Posted by: David Offutt | January 22, 2019

The Wall, Our Borders, and the Trump Shutdown

David Offutt and 1978 Datsun B-210 hatchback at the Pancho Villa State Park on the southern border of New Mexico (July 1988): The Villa Raid took place near here on March 9, 1916. “In recognition of the subsequent, long continued, friendly relations of the two countries, the New Mexico State Legislature in 1959 designated this site as a State Park.”

Twenty-three years ago, right after Christmas Day I drove out to Arizona to visit two old friends with whom I had shared a house in Tumbaco, Ecuador, back in 1977 when we all taught at the Colegio Americano de Quito. We were going to visit as many of the national monuments in the vicinity of Phoenix and Tucson as time allowed – and there are a lot of them in Southwest Arizona.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party had shockingly gained control of both houses of Congress in January 1995 and ended that year saying “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” with a government shutdown that lasted 21 days. The primary saboteur was new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Because of his earlier extreme anti-democratic, anti-compromise positions, he had already earned the moniker of “Gingrich Khan,” so I began referring to him and his lackeys as “Gingrich Khan and his gang of thugs.” In hindsight, I wish I had used “horde of thugs.”

David Offutt at the Lake of the Woods at Long Point, Minnesota (summer 1984): From here westward to the Strait of Georgia along the 49th parallel is the open border between Canada and the USA.

Last month, I had scheduled a two-week trip to the Southwest and southern California during the last two weeks of December. While my destination from Arkansas was to be San Francisco, I had planned to visit at least two national parks (Pinnacles and Saguaro) and at least one national monument (Cesar Chavez). Fortunately, I canceled my reservations at all nine different stops two weeks earlier.

I wish I could say that I anticipated Trump’s shutting down the government because he said he would be proud to do it, but I canceled my trip for personal reasons. Besides, I never thought the Senate’s Trumpista majority would let Trump do something as irresponsible as that so soon after the Democrats regained the House in the Elections of 2018. I was wrong.

David Offutt at the International Peace Garden on the border of North Dakota and Manitoba (summer 1985): This is the Bulova Watch floral exhibit.

Trump had been willing to back off his signature wall-obsession and fund the government with the deal offered by his lame-duck Trumpista-controlled Congress until he got embarrassed by his media handlers: Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox “News.” Ms. Coulter, whom many non-psychiatrists suspect to be certifiably insane, surprisingly said something I perceived to be lucid months before Trump’s change of mind and his shutdown.

Ms. Coulter insisted that Mr. Trump could shaft his die-hard base on every campaign issue he promised them except for one. If he didn’t bring back jobs that they knew were never coming back, they would forgive him. If he didn’t deliver a huge job-producing, badly-needed public works project to repair our crumbling infrastructure, they would forgive him because they knew Trump’s adopted “Republican Party” would never approve it. But: the Wall – that he had to deliver, or he would lose them. Trump has only a 30-some-odd percent solid base, and if he loses them, his political career will be over, and more importantly, his ego will be smashed.

David Offutt at the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (summer 1985): The park borders Montana and Alberta, Canada. This is at the end of the Alpine Meadow Walk.

So now, Mr. Trump has to get a newly Democratic-controlled House to authorize 5.7 billion taxpayer dollars to build his precious wall or else the government stays closed. But, remember that his Trumpista Congress never funded his dream wall for two consecutive years. Instead, it cut government revenues drastically in the 2017 tax cut for the rich, which will be causing drastic increases in our deficit for the foreseeable future, so the money isn’t there anyway. Also remember that Trump promised that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Therefore, maybe the new House should approve the wall, but only if the money can be borrowed from Mexico. However, Mexico is no doubt aware that Mr. Trump, through his numerous bankruptcies, is known to stiff banks, workers, and contractors with glee. He’s also known to renege on America’s negotiated “deals” in foreign affairs. Will future presidents be like he or will they live up to our obligations? Mexico can’t be sure, so it will never have anything to do with paying for that wall.

Another way to pay for the wall would be to place a surtax on those in the upper one percent income bracket that got such a sweet tax cut at the end of 2017 – a surtax that would continue until the wall is paid off. Of course, that would never pass the Senate, which is still controlled by the Trumpistas. Whatever loyalty any of them have to the former G.O.P. will be shown in their unwillingness to tax their donors after working so hard to placate them in 2017: making the rich richer is their sole reason for being and their only hope for continued existence.

President James K. Polk in the National Presidential Wax Museum in Keystone, South Dakota (2013): President during the height of the Era of Manifest Destiny, he’s generally acknowledged as one of our greatest presidents because he established the boundaries of present-day contiguous USA. However, his treatment of Mexico is still questioned, and, as a slaveholder himself, he did nothing to resolve the growing divisiveness of the slave issue. (Photo: David Offutt)

Another problem with the wall was brought up by new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. She said that the wall was “immoral.” She got a lot of flak for that, and I’m not sure why. I definitely agree with Jorge Ramos, the author of Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era. He suggested that “The wall has become a symbol: a symbol of hate, racism, and fear.” And he added that the wall was “a symbol for those who want to make America white again.” Mr. Trump clearly wants everyone to know that the USA is no longer a welcoming country.

I’m also reminded of one of President John F. Kennedy’s finest speeches: the one he gave near the Berlin Wall only months before his assassination. He said that while the United States was far from perfect, “we never had to build a wall to keep our people in.” Every time that an additional fence or structure is added to our southern border, I always think about the fact that fences and walls work both ways. What’s going here?

