When Donald Trump gave his televised address on the necessity of a border wall on Tuesday, the political scientist Wendy Brown tuned in from her office in Berkeley, anticipating the usual nationalistic hyperbole. She was surprised at the president’s restraint. “It was vaguely dignified,” Brown said in a phone conversation the next day. “Instead of the screaming rally speeches he’s delivered, it did something else. Trump was trying to avoid the hard nationalism that we know is in his heart and instead speak to an intuitive sense of, ‘of course you have to control the boundaries of your existence.’”
Brown, who teaches at UC Berkeley, has been thinking about borders and boundaries since long before Trump came into power. She is the author of Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, a slim, powerful book that argues that walls around countries are a symptom not of increased state power, but of waning national sovereignty. Published in 2010, it’s a prescient look at the Trumpian rhetoric around border security, complete with images of walls from around the world. “Walls signify, inter alia, desires for containment and security,” writes Brown, “responding especially to the powers that declining political sovereignty has unleashed.”
Brown explains that as finance-driven globalization has significantly increased international interdependence, this interconnectedness has brought with it a resurgence of anxiety over who belongs where. “The new walls iterate…a vanishing political imaginary in a global interregnum, a time after the era of state sovereignty, but before the articulation or instantiation of an alternate global order,” she writes.
The wall thus symbolizes sovereign-status anxiety, expressed in binaries of good and evil (or as Trump put it in his speech, “right and wrong”). And even though the effectiveness of building walls to ensure security, deter unauthorized migration, and prevent smuggling is tenuous, the practice plays a crucial political and social role in our politics today.
I reached Brown the morning after the speech.
—Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: Did you watch the speech on TV?
Wendy Brown: Yes. I was actually at my office because it’s three hours earlier here. It was the end of the day, and I have been reading around for an hour or before to see how people were anticipating it and to set up my own expectations. [Watching it,] I understood why Trump did what he did. He was as much trying to save his presidency as he was making an argument for his border wall. It’s my belief that he and his staff were well aware of the expectation that he would be employing a number of non-facts, that he’d be exaggerating and fearmongering and condemning the Democrats and the opposition.
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Though there was certainly some of each in this speech, it was mightily avoided. It was very clever: The opening was all about border security, and the wall was the very last thing on his list.
AAA: Why did Trump make a point of saying the wall is most necessary for black and Latino Americans?
WB: What he was trying to do is counter the idea that he’s a raving racist who hates brown people.
There was the line about love in which he said, “You build a wall around your house not because you hate the people on the outside but because you love people on inside.” That, and the appeal for humanitarian aid, was a crude and unsuccessful effort to co-opt some of the arguments from the left and defy the [racist] image that actually worked well for his base but that he knew he had to get beyond.
What’s so interesting about that move is that it’s being used by the right all across Europe. Marine Le Pen in her [presidential] campaign marched around northeastern France with a rallying cry: “France is our house. We have a right to decide who comes in, how they come in, and how long they stay.” It’s the same theme of turning the nation into a home—and we need to remember that part of the entire moral project of neoliberalism is to privatize everything including the nation, and make it something privately owned by those who are already there.
By that logic, of course you have the right to lock others out. Trump’s version, the “love” comment, was a way of turning an argument about hostility to neighbors into one about the rights of the nation and national property.
AAA: How has your thinking changed since you wrote Walled States?
WB: I wrote that book in response to two different problems. One was the walling around the world post-1989. Everybody around 1989 presumed we were in the process of building a global village, in a neoliberal or even more left form, but what happened was that a tremendous number of walls were built around the world. I was also interested in the specifics of the US-Mexico border.
What I argued at the time is that walls were a response to the decline of sovereignty and nation in the face of globalization. Walls were signifiers for populations in distress, of loss of a national “we” and national control—all the things we’ve seen erupt in a huge way.
In 2010, this was simmering. The thing Trump is right about in case of the US-Mexico border is that the Democrats were as eager to use the political theater of walling as the Republicans. [Senator] Dianne Feinstein [D-CA] was a leading figure of using border fortifications in California.
My thesis in the book is now common sense. Walls are desired because they mark something: They establish something of an “us” and a “them” and our capacity to take control of situations.
There’s another thing that’s shifted between 2010 and 2019. Something Trump elided in his speech but that is really important: the difference between migrants and refugees. In the American mind, the difference between the two groups are blurry, and for the hard right, they’re absolutely fused: There is no difference between a criminal undocumented person in the US and a petitioner for asylum. Trump fused them in his speech.
When I wrote Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, I was not focused very much on the refugee question, and that’s exactly what we must be focusing on. Nothing is more absurd than a wall to deal with a crisis with a series of international protocols and requirements that Trump is trying to get around.
AAA: Do you think there’s a symbolic or even substantial difference between a concrete wall and a steel barrier?
WB: I do, and there’s no better thing to do than talk to the Israelis. One of the things they’ve discovered is that when you build an opaque wall, you can’t see very well to the other side of it. There are surveillance technologies that can upset that, but not absolutely. So the most effective screening is the kind you see in airports: It’s penetrative, with sensors, X-rays, bells, whistles, and all kinds of things that signify movement. Walling is old-school, and that’s where the Dems are right: This is a fourth-century solution to a 21st-century problem.
AAA: Can you speak about the distinctions between a wall and a border?
WB: The wall and the border have an untethered relationship. The question of whether sovereignty is expressed through territoriality—probably one of the most important questions today—and how the rule of law and the capacity for sovereign decisions articulates with territory is one of the ways the Westphalian order that brought us nation-state sovereignty is coming apart. Sovereign action is often outside the border—well outside the border, through outsourcing decisions, regulation, and control of other nations. It’s the agreement Trump is trying to make with Mexico [for migrants to remain there until their claims are processed].
Or it can be deep inside a country: There’s a loss of a distinction between border patrols, policing, military, and vigilante groups. And when you see that loss of distinction, you see that the question of bounded territory itself is in crisis.
AAA: Is anything else missing in the conversation we’re having about walls?
WB: In addition to being theatrical performances of a nation-state sovereignty severely eroded by globalization, walls discursively displace political problems onto a demonized “Other” or “Outside” to the nation. In the present, these include the opioid crisis, terror, crime, and economic decline for the working and middle class. In fact, heroin smuggling from Mexico is not only impervious to a wall (it is imported through vehicles making legal border crossings), it is not responsible for the white American opioid crisis; economic and social despair, poor health care, pill mills, and over-prescription of painkillers are.
Terror is not coming across the southern border; rather, it’s the combined result of three decades of disastrous Middle East policy and homegrown (mainly white male) killers with easy access to guns. New immigrant populations and neighborhoods are disproportionately law-abiding and economically and educationally aspiring. And of course, undocumented immigrants do not “steal jobs” from white Americans but supply low-wage labor in agriculture, construction, cleaning, maintenance, and home health care. Economic precarity for the middle and working class is the effect of the neoliberal “race to the bottom” in wages, taxes, and infrastructure spending, broken unions, broken access to education, debt, and skyrocketing housing and health-care costs.
A “big, beautiful wall” projects a different and simpler story. Inside is the good (safe, hard-working, law-abiding), outside is the bad (dangerous, parasitic, criminal) from which all our problems come. Trump rose to power on this story, of course, and insofar as the wall is its most important icon, he cannot easily give it up.