In a short story published in 1950, “The Wall and the Books,” Jorge Luis Borges tells of Emperor Shih Huang Ti, who ordered China’s Great Wall built and all the books in his kingdom burned. It’s Borges, so every reason he gives for these two seemingly contradictory desires — to create and to destroy — is followed by another explanation that cancels out the first.
Borges finally settles on the idea that both the building and the burning were driven by the emperor’s desire to “halt death.” Shih Huang Ti, at least according to Borges, lived in terror of mortality, prohibiting the word “death” from being uttered in his presence and searching desperately for an elixir of youth.
Maybe, Borges guessed, Shih Huang Ti ordered the wall built to preserve his realm for eternity, and he ordered the book burned to suppress the idea that nothing lasts for eternity. For if the history contained in books teaches anything, it is that our time on earth is fleeting. Apparently, at least according to Borges, the emperor sentenced anyone who tried to save a book to a lifetime of forced labor on his wall.
“Perhaps the wall was a metaphor,” Borges writes, since its construction “condemned those who adored the past to a task as vast, as stupid, and as useless as the past itself.”
As to the United States, while physical barriers of one kind or another had been going up along its border with Mexico since the early twentieth century — mostly barbed wire and fences — the idea of a “wall,” as a nativist call to arms, didn’t gain ground until after the country lost its war in Vietnam. In that war, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, hoping to keep North Vietnamese forces from infiltrating South Vietnam, spent millions on two hundred thousand spools of barbed wire and five million fence posts, intending to build a “barrier”— the “McNamara Line,” as it came to be known — running from the South China Sea to Laos. That line failed, as its posts and watch towers were burned down as fast as they could be built.
Around this time, right-wing activists began calling for a “wall” to be built along the border. The biologist Garrett Hardin, a tenured professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was among the first to call for such a barrier. “We might build a wall, literally,” Hardin wrote in a 1977 essay titled “Population and Immigration: Compassion or Responsibility?” published in The Ecologist. Hardin was an early exponent of what today is called “race realism,” the idea that a world of limited resources and declining white birth rates calls for hardened borders.
Hardin’s 1971 editorial in Science, titled “The Survival of Nations and Civilizations,” makes the case:
Can a government of men persuade women that it is their patriotic duty to emulate the rabbits? Or force them? If we renounce conquest and overbreeding, our survival in a competitive world depends on what kind of world it is: One World, or a world of national territories. If the world is one great commons, in which all food is shared equally, then we are lost. Those who breed faster will replace the rest . . . . In a less than perfect world, the allocation of rights based on territory must be defended if a ruinous breeding race is to be avoided. It is unlikely that civilization and dignity can survive everywhere; but better in a few places than in none.
Hardin would go on to describe his position as “lifeboat ethics,” the idea that oars should be used not just as paddles but weapons, to swat away others trying to climb up on the boat. He would later advocate the “race science” of The Bell Curve.
In the subsequent decades, anti-migrant nativism took hold of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, and right-wing intellectuals built a library of follow-up manifestos to Hardin’s dismal worldview — from Palmer Stacy and Wayne Lutton’s The Immigration Time Bomb, published in 1985, to, five years later, Lawrence Auster’s The Path to National Suicide — building on Hardin’s arguments.
Some of the early publications emerged out of the post-Vietnam “limits to growth” literature — the fast-spreading idea that mass consumer society was exhausting itself — and reveal overlap between the concerns of environmentalists, population controllers (with a special obsession with high Mexican fertility rates), English-language defenders, and anti-immigrant nativists. Hardin is an example of this overlap, as is John Tanton, who in the 1970s wrote an essay arguing for eugenics and helped found the nativist Federation for American Immigration Reform.
As is the novelist and environmentalist Edward Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, who already expressed concerns about population growth, the rising birth rates of people of color, and the “Latinization” of the United States when in 1981 he called for the creation of a “physical barrier” and an expansion of the border patrol to include up to twenty thousand agents (a number that was considered a radical proposal at the time but today is only about half of the agents working for the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement combined).
