The Power of Spectacle:  Thoughts on a Border Wall

By LaTrelle Scherffius

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect the views of Montana State University or the MSU Department of History and Philosophy.  

San Diego Border Fence. Photo taken by the author, 2015.

President Trump promises that he will build a “great wall” along the U.S./ Mexican border, one that will be  “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful. ” “Nobody builds walls better than me, believe me,” he boasts, “and I build them very inexpensively.”  Many Americans are skeptical.  A recent ABC poll found that just 37% support construction of a wall along the southern border.  

The longest section of the border runs through Texas, yet none of its thirty-eight Congressional members, including twenty-seven Republicans, supports Trump’s wall.  And, Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake from Arizona, another border state, assert that the wall is “not viable” and “makes no sense.” Why? They know that a border wall is not a real solution.

So why is Trump so invested in wall building?

The answer lies within the wall’s symbolic value and its ability to signal, suggest, and divert attention. It is theatre, pure spectacle. Its image satisfies supporters but its being offers little in the way of sustainable results. Spectacles are excellent political tools when traditional diplomatic or government solutions are no longer viable, and they are an expedient way to show strength. Fifty years ago French philosopher Guy Debord´s “The Society of the Spectacle” warned that the consumption of empty spectacles leads to  “empires of modern passivity.”  

Historian David E. Nye points to a modern American tendency that favors spectacle over reality when it comes to policymaking. We want distraction; our expectations are not for meaningful progress or advancement of the human condition. Instead we are satisfied by the Las Vegas stage show, the pre-packaged sensory-filled experience, and the ability to watch from a comfortable distance.  In Trump, we have the master presenter, a television star who measures success by polls and ratings, not tangible results.   The implications are frightening. Have Americans given up on problem-solving or civic engagement?  Do we demand only symbols and distraction from our public officials?

Let us look at how the border fence became imbedded with high-modernist symbolic value.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, President Reagan turned the nation’s attention to a new threat at the border when he stated, “The simple truth is that we’ve lost control of our own borders and no nation can do that and survive.” Under the Reagan administration, spending for border security increased although he proposed no physical border fortification.

Calls for a wall appeared in the 1990s as a way to appease a new wave of tough-minded populist voters who responded to inflammatory, anti-Hispanic and racist rhetoric.  In the wake of the 1993 Hanta virus outbreak, Republican presidential hopefuls Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan called for a border wall to keep diseased rodents from invading America. The implication, of course, had nothing to do with rodents and everything to do with suggesting that a wall would keep  “dirty and disease-ridden” Mexicans out of the country.

Politicians understood the long-term consequences of measures that might appear anti-Latino. While in 2010 Latino voters represented only nine percent of eligible voters, with over one-third of Latinos under the age of eighteen, politicians from both parties viewed them as a critical demographic in the coming decades.  And, businesses depended on illegal immigrants who were cheap, unable to join unions, and worked jobs that Americans did not want. A fence symbolically looked tough but did little to hurt businesses that depended on undocumented labor.

The first federally funded project, Operation Gatekeeper, initiated under President Clinton, constructed a fourteen-mile section of the border fence south of San Diego. The project suffered crippling cost overages but appeared to have barricaded a problematic section of the border.

Calls for wall building grew more virulent after the 2001 anthrax mailings and 9/11 attacks. Congress passed the 2002 Homeland Security Act transferring border security responsibilities from the Department of Justice to the newly created Department of Homeland Security.  Under REAL ID, Congress gave Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff unprecedented power to waive all legal requirements he deemed necessary to guarantee the expeditious construction of border fences and barriers. Only “Constitutional” claims were subject to appeal, and then, only by the United States Supreme Court. Chertoff’s waiver of over thirty-five laws made the border fence the broadest legal waiver in American history. With Michael Chertoff as acting “Border Commander–in-Chief,” by 2006, barricading the border had become a full-blown national obsession and the perceived first line of defense against international attack – the post-9/11 perfect spectacle.

In 2005, Congress passed the Secure Borders Initiative, a multi-year, comprehensive plan that called for the construction of seven hundred additional miles of “traditional” fencing, as well as a new “virtual fence.  SBInet called for a fully integrated system of towers equipped with state of the art technologies, including  “day and night cameras, radars, unattended ground sensors, and a communications relay” to “enable Border Patrol agents to more effectively detect, identify, classify and respond to incursions at the border.”   

Initial estimates predicted the virtual fence would cost $6.7 billion dollars.  After four years, and at a cost of over $1 billion, Boeing had completed only a twenty-three mile section, less than two percent of the original project. And, the technology was a bust: the system had difficulty distinguishing among intruders – animals or vegetation – and the cameras malfunctioned under the intense desert temperatures. In 2010, National Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a halt to the project citing “cost overruns and missed deadlines.”

President Trump would be wise to consider the failures of SBInet and of the San Diego fence.  In the San Diego sector, illegal crossings and the drug trade have literally gone “underground. ” Illegal smuggling and peddling, once the foray of small independent businessmen, are now controlled by large cartels with the capital to construct tunnel networks, some with electricity and even small railroads.  In the past ten years, Homeland Security agents have discovered thirty tunnels, one seventy feet underground, in the San Diego sector.

Equally as disturbing is the way that the fence has scarred a once vibrant nature preserve and state park. Today, on the Mexican side, popsicle vendors push carts along a crowded beach as music from the bullfighting stadium rings through the air. Families picnic and swim in the surf.  On the American side, the parklands sit vacant save for a few border patrol officers and mountain bikers.  The parking lot is empty and weed-filled, and the beach is devoid of people and littered with the carcasses of rotting cormorants and seals.

Yet, for President Trump, history and facts are largely irrelevant. Ratings matter.  And, and the wall after all, is all about ratings.

So, as we sit around our televisions, we must wonder: can the man in the gold tower deliver the goods?  Will his wall be as beautiful, affordable and impenetrable as he claims?  Or is this just the latest script in our post-real, post-fact, post-solution, spectacle-filled world?

LaTrelle Scherffius is a PhD Student in History at Montana State University.  Communicate with her on Twitter @Waynescom1.


One thought on “The Power of Spectacle:  Thoughts on a Border Wall

  1. Latrelle, read your observation; problem is still there, what is a president to do for the future for you younger generation? Criticism or construction? Your friend Gordon smith


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