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The Potemkin Wall


How effective is the kind of steel pike barrier that Trump’s been peddling? As it turns out, it can’t withstand a saw. In fact, “testing by DHS in late 2017 showed all eight prototypes, including the steel slats, were vulnerable to breaching.”

My wife knows a thing or two about security and walls. She agreed to let me share her comments.

Any wall can be breached by a person with tools—saws, ladders, even explosives. The purpose of a physical barrier like a wall is to slow down the person attempting to cross it, until a responder can get there and stop them from continuing. In order for the responder to get there in time, there also has to be monitoring of the spot where the breaching is occurring, so you need sensors to detect the activity. In order to verify that it really is a person at the wall and not an animal, or high winds, or some other nuisance alarm, you need cameras monitoring the alarm locations, and people monitoring the cameras. There is a limit to how many cameras a single person can effectively monitor, so you need to have an operations center that is scaled to staff over 1,000 miles. You need to have enough responders available and stationed close enough to every possible breach location that they can get to the potential breach point in less time than it would take to breach the wall and them melt into the countryside on the far side of the wall. You have to have maintenance personnel who regularly check on and repair any equipment failures, because when you lose a camera or a sensor, you lose your ability to detect and assess a potential breach at that point. A wall as a security feature is a lot more than some concrete or some steel slats. It’s only a single part of enormous and complicated security apparatus.

A wall is not the solution to the humanitarian crisis we have manufactured at the border. But even *if* there was a real and genuine crisis related to people crossing the border, the notion that a wall is an effective solution to this and that an effective wall would only cost $5.7B is utterly ludicrous.

In retrospect, it’s not terribly surprising that someone like Trump—whose business consisted mostly of bad investments, confidence schemes, and Potemkin projects—would try to sell this nonsense. But it’s ridiculous that anyone treats “the wall” as anything other than an expensive joke.

Why is this still a thing? I guess if 2020 goes his way, we’ll be subjected to more talk of how Trump’s a political genius. But it seems that he’s entirely driven by what his fanbase wants, and they want a wall.

Nothing better illustrates Trump’s political calculus than his determination to build the wall, a goal that most Americans consistently oppose in polls, even at the cost of shutting down the federal government, a tactic that surveys show most Americans also consistently reject.

Politically, the showdown over the shutdown demonstrates how much more Trump prioritizes energizing and mobilizing his passionate base, often with messages that appeal to anxiety about demographic and cultural change, over broadening his support toward anything that approaches a majority of the country. It sends the same message about his priorities in executing his office. Trump makes no pretense of governing as president of the entire nation. Instead, he governs as the champion of his slice of America against all the forces in the country his supporters dislike or distrust—an instinct he displayed again this week with his latest threats to cut off disaster-relief funding for California.

For a president to consistently steer his governing agenda and political messaging toward a demonstrable minority of the country is, to put it mildly, a novel strategy.

Okay, but why “the wall”? Recall that it began as a “mnemonic device” to “make sure” that “Trump—who hated reading from a script but loved boasting about himself and his talents as a builder—would remember to talk about getting tough on immigration, which was to be a signature issue in his nascent campaign.” But that’s also why it caught on: it’s a pretty good metonymy for the idea of keeping people out. Having caught on, “the wall” has become, in essence, “symbolic capital“: a good or performance that become infused with specific ideological meaning that, in turn renders it particularly valuable. The thing is that while it matters a great deal within the arena of right-wing politics, virtually no one else views it favorably.

So this is where we’re at: a project of absolutely no “use value” but high symbolic worth to perhaps a third of the population has produced a government shutdown, and may soon lead to unprecedented abuse of the President’s ability to declare a state of exception. This kind of waste is far from unprecedented, but I can’t think of an example quite so ridiculous, yet also horrifying.

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