From A.D. 300, for a millennium, every daughter knew less than her mother, every son less than his father. Now, as we dispute over the exact moment when we engaged this autobahn downward again – hurtling in a tinny Cadillac fueled by idleness, greed and superstition – our great-grandfathers (the ones who could read and write) drape themselves white to hear our diminished chicken-cackle language in the parliament of fools.
─ Donald Hall, The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993)
There once was a rather odd-looking man with stubby fingers who was worshipped as a cult figure. He spoke plainly about rebuilding a country in endemic economic decline after years of war.
He blamed his country’s economic and social problems on outsiders, on agitators, on people of different races, nationalities and political views. He liked building things – huge projects. He wasn’t a great orator, but he was full of bravado, and passed himself off as a master negotiator.
He seemed to say what the poor and uneducated were thinking, even if those things were nonsensical. He manipulated the media almost effortlessly. The more outrageous his sexist and misogynist and racist public comments became, the more he was loved.
At political rallies, protesters who opposed his policies were routinely bludgeoned and bullied. Of course everyone knows who I’m talking about – Benito Mussolini.
My Mexican university colleagues and students frequently ask me about the popularity of Donald Trump, amazed that such a brazenly unprincipled charlatan and egomaniacal monster could be the putative Republican nominee for president of the United States. They assume that as an American I have some special insight this particular brand of psychosis. I do not.
Social psychologists and political scientists are cranking out think pieces literally by the hour to explain Trump’s popularity, while at the same time the tiny minority of Republican leaders and intellectuals unafflicted by jingoism, racism and other mental illnesses, are trying to figure out how to stop him.
But the other day a former student who is now a Mexican consular officer in the U.S. asked me a very interesting question. He asked what I thought Trump’s worst policy proposal was.
The question is difficult because one is absolutely spoiled for choice – everything Trump proposes to “make America great again” is either patently unconstitutional, otherwise illegal, naïve or simply moronic.
If I had to choose, though, it would have to be the building of his “big beautiful wall” on the Mexican border, and making Mexico pay for it.
Calling this canard an “idea” or “policy proposal” risks bastardizing the English language to the point of unintelligibility. It’s more analogous to the semi-coherent ramblings of your drunk racist uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. But be that as it may, here’s why Trump’s wall is even a worse idea than subprime mortgages were.
First, and most obviously, Mexico is not going to pay for a wall. Unable to ignore this fact, Trump ran down a list of ideas to finance the wall: (1) increase fees for visas and border crossing cards; (2) impound remittance payments derived from illegal sources; (3) cut foreign aid and use the savings to build the wall; and of course the main target, (4) tax Mexican imports to the United States.
Surely at the bargain basement cost of a mere $8 billion, these measures would pay for the wall at Mexico’s expense!
The Washington Post was skeptical of Trump’s $8 billion cost estimate for the wall and decided to consult with the top construction engineers and economists. The cost of the concrete and rebar required would be about $15 billion. The construction would take 40,000 workers four years to build. Realistic estimates put the total price anywhere between $25 billion and $42 billion.
A president can’t unilaterally raise fees for visas or border crossing cards; that’s why we have a Congress and a State Department. But even if the fee sweet spot could be reached (extracting the maximum amount of money but not so much that Mexicans simply eschew the formal visa process), the additional revenue would amount to a few million dollars.
Cutting foreign aid would amount to a savings of around $200 million. Impounding remittance payments would not only be unconstitutional, it is entirely unclear how one could figure out which ones were gained from “illegal sources.” But let’s be generous and throw in another couple of hundred million dollars.
The central part of Trump’s plan to make Mexico pay for the wall, though, is to reduce the trade deficit with Mexico by slapping import taxes and tariffs on Mexican goods. Forget for the moment that this too would be illegal under NAFTA, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, as well as the rules enforced by the World Trade Organization.
It would result in endless litigation which the U.S. would ultimately lose, and start a trade war with Mexico – another war the U.S. is ill-equipped to fight.
When doing the simple math, no matter how you slice it, Trump’s “plan” might conceivably raise 1% to 5% of the money needed to build that big beautiful wall, and would be both an economic and diplomatic fiasco for America.
But if that were not enough, let me come to my second point: the wall is a solution to a problem that exists only in the minds of Trump cultists. The fact is, we already have a wall, and it’s deadlier than any wall could be. It’s called the Arizona desert.
After 9/11, border security was beefed up, walls and fences built, and traditional human smuggling routes near cities and highways closed, forcing migrants into the desert wilderness of America’s desolate southwest. According to a new documentary, The Empire’s War on the Border, in Arizona alone, state officials have registered over 7,000 desiccated human remains of migrants, including women and children.
Humanitarian aid groups leave bottled water, which is routinely destroyed by border patrol agents. When not dying from dehydration or heat stroke, or captured by the border patrol, these humans are hunted down by mostly overweight, unemployed white men calling themselves “militias.”
Rejected for military service, these patriots chose the next best thing: hunting the most disadvantaged, poor, and desperate of our species for sport (no license required, no quotas enforced).
Meanwhile, the Mexican economy is expanding while families are having fewer children, leading to an easing of Mexico’s traditional excess labor problem. Deportations are nonetheless at all-time highs, despite there being a reverse diaspora in the works: demographers have documented more Mexicans returning home to Mexico than migrating to the U.S.
When you add the fact that even some conservative groups admit that immigrants, illegal or otherwise, are a net benefit to the U.S. economy, it isn’t difficult to see why the big beautiful wall is such an asinine, counterproductive farce.
But like Il Duce, Il Donald isn’t much interested in facts. And neither are his supporters. Facts, after all, are pesky, troubling, and emotionally unsatisfying. They often contradict our political philosophy and our immensely pleasurable tribal impulses.
Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other non-academic work can be viewed at glenolives.com.