Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast…
– From Robert Frost’s Mending Wall
Consider some likely bits of history.
Imagine the scene around the Chinese Sung Dynasty emperor’s version of the Resolute Desk in the Forbidden City. Some imperial panjandrum brings a new set of beautiful ink drawings to demonstrate how the ancient Great Wall of China will be strengthened: there are disquieting reports of caravans of mounted cavalry moving southwards across the Siberian and Gobi wildernesses.
The emperor knows this wall has been a great boon to the nation for hundreds of years (even though it has cost it the wealth of millions and the deaths of many to keep it well-maintained and its guards fully supplied). And so, as that senior adviser rolls out yet another large, beautifully illustrated drawing with dragons and other fanciful creatures around the margin, yet another adviser comes rushing into this special chamber in the Forbidden City. He is breathless, but he is bringing word that enemy horsemen have just broached the wall, or perhaps ridden around one or another of its weak points. They are now heading directly for the capital.
Deeply distressed, wondering how soon these riders will be hunting for him, the emperor muses that he should have listened to those advisers who had recommended working more closely with the Mongols to figure out how to bring them into the Chinese sphere of civilisation, rather than making them his country’s sworn enemies.
Too late, perhaps.
The scene is Paris in 1940, as the French military commanders have come to realise German blitzkrieg-style army units have elected to go right around the Maginot Line that ends at the southern part of the French-Belgian border. Instead, they are advancing directly through the Ardennes Forest, totally outflanking the French army and surrounding the British Expeditionary Force as well. One junior officer pipes up from the back of the room that it might well have been better for the French military to have been more strategic, more flexible, and more modern, rather than pouring all those vast resources into all those stationary pillboxes, forts, and interlocking artillery strong points.
Too late. Again.
And so, in America, right now, at least a third of the entire US Government is in a bizarre state of limbo, without a budget. Therefore, those departments cannot spend a single cent legally – even though senior officials can insist employees who are in critically important positions, those “essential personnel”, still must report to work, even if they haven’t received their pay or benefits. (Nothing. Nada.) Air traffic controllers, the Transportation Security Agency (the folks who check you out before you are allowed onto a plane), border patrol agents, the FBI, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard all must come to work, but basically, they are volunteers. Really. They may get paid following all this madness, but there actually is no guarantee of that.
Everybody else in those affected departments gets to stay home, but they don’t get paid either, of course. This is especially not funny if one has to pay silly things like a mortgage bond, car payments, the electricity, water and telephone bill, the gut-wrenching monthly orthodontist’s bill, or fuel for the family car and food for the household and Fido the dog – and if you don’t happen to have a handy father like you-know-who, who has been able to shovel millions in hush-hush tax dodge money to the younger Sentient Naartjie over two decades of his early life.
One chirpy, helpful response to this mess came from the official family support unit of the US Coast Guard (now organisationally part of the Department of Homeland Security). That advisory urged financially struggling Coast Guard families (who are now neither getting their salaries nor their usual housing payment supplements, since they often must live in high-cost areas in cities by the water where there is lots of maritime commerce, fishing or recreational boating) to try doing things like dog walking, jumble sales, car washes and other ways teenagers usually earn a bit of mad money. Really, really useful help from the boss, that was. They eventually withdrew the document after newspapers got hold of it. Wonder why?
Anyway, how did we get into this embarrassing, debilitating national mess? Like many nations, the US has historically had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of immigration. On the one hand, the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour offers the promise of Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus that literally inspired millions to seize the opportunity to flee poverty, prejudice, hunger and persecution on grounds of race, religion, colour or creed with the words:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It was just such a promise that inspired this reporter’s own ancestors over 100 years ago, fleeing oppression and poverty, to leave Eastern Europe for America.
But there have also been the darker temptations of the Know Nothings in the 1850s with their anti-Catholic, anti-Irish vitriol; the Chinese Exclusion Act; the Ku Klux Klan’s anti-immigrant frenzies of the 1920s; and the rounding up of every person on the West Coast with Japanese citizenship, or American citizens with Japanese parents or grandparents, at the beginning of World War II.
Enter the contemporary fears and anger of a large swathe of Americans nursing resentments over the presumed destructive impulses of immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America. This has been coupled with some growing angst about the disappearance of those stable, always there, old-style-factory jobs – largely due to automation, but also encouraged by a shift of manufacturing towards China and other Asian lands. As a result, it became a piece of cake for an anger-peddling (and sometimes barely coherent) faux-populist like Donald Trump to ride those immigration woes right into the White House.
As it turns out, the promise of building that big beautiful wall was actually a mnemonic device to help him focus on immigration in his stump speeches. It fitted precisely with his history as a builder of hotels and casinos, and it allowed him the rhetorical excess to go on and on and on about how much he knows about concrete and steel rebar, and how he will be able to build a really great wall to keep out all those rapists, murderers, and midnight job stealers he knew were out there, lying in wait, just watching for the moment to sneak into the homes of God-fearing, real Americans to do evil things.
