If a single symbol for the Trump presidency can stand the test of popular imagination, his proposed wall for the U.S. border with Mexico might be the strongest contender. It can look however you want to picture it because it will never get built. Last month, Trump suggested the fantasy wall be decked out with solar panels to earn a little money.
“Putting solar panels on a stupid wall does not change the fact that the wall is a stupid and pointless waste of money,” geoscientist Raymond Pierrehumbert of Oxford University in Great Britain told BuzzFeed News. But he is taking Trump too literally. The solar panel idea is brilliant, because the shiny panels allow you to envision the nonexistent wall not as an actual barrier but what it really is: a screen.
The word “screen” is an English curiosity — like the word “cleave,” it has two meanings that are utterly opposed to each other. A screen can mean a partition that divides a space and provides concealment, privacy, or protection. Military commanders will send out a “screen,” or small detachment of troops or ships, to cover the movements and intentions of the main body. But a screen can also be something completely different: a blank surface on which a movie or photographic image is projected.
Projection is another tricky term that, along with its literal meaning, also has a psychoanalytic application in which the analyst acts as a blank “screen” upon which the patient projects his or her desires, fears and fantasies. Cultural Studies scholars argue that our thinking about racial and cultural differences is structured by fantasy — the projection of strong feelings on those we denominate “others” who then serve as a screen. We don’t see them as they really are, but as we need to imagine them: dangerous, threatening, or hypersexual.
Trump’s never-to-be-built wall clearly seeks to divide us from our southern neighbors, but begins to flirt with the projection of fantasies. On the one hand, it projects his desired image that we are strong and great and can build big walls to keep out anyone we deem unacceptable or threatening. But confusingly, it also implies that we are vulnerable and need to be protected from the illegal aliens, drug pushers, and general “bad hombres” who threaten to invade, weaken and incapacitate us.
Solar panels — why not? They would fit right in. The proposed wall acts as screen on which Trump projects his very potent and, in some quarters, popular fantasies of returning America to a monolithic greatness, which consists of excluding those he deems unacceptable, and at the same time conceals or obscures fears that he cannot really ever keep out the aliens, or live up to outdated and exclusive notions of American greatness.
Famous walls in history — actual ones — show a similar pattern: they begin as defensive fortifications but come to serve ideological ends. The Great Wall of China, an enormous construction project extending over many centuries, was conceived by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the third century B.C. as a way of keeping barbarian nomads out of the Chinese Empire. Although the Great Wall was a military boondoggle, it functioned as a psychological barrier that kept Chinese civilization isolated from foreign influences and the modernizing world. The wall kept China in the dark ages and encouraged its government to exert strong control over its citizens.
Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman invaders of Britain and dating from 122 CE, ran from coast to coast for a length of 73 miles. Although it is commonly thought that the wall marked the boundary line between the Roman Empire in Britain and what the Romans considered to be barbaric Scotland inhabited by face-painted Picts, historians argue that no one really knows the true motivation behind its construction. Many scholars question its military effectiveness, arguing that, like the Great Wall of China, this physical barrier served to reinforce a conceptual divide between what was considered civilized and non-civilized. Rather than an effective military barrier, the wall became an essential part of the ideology of empire, a unifying symbol through which people imagine and assert their ascendancy.
Poets deepen our understanding of the symbolic and psychological dimensions of walls. In Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall,” the poem’s speaker and his crusty Yankee neighbor meet every year to repair the old stone wall that separates their lands, because, as the neighbor says, adopting his father’s view, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But the speaker realizes “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” that keeps knocking it down every year and frustrates our puny human attempts to complete it.
Do the strict boundaries we invent to circumscribe our identities provide comfort or do they divide us — that is, exaggerate the differences between us? Frost’s poem implies there is a natural force that “doesn’t love a wall” and continually counters the drive for “us and them.” Walls aren’t natural.
And indeed, walls, fences and boundaries have been the pre-eminent images of personal sovereignty and state sovereignty for millennia, according to political theorist Wendy Brown. In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, published in 2010, Brown argues that we assert personal and state sovereignty when we have the unquestioned power and authority to delineate territoriality, what is inside and what is outside our domains, physically as well metaphysically. Although this is largely a fiction, it is one that has shaped the foreign and domestic relations of nation-states since becoming widely accepted after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
That fiction of walls — Trump’s wall being only the latest entry in the fictional canon — has been seriously eroded by the forces of globalization, the transnational movement of capital, neo-liberal market rationality, and the growth of international institutions. In this chaotic landscape, Brown argues, walls built by nation-states become theatrical icons of their eroding state power. “While they may appear as hyperbolic tokens of such sovereignty, like all hyperbole, they reveal a tremulousness, vulnerability, dubiousness, or instability at the core of what they aim to express — qualities that are themselves antithetical to sovereignty and thus elements of its undoing.”
Instead of enforcing the inside/outside distinction, these walls invert and blur the distinction between “criminals within and enemies without.” They advance what they imagine as masculinist independence against feminized interdependence and penetrability. Psychologically, they reimagine dependency as autonomy and ignore and erase webs of social and cultural relations.
The penchant for building walls may not belong to one political party. We must remember that Ronald Reagan, Republican and arch conservative, stood before the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987 and had the sense to proclaim: “Tear down this Wall.” Trump’s wall is a symbol of the waning sovereignty of world-dominating nation-states like the US. But he will continue to flog it to his supporters, hungry for a foothold in a wildly evolving global world, because it is an effective screen of the power struggles that threaten to overwhelm us. That’s why solar panels are an excellent idea: when we look into them, we’re going to see ourselves.