Even though Donald J. Trump took a brief break from stumping the other day to open a new Trump hotel, in Washington, D.C., he has rarely paused in nearly 18 months of political campaigning in selling the American electorate hard on his latest, most ambitious, mega-development: the Wall. As if lifted from a real estate brochure, the adjectives, stitched together, soothe and seduce: “An impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern” — the “southern” rather innocuously tucked in, like a house advertising “southern exposure” — “border wall.”
No one really knows what the Wall is — neither its physical manifestation nor, more important, the policies needed to undergird its construction — but that hardly matters. For whether there ever will be an actual wall or not, it already exists as an idea, a piece of political theater, as a metaphor. Perhaps Mr. Trump has taken inspiration from the Kim dynasty of North Korea, which makes much propaganda value from the 26-foot-high concrete border wall built by the “fascist clique” of South Korea — a wall that does not exist.
“Reality exists,” writes the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson in “Metaphors We Live By,” but “so does the unconscious system of metaphorical thought that we use without awareness to comprehend reality.”
And what metaphor could be more substantial than a wall? The word “border,” with its vague associations with “neighboring,” seems vaporous, but a wall conveys protection, an unyielding solidity. Mr. Trump, arguing that “a wall is better than fencing,” of which there is already a more than 600-mile structure along the United States-Mexico border, added: “It’s more secure. It’s taller.”
There is, of course, no reason fencing cannot be taller than a wall, but this is the power of metaphor: It grows in our subconscious mind. Mere fencing or barbed-wire, by contrast, connotes porousness. In the view of one technician, such lesser barriers even “tempted people and provoked them into more and more attempts to break through the border.”
That expert? Walter Ulbricht, the East German Communist leader who ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Amid the optimism of 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall should surely have marked the apogee of wall building, to be replaced by the free movement of ideas across national lines, exemplified by the nascent World Wide Web — in Thomas L. Friedman’s words, “the walls came down, and the Windows came up.” But today, there are actually more border walls than during the most tense periods of the Cold War. Rather than becoming more “flat,” in Mr. Friedman’s telling, the world increasingly looks like a steeplechase course.
According to the geographer Elisabeth Vallet, there are more than 50 border walls (using the word broadly) in the world today; 15 were built last year alone. These range from the 600-mile barrier Saudi Arabia is constructing along its border with Iraq as an anti-Islamic State measure to the sturdy, 13-foot-high fence backed with razor wire that Hungary has erected along its borders with Croatia and Serbia to stem the flow of migrants to the “separation barrier” built by Israel in the West Bank (like other countries, Israel steadfastly avoids using the word “wall”).
It may seem paradoxical that an age of globalization should see an increase in wall building, but the political scientist Wendy Brown suggests that the two phenomena are curiously intertwined. “Rather than resurgent expressions of nation-state sovereignty,” she writes, “the new walls are icons of its erosion.” In “Walled States, Waning Sovereignty,” she argues that walls are a largely illusory projection of the very power that states have lost to the ungovernable forces “unleashed by globalization and late modern colonization.”
Small wonder, then, that China’s Great Wall is routinely invoked as an icon of former strength and glory. Mr. Trump, asked about the feasibility of his 1,000-mile wall, said, “They built the Great Wall of China, that’s 13,000 miles.” Yet as the historian Julia Lovell points out in “The Great Wall,” there is “no single Great Wall, but instead many lesser walls.”
The empire’s walls, she argues, were scorned or ignored within China for much of their history; they were simply not that good at keeping out “marauding barbarians.” The “Great Wall” gained stature only recently, during the era of Communist government, which restored the sections near Beijing that most tourists see, as a prop for national pride. It was, one might say, all an effort to Make China Great Again.
And so the myth endures. The “Great Wall of Calais” is what Britain’s tabloid newspapers have nicknamed an approximately half-mile-long concrete barrier being built, with British funding, in the French city to keep migrants from attempting to stow away on trucks bound for the Channel crossing.
