Big Walls, Fruitless Wars, and Fortress America

W.J. Astore

At one time, not too long ago, a great symbol of America was the Statue of Liberty.  She lit her torch to guide immigrants yearning to breathe free.  America saw itself as the land of liberty, the land of opportunity, open to (nearly) all, even to the most humble and most desperate.

And there was, I think, some truth to these symbols and myths.  My father’s parents, immigrants from Italy, came to America prior to World War I.  My mother’s ancestors came earlier, of English and Swedish ancestry, also seeking the promise of America.  Sure, the streets weren’t paved with gold; sure, my parents ended up working in a factory for low wages, but that’s also where they met, and eventually my dad did earn a civil service job as a firefighter that lifted my family into the lower end of the middle class.

Unless you’re Native American, we’re all recent immigrants to America, some of us forcefully brought here against our will, most notably African slaves.  Despite all the harsh realities of U.S. history, such as periodic bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, the inhumanity of slavery, murderous labor strife, and so forth, America nevertheless had an ideal, however imperfectly realized, of openness.  Of newness, freshness, inclusiveness.

But that ideal, in decline, I believe, since the 1950s and the creation of the permanent war state, is now dead.  America today is the land of walls and wars, a land of “Keep Out” signs.  A fortress mindset prevails today, a lockdown mentality, justified in the name of safety and security, to keep “them” out.  You know: the undesirables of the moment.  Mexicans.  Muslims.  “Foreigners.”  Maybe, in the future, you.

All this is on my mind as I’m reading Greg Grandin’s insightful new book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”  Grandin traces the idea of frontiers in America and more generally the idea of limits.  I was struck again while reading his book of Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism: his talk of there being no limits in America, his rejection of border walls, even his encouragement of immigrant labor and visas, calculated though such positions were (i.e. winning more of the Hispanic vote in key states like Texas).

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Forget about “It’s morning again in America,” a slogan under Reagan.  Under Trump, it’s crime, it’s gangs, it’s drugs, it’s bad hombres pouring over the border, bringing death and mayhem to America.  Only walls and weapons can stop them.  I was struck by a reference Grandin makes at the end of his book to Trump saying that barbed wire “can be a beautiful sight” when it’s used on America’s southern border to keep out asylum seekers from Central America.  I remember spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties being sung about as beautiful in my youth, but not barbed wire or Trump’s big “beautiful” wall.

When did it all go wrong?  Grandin provocatively connects America’s failing wars and fading empire to its fortress- and prison-favoring mentality today.  You might call it the real closing of the American mind.  And perhaps the shuttering of our hearts as well as our minds.  Grandin doesn’t mince words about America today: “But it’s hard to think of a period in the nation’s history,” he writes, “when venality and disillusionment have been so sovereign, when so many of the country’s haves have nothing to offer but disdain for the have-nots.”

I’ve just begun to plumb the meanings of Grandin’s book, which is another way of saying its lessons run deep.  In this America that I live in today, a land in which big walls are celebrated to keep the huddled masses out, a land constantly and needlessly at war around the globe, a land defined more and more by a fortress mentality rather than one that favors liberty, I find myself increasingly estranged, even lost.

Trump, the Wall, and Ruling by Emergency Decree

Paul v. Hindenburg
As President of Weimar, Paul von Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree, becoming a proto-dictator.  Is America heading down that road?

W.J. Astore

In the Weimar Republic of Germany during the early 1930s, the President of that time, Paul von Hindenburg, ruled increasingly by emergency decree due to a hopelessly divided and ineffectual Reichstag (parliament or congress).  In 1932, for example, Hindenburg issued 66 emergency decrees while the Reichstag itself succeeded in passing only five laws.  Even before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hindenburg had emerged, in a supposedly democratic Germany, as a fuhrer or dictator, issuing decrees in the name of getting things done.  A time-limited “emergency” executive power, in sum, became Weimar’s new normal, setting the stage for a much more malignant autocracy in the future.

As Donald Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency to enlarge America’s preexisting wall along the border with Mexico, Americans would do well to remember the Weimar example.  Ruling by emergency decree is the path to authoritarianism, and Congress, no matter how divided or ineffectual it is, should act to stop executive overreach before it finds itself neutered and irrelevant.

Of course, the U.S. Congress has already largely refused to exercise its “power of the purse” over the military as well as its power to declare (and control) America’s wars.  Whether America’s elected representatives have the collective guts to stop Trump’s potential usurpation of power remains to be seen.

One thing is certain.  Americans are growing accustomed to a divided, dysfunctional, even a shutdown, government.  And we’re growing accustomed to presidents acting like dictators, especially under circumstances couched as “wars” or other national emergencies (as determined by that same executive branch).  No matter your political party or allegiance (or lack thereof), this is not how democracy works — it’s how democracy dies.