In 1961, the poet Robert Frost was asked to recite one of his works at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. At the ceremony, as Frost tried to read the poem he had written for the occasion, “Dedication,” the sun was so bright and the text on the page so faint that it was difficult to see, even when Vice President Lyndon Johnson handed Frost his silk top hat to shield the glare.
Instead, Frost recited from memory “The Gift Outright,” a poem he had published nearly twenty years before.
“To the land vaguely realizing westward,” it ends, “But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, / Such as she was, such as she will become.”
Now imagine the ghost of Robert Frost appearing at artless Donald Trump’s inauguration two years ago (In reality, Trump had no poet at his ceremony). What poem would have been more appropriate for Frost to read than “Mending Wall,” his skeptical response to a farmer who believes, “Good fences make good neighbors?”
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
Trump likely would throw a fit at such audacity (once the poem and veiled insult had been explained to him). He would try to fire the poet but by then it would be too late.
“Oh, just another kind of out-door game,” Frost would read. “One on a side. It comes to little more.” Trump would have been left muttering to himself about his ultimate reality show, “American Carnage.”
A wall like the kind our semi-president envisions across the southern border is an ugly, useless thing, no matter what it’s made of (by the time you read this Trump may have suggested constructing it from stale Christmas fruitcake).
Last fall, I was in Berlin and saw the few remaining bits of the wall that divided that city for 28 years, needlessly creating death, separation and heartache in a place that since the destruction of the wall has become a buzzing hub of entrepreneurship, politics and the arts. (“Poor but sexy” is how former mayor Klaus Wowereit described it.)
Now, for the most part, the wall’s path is marked by a small trail of stones embedded in the sidewalk, barely noticed, which makes a passerby wonder all the more how and why such a stupid thing, a barrier of concrete, barbed wire and resentment, was ever built in the first place.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
I also have stood at the wall that divides Israelis and Palestinians, the 26-foot-high slabs of cement that Trump so admires, placed side by side like Stonehenge unhinged along a crooked line, or those monoliths in the movie 2001, yet these impart not wisdom but ignorance.
Outside Jerusalem, the slabs give way to multiple fences of razor wire and sensors to detect movement. In 2004, toward the end of the Second Intifada, I was in the Palestinian village of Jayyous. The mayor walked me and some others down to the barrier that in many places separated farmers from the olive tree groves they needed to survive.
A heavily armed Israel Defense Forces soldier seemed to come from nowhere and demanded to know why we were there. We explained. He vaguely pointed his assault rifle toward the mayor and his friends and told us, “They will kill you.”
We knew they would not and were more afraid of him—and the training and prejudice that taught him to hate before knowing anything about the subject of his hatred.
Physical walls and walls of the mind. The Israeli government says their wall is powerful against terrorists. But it also is far too effective at blocking the communication and commerce that could help blunt the perpetual rage.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
As my friends and I had been with that soldier, we are more afraid of Trump than anyone seeking asylum. There is no national emergency. Trump is lying. The wall, as several have noted, is a non-solution to a non-crisis. Crazed and fear-fueled ideology runs rampant over reality.
Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell calmly, rationally notes:
In recent years, we’ve had a net out flow of undocumented immigrants, with the total estimated population shrinking to a decade low in 2017. Even if you thought that dwindling number of undocumented immigrants was still a problem, note that most immigrants joining the undocumented population don’t cross the border illegally; they come in legally and overstay their visas.
Which means a wall is unlikely to do much unless it’s tall enough to stop airplanes.
False, too, the narrative put forth by the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders that nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists had been picked up at the Mexican border last year. Chris Wallace, of the usually Trump-trumpeting Fox News, effectively demolished that claim on Sunday when he confronted Sanders with the facts. “They’re not coming across the southern border, Sarah,” he said. “They’re coming and they’re being stopped at airports.”
In fact, many of those names, according to experts, are false-positives, innocent people who come from countries suspected of terrorist activity or with names matching someone else on a watch list. (I have a high school English teacher whose name is a match; he gets stopped all the time.)
Further, as Wallace noted at Fox and as previously reported by Julia Ainsley at NBC News, that 4,000 figure is a worldwide number: “According to Justice Department public records and two former counterterrorism officials, no immigrant has been arrested at the southwest border on terrorism charges in recent years.” Repeat: no immigrant.
What is true and awful is the impact of this idiotic federal shutdown—a lockout, really—tied to the Trump tantrum over his preposterous wall, which the majority of the public does not even want. Hundreds of thousands who count on a federal paycheck already are—or soon will be—struggling to buy groceries or pay the rent. Add those without food stamps or contract employees waiting to be paid or small businesses anticipating a loan and on and on. It’s ridiculous, unnecessary and cruel.
What also is true and even more tragic is the fate of the thousands of desperate families from Central America stranded at the border, many of them separated, sick, hungry, confined in inadequate or makeshift detention sites or dumped into the streets without help or guidance. “As the number of families has peaked in recent months,” according to a New York Times reporting team, “the system has increasingly been unable to accommodate all of them.
Much of the growing chaos, say many of those who work along the border and in some of the government’s own security agencies, is a result of a failed gamble on the part of the Trump administration that a succession of ever-harsher border policies would deter the flood of migrants coming from Central America.
Is there a need for continued vigilance along the border? Of course—but the government has spent less than ten percent of the money Congress allocated for border security last year. This current crisis is Trump’s mini-Reichstag fire, a phony, self-inflicted calamity designed to further kindle the base, to distract from the scandals and the ransacking encouraged by this administration and to justify whatever other horrors Fearless Leader may have in store.
For the scariest part of all may be the powers Trump could have if he declares his threatened state of emergency. In an eerily prescient article published in the current issue of The Atlantic, Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, writes:
Unknown to most Americans, a parallel legal regime allows the president to sidestep many of the constraints that normally apply. The moment the president declares a ‘national emergency’—a decision that is entirely within his discretion—more than 100 special provisions become available to him. While many of these tee up reasonable responses to genuine emergencies, some appear dangerously suited to a leader bent on amassing or retaining power. For instance, the president can, with the flick of his pen, activate laws allowing him to shut down many kinds of electronic communications inside the United States or freeze Americans’ bank accounts. Other powers are available even without a declaration of emergency, including laws that allow the president to deploy troops inside the country to subdue domestic unrest.
In “Dedication,” that poem Robert Frost did not recite at JFK’s swearing-in, he urged us to teach worldwide “how democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
If Trump uses his crackbrained lust for wall to justify an abandonment of democratic principles and if we do not push back in the name of sanity—if we do not “take courageous part”—it’s over. Resist.