Donald Trump's dim understanding of the world is punctuated by brilliant insights. One such example is his promise to build a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border as a part of his immigration plan. Many commentators have condemned the idea as moronic, but is it? In a recent Huffington Post blog, Frank Islam and Ed Crego note that Trump is indeed building a wall, but not of steel and concrete. Instead he makes his structure out of bigotry and hatred. As much as I agree with their statement, I think it misses something deeper about the Trump movement.
There has been plenty of discussion about whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Leaving aside the finer points of this ongoing debate, it is important to note that fascism in its classic era in Europe between the world wars was defined by the creation of walls. As an ultranationalist movement grounded in xenophobia and militarism, fascism saw the nation as an armed camp in need of defense from the outside world. Interwar Europe experienced rising nationalism and economic hardship due to the Great Depression. Countries felt motivated to close themselves to cross-border movement, whether of goods or people or ideas. Under fascism, national borders were not simply legal or economic dividers but markers in an existential struggle, a matter of life and death. Even when individuals crossed national borders, they didn't really "cross" because national differences were allegedly rooted in people's essential (usually racial) characteristics. People were not what they did or what they aspired to become but what they were from birth, and no amount of border-crossing changed them.
Under fascism, wall-building took place within national borders as well. Nazism identified Jews as a mortal threat to the nation. Later, Hitler's anti-Semitism became the touchstone for Nazism's attempt to reorder Europe along fascist lines. But fascism could and did use any minority useful for rousing fear, anger, and resentment. It's worth remembering that Social Democrats and Communists were Nazism's first targets after Hitler gained the Chancellorship. Later homosexuals and Sinti and Roma experienced Nazism's persecutory drive. Fascism was dynamic and inventive when it came to pinpointing enemies. The regime didn't worry much if it was inconsistent identifying real or imagined opponents. Nazism attacked Jews because they were said to be an alien race, but when it came to defining who was a Jew and who was not, Hitler's minions swerved between religious practice and pseudo-science to create their categories of discrimination.
Domestic border-setting was a key source of much of the bile that characterized political rhetoric at the time. Hitler hated to discuss specific issues and policies because such things bored him. Above all, facts and policies lacked the captivating qualities of hateful rhetoric and bullying language. Not deliberation and dialogue but humiliation and ad hominem attacks were fascism's modus operandi. And as we know, hateful words easily slid into violent action.
It is of more than historical significance to note that fascism didn't entertain rigid divisions and borders on this point. Hitler and Mussolini wanted fluid movement between words and deeds. Before Hitler took power, his rallies often descended into violence, but this was anything but a misstep or departure from an original plan. Rather, violence stemmed from the nature of the movement and quickly became Germany's new normal, as normal as mass shootings are today in America. It was the fascist exception that proved a rule: if violent words were prevented from spawning violent action, borders and walls were to be dismantled and bridges built.
The archetypal wall of classic fascism was the barbed wire fence. We know what went on behind those walls. Yet in Germany, where the Nazi regime began building concentration camps immediately after it took power, many citizens accepted such walls as necessary measures for restoring law and order in a society torn by violence the Nazis themselves had nurtured. Later, many Germans were unaware of, or in denial about, the atrocities perpetrated in these places in their name.
When Donald Trump screams "I am building a wall," he is doing more than creating another sound bite or exploiting Republican-built hatreds toward minorities. With an impressive degree of political instinct, he is tapping into the essential nature of classical fascism. Fascism depends on walls, internal and external. It is a disturbing measure of fascism's metastasizing presence in America that many voters (and many Republican party leaders) are willing to join Trump's construction crew.