“These are harsh, even cruel propositions,” said Abbey, in a letter to the New York Review of Books. But, echoing Hardin’s lifeboat ethics, he wrote that the “American boat is full, if not already overloaded; we cannot afford further mass immigration. The American public is aware of this truth even if our ‘leaders’ prefer to attempt to ignore it. We know what they will not acknowledge.”
Environmentalists, both mainstream and radical, moved away from linking their social critique to immigration concerns. Even as they did, though, nativism became a bipartisan issue.
On one side of the aisle, It started to seep deep into the Republican Party. Patrick Buchanan did the most to popularize the idea of a barrier on the southern border in his 1992 nomination challenge to George H. W. Bush. Buchanan ran an unexpectedly strong campaign, calling for a wall, or a ditch — a “Buchanan Trench,” as he put it — to be built along the US–Mexico border and for the Constitution to be amended so that the children of migrants born in the country couldn’t claim citizenship.
Bush won the nomination, but Buchanan managed to insert into the Republican platform a pledge to build a “structure” on the border. Two years later, California Republicans championed successful Proposition 187, which denied social services to undocumented residents.
But, on the other side of the aisle, the 1990s were the years of high Clintonism. And so as Republicans discussed ways they might take away citizenship from “anchor babies,” pass English-only laws, pull undocumented children from public schools, and deny access to public hospitals, Bill Clinton used this extremism to sound moderate while pushing his own hard line. “All Americans,” he said in his 1995 State of the Union speech, should be “rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.”
Promising “to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes,” Clinton signed a number of extremely punitive crime, terrorism, and immigration bills into law, which created the deportation regime that exists today. These laws closed down various routes for migrants to obtain legal status, eliminated judicial review, and required detention without bail. Essentially, the whole immigration bureaucracy — its agents, courts, and detention centers — was now geared toward expediting deportations, the numbers of which shot up tremendously. Migrants, including those with legal residency, could now be deported for any infraction, including misdemeanors, even if the transgression was committed decades earlier or the matter had already been settled in court.
The White House saw this anti-migrant campaign as building on Clinton’s various crime bills, which had cut into the Republican advantage on “law and order” issues. His adviser Rahm Emanuel, in a 1996 policy memo, urged him to target migrants in the “workplace,” to set a goal of making certain industries “free of illegal immigrants” and achieving “record deportations of criminal aliens.” “This is Great,” Clinton wrote on the memo’s margin.
Even the legislation Clinton signed ending welfare targeted undocumented migrants, banning them from receiving many social services and prohibiting local jurisdictions from offering “sanctuary” to undocumented residents.
But Clinton’s play for the nativist vote could only go so far. Not just environmentalist but the labor movement was moving away from an earlier focus on migration, while Latino voters were growing in importance.
The Republicans, on the other hand, committed to a voter suppression strategy. To do so was based on a mundane calculation: California, the birthplace of modern conservatives, hadn’t voted for a Republican president since it went for George H. W. Bush in 1988. If voter registration, turnout, and preference trends continued as they had been, Republicans, some feared, would start losing Texas, Arizona, and Florida, along with its status as a national-level political organization.
Likewise, after Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election, many conservatives came to think that neither appeals to cultural wedge issues nor going along with some kind of immigration reform (modeled on Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration and Control Act, which provided a path to citizenship for about three million undocumented residents) would necessarily help the Republican Party when it came to Latino voters.
Latino voters are not loyal to Democrats because of the promise of immigration reform, the National Review’s Heather MacDonald wrote, but because they value “a more generous safety net, strong government intervention in the economy, and progressive taxation.”
Over at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray agreed that Latinos were not inherently conservative. They aren’t more religious than other groups, Murray pointed out, nor are they more homophobic, and they are only marginally more opposed to abortion than the population at large (though Murray did say that the Latino laborers who tend to his house seem to be “hard- working and competent,” which he took to be synonymous with conservative).
