Donald Trump and His Wall

NEW YORK CITY, Nov. 10, 2015-- People attend the strike in support of a $15-per-hour minimum wage in New York City, the Unite
NEW YORK CITY, Nov. 10, 2015-- People attend the strike in support of a $15-per-hour minimum wage in New York City, the United States, Nov. 10, 2015. Hundreds of fast food workers took part in strike nationwide Tuesday, joining other workers in pressing for a more livable wage. (Xinhua/Wang Lei via Getty Images)

Trump is right to boast that the Great Wall of China is 15,000 miles long -- much longer than his proposed U.S. border wall, which is, as he boasts, short and small. But then why is this one short and small Trump campaign pledges energizing his crowds? After all, it's not his idea -- or a new one.

By 1978 a liberal Democratic Congressman from NY, Jim Scheur, was calling for "A firm, hard, sealing of the U.S.-Mexico border." A single 28 mile segment of fencing built on the border to discourage, not stop, border crossings, became known as the "tortilla curtain." Even then references were made to the Great Wall of China.

In 2006 Washington Post columnist and economist Robert Samuelson called for a grander wall, like Trump's, along the entire border. Samuelson paired this idea with an amnesty for those who had already crossed. So the wall was originally not an expression of extreme phobia about immigrants -- it was an expensive compromise.

Samuelson argued that to stop illegal immigration, which was driving down wages for low skilled Americans, you had to physically obstruct it. Building a wall would tighten the labor market and drive U.S. wages up -- in essence Trump's argument today.

Neither Samuelson nor Scheur generated the popular energy -- or Hispanic backlash -- that accompanies Trump's wall. The substance was not dissimilar, but neither made the ethnic slurs that Trump propagates, the fabricated innuendos about the criminal tendencies of border crossers. Neither favored mass deportations of Mexicans already in the U.S.

Of course, the Great Wall did not keep nomads from crossing into China. Indeed, the last general of the Ming dynasty called in the Manchus against whom it had been erected to suppress internal disorder and decay. Those nomads became China's next and last dynasty.

Similarly, Trump's wall, if built and entirely effective, would block only illegal border crossing, not end illegal immigration. As Marco Rubio likes to point out, since 2008 more undocumented immigrants have arrived with valid visas and overstayed them than crossed the border illegally.

So why has a demonstrably inadequate, shopworn and previously marginal but bipartisan idea - a wall along an already heavily patrolled and policed border -- serving as the flash-point for Trump's new nativism?

The passion behind the chants of "build the wall" is driven by the wall's central role in Trump's overarching "Make America Great Again" messaging. Like the Great Wall of China, Trump's wall is to mark a division between civilization and barbarism. "Making" the Mexicans pay for it is a 21st century version of the tribute which the Chinese Emperor extracted from nomadic tribes.

Trump is promising to restore historic U.S. dominance over Mexico -- by the seemingly simple and practical step of building a wall and sending the bill to those walled out. Americans should not, he proclaims, let those people push us around and pretend they are our equals. No more political correctness. We ought to be in charge -- after all, they run a huge trade surplus with us!

This is loathsome. It works because Trump's base draws heavily from nativists or authoritarians seeking a strong man, a caudillo of the kind that has plagued Latin America for so long. But these authoritarian instincts are triggered by a genuine crisis, one which affects far more Americans than support Trump.

A large majority of the American public has seen their economic security and future avoidably undermined by the response of both political parties to globalization -- a policy response which has prioritized opportunity for those best prepared over fundamental security and fairness to those less well positioned.

Take another look at Samuelson's wall. His goal was higher incomes for low skilled workers. Instead of building a wall, why not raise wages and enforce them? If undocumented workers cost as much as everyone else, the market for their services would dry up. They would no longer swim even the currently shriveled Rio Grande.

If the minimum wage was, say, $15, fewer blue collar Americans would see every Mexican they encounter as responsible for the impoverishment of their children and the loss of their dignity. But Samuelson has strongly opposed most efforts to dramatically increase the minimum wage. Like Samuelson, the establishment wings of both political parties have refused to prioritize economic stability and fairness in trade deals, or almost any aspect of government policy. A flood-tide of inequality and insecurity enabled by government is callously blamed on impersonal forces like technology. That's a cop-out.

By elevating competitiveness and market fundamentalism over all other values, both parties have created a country afflicted with such deep insecurity that a significant proportion can embrace a Donald Trump. The Republicans, to their shame, linked insecurity simultaneously with bigotry and prejudice. They are deservedly reaping the whirlwind first. But if the Democrats do not begin to articulate a clearer vision of how America can restore middle class livelihoods, their turn will come.

Trump may be only one of a string of aspiring American caudillo's. If he comes, our first strong-man President will not literally swim across the Rio Grande on horseback. But we are repeating the Chinese folly -walling out foreigners while ignoring the far more dangerous decay decay and loss of legitimacy within. (President Obama's priority on deportations is part of the same pattern.)

It's likely that we luck out and avoid a Trump presidency this time as the penalty of our shortsightedness. But will either party establishment learn the lessons of Donald Trump's moment in the sun?