US President Donald Trump leaves the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, the US. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Donald Trump leaves the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, the US. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

Walls have always been symbols as much they have been physical barriers. In fact, as physical barriers, they have tended in the past to be ineffective. 

Perhaps the most obvious example is the Great Wall of China, which stretches in its modern version about 6,000km. It went through various incarnations but was much enhanced by the Ming Dynasty between the 14th and the 17th century. It was designed to protect against raids and invasion from various nomadic groups from the Eurasian steppes.

Ultimately, it was rendered ineffective not by construction failure but by internal insurrection, when a peasant revolt upended the Ming dynasty and allied itself to Manchurian forces then outside the wall. Since the succeeding Qing empire included much of Inner Mongolia, the wall became irrelevant. 

The Berlin Wall was another famous wall that divided not only Berlin but the east of Germany from the west of the country. As it became increasingly obvious that economic prospects were better in the west, the communist government of the east established the barrier. It too collapsed not from invasion from the outside, but because of pressure from the inside. 

On a broader level, however, a 3,000km wall is not only a quixotic effort at reducing illegal immigration in the US but also at the very least a suggestion of incipient racism.

In the modern day, populations of the world naturally try to even out economic disparity by doing the obvious: physically moving to a place with better prospects. Increased mobility, better information flow and a more polyglot global population supports this trend. The consequences for the recipient countries are complicated, touching everything from national pride to economic factors. These great popular migrations are producing political pressures, most visible in the US. 

US President Donald Trump has initiated a shutdown of parts of the federal government in order to try to force his opponents in the Democratic Party to fund the building of a 3,000km barrier, which by his estimate will cost about $6bn. The Democrats, having newly won control of the lower House of Representatives, are not having any of it. The stand-off culminated on Wednesday in Trump walking out of a meeting with the Democratic leadership aimed at trying to negotiate a resolution to the dispute and reopen the closed parts of the government before state employees go unpaid on Friday.  

In this political battle, much depends on who gets the blame, or most of the blame, for the stand-off. In past stand-offs between congressional leaders and the president, the president has usually won. But in this case, Trump appears to be losing the battle of popular support, with the most recent poll finding 51% of adults believing that the president deserves “most of the blame” for the shutdown. The same poll found 32% blamed Democrats, suggesting that Trump is opposed by a slice of his own supporters. The reason is obvious; apart from being an electoral promise, the wall is an obsession for Trump, and even some of his own supporters feel a shutdown of government is an overreaction to what is, after all, another squabble about government resources.  

On a broader level, however, a 3,000km wall is not only a quixotic effort at reducing illegal immigration in the US but also at the very least a suggestion of incipient racism. Polls suggest there were 10.7-million unauthorised immigrants in the US in 2016, or 3.3% of the population. This is down from a peak of 12.2-million in 2007. About 60% have been in the US for more than a decade. Most immigrants arrive not by jumping the wall but with legal visas, and they simply don’t leave. 

This is far from being the “crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul” Trump describes. His real views are suggested by an insistent description of immigrants as “murderers, rapists and drug smugglers”. Though, of course, some are, the crime rate for illegal immigrants is in fact lower than the general population.

Trump does not realise or perhaps care about the harm he is doing to the US leadership around the world, which in the past has, with some notable exceptions, been beneficial to all countries. South Africans have weathered a huge rush of immigrants from the rest of the continent in larger proportions than the US has experienced, sometimes with bile and violence, but generally with grudging accommodation and some sympathy.

The enormous irony, that the US was largely established through immigration and prospered because of it, flies over Trump’s head as he spews false malice. Around the world, people look at this and say to themselves, a country that willingly votes for this person cannot now or in the future lead the world.