The fact alone that many Latin American Walmarts are unionized should put an end to one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite clichés, which Republican strategists, until recently, liked to repeat as a comforting mantra: that Latinos were Republicans who didn’t yet know it. A growing realization that many Latino migrants were in fact social democrats helped tip the balance of power within the Republican Party to the forces of what is now called Trumpism.
In the wake of George W. Bush’s catastrophic presidency, movement conservatives, hamstrung by their own ideological excess and sensing they were losing a broader culture war, seized on the demonization of migrants as a way to account for setbacks without having to resort to moderation. Right-wing activists, thinkers, and politicians held Reagan’s Immigration and Control Act responsible not just for the Democratic takeover of California but for Barack Obama’s 2008 election and 2012 reelection.
According to this line of thinking, Reagan’s amnesty added (as a result of naturalized citizens being able to sponsor other family members for citizenship) fifteen million new citizens to the voting rolls. Steve King, the Republican’s leading nativist ideologue in the House, said that this supposed increase “brought about Barack Obama’s election.”
Prior to the 2016 election, a majority of Republicans believed that millions of “illegal immigrants” had voted in 2008 and 2012 and were planning to do so again in 2016. There is no evidence to support any of these claims, yet such arguments justify ongoing efforts to suppress the vote of people of color. More recently, Fox’s Tucker Carlson used such an argument to downplay Russian interference in US domestic politics, accusing Mexico of “routinely interfering in our elections by packing our electorate.”
About to face a Democratic Party-led House, besieged by multiplying federal and state-level criminal investigations, and pulled down by sinking poll numbers, Donald Trump now is betting his presidency on the wall, shutting down the government until he gets something he can call a win on it. This, too, seems a mundane calculation, that as long as his opponents remain divided, he can remain afloat by mobilizing the 30 or-so percent of the country that thinks we need to wall off the southern border.
“His presidency is over if he doesn’t build the wall,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser and perhaps the country’s most famous race realist, recently told New York reporter Mattathias Schwartz. “He knows that.”
Bannon went on to say that Trump needs to create facts on the ground:
You either have a crisis or you don’t . . . If it’s a crisis, act like it. Declare a national-security emergency on the southern border. Deploy troops not to assist the Border Patrol but to replace them, then you bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to build the wall. Get the backhoes out and start digging. The Democrats, the Establishment Republicans, the media, maybe the courts — they all go nuts. Everybody fights it. But you are Trump, and you are finally building a fucking wall.
Still, there’s an excess to the hatred Trump taps into that can’t be explained by Trump-like machtpolitik, nor by recent reports that say the “wall” was simply a mnemonic device, to keep Trump’s short attention focused on a talking point. Promises to build the wall channels psychic currents that run deep in US culture, and now seem to be the only thing that unifies Trump supporters, and directs their hatred onto a people who largely represent the ideals that they claim they value.
Throughout the United States, Latinos have been re-energizing neighborhoods and populating downtowns, opening stores and pumping money into established small businesses. Strip-mall America would be even more barren if it weren’t for Mexicans and Central Americans who have turned empty stores into taquerías, carnicerías, pupuserías, and other enterprises. Even Charles Murray says they have a good work ethic. It’s as if, by forcing Latinos into the shadows, the Right wants to accelerate the drive unto death, and finish the hollowing-out started years ago with the ascendance of corporate globalization.
At the same time, though, and to return to Borges, the hatred seems symptomatic of terror of mortality, of the kind that the Argentine writer attributed to Shih Huang Ti. Put simply, the United States’ dependence on the labor of people of color confirms the social basis of existence, and thus the legitimacy, of social rights and social democracy. And in a political culture that considers individual rights sacrosanct, social rights are something viler than heresy. They imply limits, and limits mean death, the extinction of the uniquely American premise that it — it being the current, racially segregated arrangement of wealth distribution, extracted and produced in a world on the verge of collapse — is all going to go on forever.