Der Bau der Mauer: Constructing an American Embarrassment

When the Berlin Wall was erected in the late summer of 1961, then Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, called it die Schandmauer, the Wall of Shame. The East Germans preferred something more heavy-handed, referring to it as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.” Clearly, they had not studied Bernays. As typical as this sort of semantic jockeying between East and West was, it revealed the true kernels of post-war ideology: fascism against liberal democracy, communism against capitalism, facelessness against humanity.

In building the Wall, Generalsekretär Walter Ulbricht and the rest of the East German regime offered the Allies the ultimate political device. How better to draw the line between good and evil than through a physical divide? In the West, the Berlin Wall came to be seen as a startling symbol of oppression, an embodiment of the enemy, and in the hearts and minds of those still free, a reminder of their fortune. However, what was it to the people of East Germany?

Less than three decades after its tireless effort to bring down the Wall, America is contemplating a Schandmauer of its own. Like its German predecessor, this wall, our wall, should it be built, will be the product of reactionary policy and populist dogma, a facile solution to the endlessly complex issue of illegal immigration. Rather than attacking the problem comprehensively, President Trump is bullishly standing by his border wall proposal, a directive that has been met with near universal derision from policy experts and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Yet as of the writing of this piece, Mr. Trump remains steadfast that approximately $21.6 billion of taxpayer money, more than the budgets of the EPA, NASA, and the entire Judicial Branch, will be allocated for his misguided pet project, and what’s more, that Mexico will pay for it. Imagine the scene if Brandt had received a bill for $200 million, courtesy of East Germany.

Much as the Berlin Wall was a physical embodiment of the Soviet system, so too is the border wall an embodiment of Trump’s opportunistic rhetoric. His campaign operated as a sort of unintelligible dialectic. He would make wildly absurd, potentially campaign-ending statements, on stage and on air, before offering pseudo clarifications of his “true” position a few days later. In between the ad-libbed oration and the curated responses, what we got was a sense that the man could not even keep track of what he himself believed. That was fine when he was seen as simply a spokesman for the naïve underbelly of American political thought. Now, though, he speaks for America itself, and we should not stand to settle for a mouthpiece that can conjure no more colorful adjectives than “big” and “huge.”

Two days after the election, the German newspaper Der Spiegel questioned whether or not the President-elect might prove to be the second “Unifier of Europe.” What the paper meant was that in Trump, as they once did with Stalin, continental governments might again find a common enemy dangerous enough to warrant genuine European solidarity. A friend of mine who lives in Germany recently expressed that much of the country, and the EU, feels America can no longer be relied upon, the betrayal of a relationship marked by such moments as the Berlin Airlift and President Kennedy’s infamous, “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. The Germans are a people in whose recent memory lives the specter of populism, and for whom a wall, whatever one should choose to call it, can quite literally stand for much more than just the protection of a border.

President Trump, I ask you this: How will you react when foreign leaders implore you to “tear down this wall”? What will you tweet when it is you and Stephen Bannon whose likenesses are graffitied in fraternal embrace? And most importantly, will you choose to call this wall an “Anti-Illegal Protection Wall,” or will you call it what it really is, a Wall of Shame?

To support the border wall is to support the inheritance of a legacy that is antithetical to everything Americans have fought for the past century to defend. It was not our past, and it cannot be our future. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of America, “the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men.” Let us exercise this power of the majority and assure President Trump that we do not consent to his error, lest we stand idly by and watch our moral demise as it is built, brick by brick, along the southern border.


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