We’ve heard a lot about the border wall in the last week — especially since Donald Trump has shut down the government until he gets funding for it. The messaging around the wall reveals that to Trump and his administration and his followers, it is a philosophical worry-stone, not a physical construct. For Trump to let go of the wall, he would have to let go of himself.
Take a look at this odd press release from the Department of Homeland Security — in particular the sections I’ve highlighted in bold italic:
Release Date: December 12, 2018
WE ARE BUILDING THE FIRST NEW BORDER WALL IN A DECADE.
DHS is committed to building wall and building wall quickly. We are not replacing short, outdated and ineffective wall with similar wall. Instead, under this President we are building a wall that is 30-feet high.
FACT: Prior to President Trump taking office, we have never built wall that high.
Once funding was provided, DHS began construction of border wall exceptionally quickly, in some locations in as little as nine months from funding to building- a process that commonly takes two years or more in other parts of Government. By the end of FY2019, DHS expects to have construction completed underway for more than 120 miles in the areas it’s most needed by the U.S. Border Patrol. The pace of construction has picked up as initial limiting factors like land acquisition and funding have been addressed.
Does this wording seem odd to you? Most normal English speakers would say “building a wall and building it quickly,” and “short, outdated, and ineffective sections of wall with similar walls.” The lack of an article in front of wall makes it seem as if a native Russian speaker (“moose and squirrel”), The Incredible Hulk, or someone else who has difficulty with articles had dictated it.
This seemed like a one-off oddity until DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen started talking the same way about the wall in Congressional testimony.
“I would ask for wall. We need wall.” pic.twitter.com/mkgHZWFgyI
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) December 20, 2018
The DHS has subsequently updated its press release to make it sound like a normal person talking about building a wall, rather than building wall. But it is clear from these two items that “wall” is not just a thing to the Trump administration.
Consider other words that don’t take articles. You can say “I am committed to freedom” or “It’s the power of love” or “We must have security.” If “wall” is in the same category as “freedom,” “love,” and “security,” then it is an ideal and therefore needs no article. You need “wall” because wall is a fundamental quality of the American condition.
An alternative explanation is that “wall” is something that you get pieces of. This would be similar to “I would like to buy a pound of sugar” or “I need six feet of ribbon.” In this interpretation, “We need wall” really means “we need lots of miles of wall.” It’s still odd.
But I like the platonic ideal explanation. Any border wall is just an imperfect reflection of the ideal “wall,” which we should all revere and aspire to as fundamental quality of America. “Wall” is now entrenched in the minds of the Trump administration as a quality of life, with moral attributes that go much further than a physical object.
This discussion took a turn for the bizarre when Trump tweeted this graphic of what he means by “wall,” which is “Steel Slat Barrier.”
These are “artistically designed steel slats,” rather than concrete.
The Democrats, are saying loud and clear that they do not want to build a Concrete Wall – but we are not building a Concrete Wall, we are building artistically designed steel slats, so that you can easily see through it….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
Let’s be clear, though. This is not a wall. This is not “wall.”
This is a fence.
But since it must obey the platonic ideal of a wall, we will call it wall, even though it is actually a fence.
Even Senator Rand Paul found this ludicrous, and tweeted a picture of his own idea of what it would take to deter border crossings:
I did something to help the President out though. I found him a wall I think will work on the border. pic.twitter.com/gx7ejwn1RU
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) December 23, 2018
Of course, it might still be vulnerable to attack by Pomeranians.
Why they say “wall” instead of “a wall.”
If you are building a wall, you might ask some questions.
- Why do you need $5 billion dollars, when you said all along that Mexico would pay for it?
- When you tweeted “Our new deal with Mexico . . ., the USMCA, is so much better than the old, very costly & anti-USA NAFTA deal, that just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!”, what do you mean? Does a trade agreement actually pay the US government? If so, why do we need more money from the government? If not, why conflate the two sources of funds?
- Why is this so important that it’s worth shutting down the government, including the Division of Homeland Security, which won’t be funded because you rejected a funding bill that passed the Senate 100-0?
- What makes you think Congress will be easier to deal with on this issue once Democrats have control of the House of Representatives in January?
The reason is that this President and his administration see “wall,” not as a priority or a policy initiative, but as a religious belief. They believe in wall. They will do whatever is necessary for wall. Wall is more important than funding the government. Until wall is begun, America is at risk. And build it out of steel, but never call it a fence.