statistically small group of people – the media and the nature of digital news is why it’s been easy to lionize these threats.
Now, we have Trump saying he wants to build his wall, and the temper tantrum over it is heading toward the two week mark. He says he doesn’t want to look foolish by cutting a deal – something he sold himself on for decades – but the fact is that this tantrum is what truly makes him a fool.
First, it’s insane to think that the $5.6 billion he’s fighting over now will be the total bill, no matter how much anyone says it will be. If he would be able to build a wall along the entire border (he can’t, without bending laws of physics and international laws surrounding waterways), there is no way it would only cost that sum. Just the prototype panels cost $2.4 to $4 million each, and putting all of them together wouldn’t cover more than a mile. Don’t get your calculators out to start figuring out how much it really could cost because the prototypes were erected on open land. The cost will be far greater because Trump’s wall will have to be built through unforgiving territory that hasn’t had any man-made barriers all along because the topography did the job on its own. Also, bear in mind that no matter how much Trump wishes it so, the places with the highest levels of illegal crossings can’t have barriers at all anyway because they are waterways. Sure, he could build a wall on the US shorelines, but it would need to be far better than any of those prototypes since it would need to withstand flooding in wet seasons. We’re not even going to get into issues with border towns and businesses straddling the line, and how devastating a wall would be to those residents.
Nancy Pelosi has said that building a wall is immoral, and maybe that’s only partly right. But, it’s not about what she thinks. Trump is the embodiment of hypocrisy with this, because we already should know he has repeatedly reaped the benefits of cheap illegal labor. That includes laborers for Trump Tower itself, and maintenance of his property. Maybe Trump thinks he should get a pass for the Trump Tower workers, since they weren’t from south of the border – they were Polish. But, he definitely doesn’t get a pass on the housekeepers.
Pelosi was wrong to say that a wall was immoral primarily because she truly doesn’t understand the level of hatred Trump has ginned up across the nation. He has made an art form of playing to the lowest common denominator, and has exploited the hatred of the “other” at every opportunity. We used to be the nation that bought really bad music because it would help pay to feed starving children in Africa. Now, we’re the country that says starving children and families from Venezuela are hell bent on destroying us by attacking our border. It’s true that there have been skirmishes between rock throwing desperate people and heavily armed members of our military, but if anyone is going to hard sell that the rock wielders are a security threat, they need a vacation in a padded room.
The irony here is that at least a few conservatives in the US are taking this opportunity to point out the failures of socialism in Venezuela, while simultaneously playing like Seinfeld’s soup server when it comes to the opportunities offered by freedom. It is yet another example of the cement ceiling mentality that believes the US has reached its apex, and cannot grow business anymore. Or it really is just racism, if these people choose to ignore the statistics that show a majority of immigrants tend to build businesses in America – all we have to do is let them do it. Also, it’s worth noting that sooner or later, someone will probably point out that the dramatic drop in migrant workers from the south taking US dollars back home really did contribute to the collapse of Venezuela, and is part of the financial woes of other Central and South American countries.
The Reality of a Wall
But, back to Trump and his dreams of a wall. Sadly, there are still people out there who are picturing something majestic like this:
The reality is more like this:
Either way, it’s important to recognize that walls aren’t a one-way device. Both China and Berlin have used their walls to keep people in their boundaries. It is foolhardy to assume that the same is not true in the US, especially now as we are dealing with a government shutdown in order for Trump to get money to build one. Doubt that? Try applying for a passport today. You can’t, because Trump’s temper tantrum over the wall has caused that office to be closed.