Another thing I have against the wall is that it goes against a long-time American tradition. A tradition that, as a 20-year teacher of American history, was one of the things about the United States that I was always proud of and hoped my students agreed: Between the U.S. and Canada and between the U.S. and Mexico, we had the longest unguarded border in the world. And, in the case of Mexico, considering our questionable history with that country, that was quite remarkable.

During our expansion westward from the Mississippi River, establishing our northern border with Canada was accomplished through diplomacy with Great Britain. When France sold us the lands belonging to the Native Americans known as the Louisiana Territory, we asked how far north it extended. We were told to make the most of it. The Anglo-American Convention of 1818 established the 49th parallel between the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota to the disputed territories of today’s British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon as the boundary.

David Offutt on the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park on the Texas Border (summer 1996);  Mexico is across the river. Most property owners don’t want a wall and don’t want to lose their land to eminent domain so that Trump can build one. Do the rest of us want want our national lands disfigured as well?

President James K. Polk made an 1844 campaign promise of “the fifty-four forty or fight,” insisting that we claimed British Columbia as well as present-day Washington and Oregon. Already engaged in a messy war with Mexico to acquire the American Southwest, he chose diplomacy to settle the issue. The Treaty of Oregon in 1846 extended the northern border westward along the 49th parallel to the Strait of Georgia. The Native Americans, of course, again were not asked.

Our southern border was mostly established through warfare: The Mexican-American War of 1845-48. Polk quickly annexed the Republic of Texas, much to the chagrin of Mexico. We quarreled over Texas’ southern border: the traditional border was the Nueces River, but we insisted it should be further south – the Rio Grande. A skirmish in “No-Man’s Land” set off the war.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war and established the Rio Grande as the southern border, and we paid Mexico $15 million for all of California, Nevada, and Utah and for parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Native American inhabitants weren’t consulted. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 peacefully secured the southern borders of Arizona and New Mexico for a payment of $10 million. President and General Santa Anna is still considered a villain in Mexico’s history because he’s blamed for all of this.

David Offutt at the Pancho Villa State Park, southwest of Columbus, New Mexico (July 1988): Pancho Villa led a raid from Mexico into Columbus in 1916. President Woodrow Wilson, without the government of Mexico’s approval, sent General John J. Pershing with a punitive force into Mexico in a futile effort to capture the bandit. Mexico’s president eventually ordered the US troops to withdraw.

In spite of bitterness still held by Mexico for the taking of its lands by the United States, for the most part, our relations have been friendly ever since. And until only a few years ago, no wall stood between us. The current “wall” is embarrassing and unnecessary. Hopefully, Canada won’t begin building a wall to keep out American refugees. Great powers don’t need walls to keep people out – or in.

Nevertheless, Mr. Trump continues to hold the American people’s government hostage in the longest shutdown in our history. Every day displays to the world how a great power can become a small one and that a democratic-republic may not be such a good thing. At this point we are at one month-plus and counting.

Note – January 26, 2019: On Friday, Jan. 25, Mr. Trump ended his partial government shutdown that was intended to extort $5.7 billion from American taxpayers for a border wall that he had promised his loyal supporters that Mexico would pay for. However, the reprieve is only until Feb. 15, so if his wishes are not placated by then, we may be playing this game all over again.

Note – After February 15, 2019: Mr. Trump decided to arbitrarily declare the border wall to a national emergency so that he could move money from congressionally approved projects to bill his legacy wall.



  1. “The money isn’t there anyway.”

    Irrelevant. The Federal government spends with keystrokes, limited only by inflation.

    “Drastic increases in our deficit.”

    Good! The deficit is too small and needs to be bigger. I’m so old I can remember when Democrats believed in fiscal stimulus, but today’s Democrats are to the right of Republicans on most issues.

    “The Wall – that he had to deliver, or he would lose them.” Ann should stick to calling for taxing wealth, as she did recently. If Democrats refuse to fund the wall, Trump will simply blame the Democratic House just as Harry Truman blamed the do-nothing 80th Congress. And most people will vote their pocketbook. In any event, Trump is old and I doubt that he will run for re-election.

    “The USA is no longer a welcoming country.” Nor has it ever been. The American public has always supported strict limits on immigration. It has always been the wealthy elites, like the Koch brothers, who support immigration of cheap labor.

    “We never had to build a wall to keep our people in.” Perhaps that was true when JFK said it, but today you cannot leave the country without a passport, and passports are withheld for any number of bullshit reasons, like owing child support. So yes, the U.S. keeps its people from leaving.

    “Establishing our northern border with Canada was accomplished through diplomacy.” French & Indian War? Revolutionary War? War of 1812? Aroostook War?

    “The current “wall” is embarrassing and unnecessary.” I am embarrassed by our failure to secure our border, though I think it would be more effective to control immigration by jailing employers who hire illegal immigrants. Of course that’s a non-starter because both parties kowtow to business interests.

    “Mr. Trump continues to hold the American people’s government hostage.”
    Does not the Democratic house share responsibility for the shutdown? Democrats could re-open government simply by funding the wall, and they had no problem funding the wall when Obama was building it. Hypocrisy much?

    As per your habit, your essay views the world through a hyper-partisan lens. “Republicans bad, Democrats good.” No mention of deporter-in-chief Obama’s immigration policy. No mention of Bill Clinton’s NAFTA treaty that destabilized Mexico’s economy and caused a flood of immigration. No mention of the Obama / Hillary policy of supporting brutal right wing governments in Guatemala and Honduras, resulting in the current flood of immigrants from those countries. No mention of the War on Drugs, supported by both parties, that contributes to violence and corruption in Latin America.

    I enjoy your photos.

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