So, coming into office in January 2017, Trump was now burdened – or perhaps blessed – with this commitment to building that wall.
Now, the immigration issue is complex. It is not simply those Trumpian rhetorical hordes clambering over the barricades, wading through the Rio Grande River, or being driven through the desert in the night and dropped off at isolated rendezvous points for onward travel to cities where they would disappear into the swarming, swarthy hordes already there.
At least so far, the vast majority of new arrivals have been heading to the US from Central America in the hope of being able to claim asylum as persecuted persons in the face of some increasingly lawless, dangerous near-failed states. That is a fact. There are also some other real issues, rather than the Trumpian fearmongering.
First, the borders are traversed by drug traffickers – but usually through formal entry ports at land borders, airports or harbours.
Second, there are the millions of undocumented immigrants/illegal aliens (depending on your preference) already in the country without any clear path to citizenship, let alone legal residence.
Then there are the 800,000 or so younger people – the dreamers – who were illegally brought into the US as small children by parents, and who, until now, have had a way of getting temporary legal residence, but whose circumstances are due to change. For the worse.
The grand bargain most Democrats, and even some Republicans, were hoping for was to agree for more money towards border security (including, well, okay, some enhancement of the barriers), in exchange for a clear road to legal residence for the dreamers – and perhaps even some steps that might head to a more thorough overhauling of the entire American immigration system. At various points over the past year, it seemed like just such an agreement would pass both houses of Congress and would even get the president’s signature, although Donald Trump has kept moving the goal posts, making it increasingly clear that without the level of funding he has demanded for his wall, there would be no deal.
This ended up being tangled with the ticking clock on the passing of appropriations for much of the government. Now, enter the Republican loss of the House of Representatives in November 2018 and it became clear the Democrats would not pass an appropriations bill for much of the government, as long as there was funding for that damned wall, and Trump would not agree to sign any bill if it did not. Funds in those unfunded government departments have now run out and all those employees are now out of their jobs, at least temporarily. And the growing chaos in many government functions grows.
Earlier in the week, Trump went on television to give his rationale for the wall, including dealing with all those bad hombres generally, the horrific drug smuggling, and the – literally – thousands of potential terrorists sauntering into America across the southern border. Not surprisingly, the media (and the Democratic congressional leadership in a short address that followed the president’s) pointed to numerous inaccuracies, well, okay, faux facts or lies, in the president’s case that he had delivered.
In the background has been the threat that he would declare a state of national emergency and figure out a way to shift funds from various other departments to build his wall, without congressional approval or even a vote.
Now, it is true the president has the power to declare a state of emergency, but it must also be an emergency that presents a clear and present danger. Back in the Truman administration during the Korean War, the president had attempted to nationalise the steel industry to ensure sufficient production at less than outrageous profits in order to manufacture the war material needed for the military. The Supreme Court ruled that this decision was unconstitutional and could not be permitted as there was no proof the steel industry’s practices were a danger to the safety of the republic.
On Thursday morning, Washington DC time, live on television, the president demonstrated his total unwillingness to reach a compromise with Democrats and actually accused them of being in league with the media and other dangerous leftists to wreck the nation, allow crime to run rampant, and to encourage every person in Latin America to move northwards. Those were not the words of compromise or conciliation. And then he strode across the lawn for a visit to a border spot in Texas that he had already called a stupid publicity stunt and which his staff insisted he does.
At this point, the outlines of the grand compromise that must eventually arise are still unclear. The polls indicate, at least at this point, that there is no groundswell for the big, beautiful wall outside of Republican diehards. Moreover, the polls also indicate, so far, that the president is largely being blamed for the stalemate, the closure of government functions, and the general spiral downward of events.
While all this has been happening, it was accidentally revealed that Paul Manafort, the campaign manager for the Trump campaign in 2016, via a mistake by his attorneys, appears to have given internal polling data from the Trump campaign to one of his long-time Russian buds (and a man with some interesting ties to the Russian government).
This may well become some real trouble for the president as it points to a relationship between the campaign and Russian operatives who – presumably – could have used that polling data to precisely target and pinpoint which American voter demographics were ripe for fake, misleading, or spurious messaging from all the Russian troll farms and bot factories. And if all that is true, this might well be the smoking gun that shows collusion (a loose term that is not a crime), but also conspiracy to commit other bits of illegal behaviour (an actual crime, a federal felony, as it happens).
Donald Trump is dug in over his wall, and as he said on the White House lawn on Thursday, if he gives in, the Democrats will eat his lunch, the congressional Republicans will desert him, and his base, always that base, will stop believing in him. That becomes fatal for a re-election bid. But it may also become true that well before the 2020 election, other problems will become even more dangerous for him. Ah, the “I” word is out there, lurking on the horizon now. DM
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