Do walls work? The real question is: as what? Looking at early walled cities in his study “The City in History,” Lewis Mumford observed that “the exaggerated height and thickness of these walls in the earliest cities, rivaling even eighth-century Khorsabad, is significantly out of all proportion to the military means that existed for assaulting them.” The excess was symbolic, rather than strategic; more about prestige than security.
Today’s walls similarly function as political placebos, seeming to produce effects, if only masking larger symptoms. Just as, during the Cold War, building the Berlin Wall was “a hell of a lot better,” as President John F. Kennedy famously said, than going to war with the Soviet Union, building a wall today seems more feasible than doing something about economic inequity. The political scientists David Carter and Paul Poast have found “cross-border economic inequality” to be “the most robust predictor of border walls”; even the Berlin Wall, they note, was largely an effort to stanch the flow of people out of East Germany seeking better economic opportunity.
But walls rarely function as intended. Going back to medieval times, Mumford observed that “the wall built up a fatal sense of insularity.” Thanks to that isolation, “defensive unity and security reversed their polarity and passed over into anxiety, fear, hostility and aggression, especially when it seemed that a neighboring city might prosper at its rival’s expense.”
Among countries, even within cities — from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Nicosia in Cyprus — walls can harden existing tensions, with effects that last long after they come down. Germans speak of the “mental walls” that outlived the fall of the Berlin Wall. One intriguing study found that German subjects overestimated the distance between a pair of cities if one had formerly been in the east, the other in the west, compared with their reckoning of the distance between two cities where both were either eastern or western. The effect was more pronounced if a subject had a negative view of Germany’s reunification.
In their book “Divided Cities,” Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth identify a peculiar phenomenon: When physical partitions go up, politicians “discount them as the unfortunate but necessary byproducts of the dispute.” But when a conflict is settled, suddenly, “the significance of these physical partitions in the eyes of the same political actors often changes dramatically.” Then they become roadblocks to reconciliation, to be immediately demolished. In both cases, the wall — either its construction or removal — is treated as the expedient solution, even if far more complex divisions existed before and after.
The West Bank’s “separation barrier” provides a symbolic hot point, but it hides an underlying issue. “One of the most crucial battlegrounds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is below the surface,” notes the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman: the allocation of water.
Walls may even help contribute to a problem they are presumed to solve. Studying the United States-Mexico border where Mr. Trump would build his wall, the sociologist Douglas Massey and colleagues found that the “unprecedented militarization” of the border from the 1980s did not seem to affect migrants’ likelihood of making an undocumented crossing. What the added security — and thus added risk of additional trips — did do, Professor Massey argues, was reduce their likelihood of making the return trips, which had been a regular part of migrant behavior in previous decades. In other words, a wall designed to keep migrants out might very well end up keeping more migrants in.
The metaphoric weight of walls blinds us to their security weaknesses. When a South African criminologist named Monique Marks studied police reports in a suburb near Durban, she found that where anxious homeowners had gone on a spree of wall building, crime rates were higher than in a neighboring, largely unwalled suburb. It could be that the walled suburb simply had more desirable targets (advertised, indeed, by the walls), but she pointed to a larger issue: High walls hide the house from the view of criminals, but also hide criminals from the view of police. There can be no “eyes on the street” when no one can see the street.
If walls, with their myriad weaknesses and unintended consequences, so often fail, why do we persist in building them? Because a fetish for hardware feeds the fantasy that we can resolve large, complex problems with concrete and steel, argues the legal scholar Mary Fan.
“The more the prevention-through-deterrence paradigm has become strained by proof of its inefficacy,” she writes, “the more object-oriented it has become: more layers of triple fencing, more sophisticated military equipment such as remote sensors and unmanned aircraft.”
In George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic adapted as the TV series “Game of Thrones,” the 700-foot-high wall of ice — impenetrable, tall, northern — is protected by ancient sorcery. But all walls are built with an element of magical thinking. For what is a wall but wish fulfillment made concrete?
Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.