A rhetorical analysis of Trump’s border wall
by Alexandria Hentschel
The seats of the Capitol Building were collecting dust. Government workers had stopped receiving paychecks. As of Jan. 12, the partial government shutdown had broken the record for the longest lapse in funding. The reason? An impasse over where lawmakers will find the funding in the budget for President Trump’s border wall.
It turns out Mexico isn’t ringing the doorbell at 1 Pennsylvania Avenue to hand over a giant check to fund its construction after all.
On Sunday, Jan. 5, three weeks into the shutdown — showing no signs of relenting — the President sent a two-page letter to Congress demanding $5.7 billion to fund the border wall. If Trump does not get it, he has threatened to declare a state of emergency in order to begin building the wall without congressional approval.
Though the shutdown has affected thousands of government employees and systems (around 800,000, according to CNN), the president presses on. At the crux, the very marrow of Trump’s campaign, sits the promise of a wall. As he is seeking reelection, the likelihood that he will give up that fight is slim to none.
Will a wall truly be effective? The proposed plan would add a perhaps 230 more miles of barrier to an expanse that is 2,000 miles long and already heavily fenced and patrolled. The New York Times developed an interactive map on its website that displays the topography, existing fencing, as well as private and public land barriers where the proposed wall would be built. There exists a messy process by which the United States government seizes private land — it will be difficult, if not impossible, to do so efficiently.
Assuming it materializes, the wall will be functionally ineffective as a physical barrier, or at the very least only marginally more effective than the current system. It is, however, fantastically effective as a rhetorical tool.
Rhetoric matters. Whatever imperishable, immortal material it is made of (“They don’t like concrete, so we’ll give them steel,” the president said at a press conference outside the White House recently), the wall will serve as a barrier. It will keep people of a certain kind “out,” and people of a certain kind “in.”
A wall is a symbol that is easy to understand. It is permanent and immutable. It signifies a barrier that must not be crossed — a cultural divide. Mexico vs. the United States. Mexicans vs. Americans. In People vs. Out People. Illegal vs. legal. “Aliens” (a word used to refer to something outlandish, unearthly, inhuman) vs. citizens. Drug dealers and rapists (according to Trump’s campaign speeches) vs. tax-paying, law-abiding citizens.
Senior Caroline Clauson, a professional writing major who often analyzes rhetoric for her classes, believes that Trump’s rhetoric indicates that he believes the wall to be a bastion against coming evil.
“[Trump] prophesies in so many words … an omnipotent, real, salvific, and beautiful wall … set apart with tall, reverential ‘W’s in his tweets,” Clauson said. “Trump’s narrative of the barrier is no less than Messianic.”
The government cannot keep immigrants out through political negotiation or stimulating the Mexican economy, as that has failed. The government cannot keep them from seeking a better life as refugees and economic migrants, as we find ourselves with a Latin America in crisis. The last bulwark is the least uncivilized, the easiest to interpret. A wall is the symbol of protection against outside evil that has existed since the dawn of civilization — we have always built walls around our camps, our clans, our citadels, our cities, our people. It helps to define us by putting us in opposition to an “other.” If we cannot subdivide ourselves, how will we know who we are?
If we build a wall, Trump posits, we will be rid of these aliens. We will be safe. Follow me, his rhetoric beckons, and I will shut the city gates against the lepers at the door.
A hispanic student at Cedarville, who declined to be named, says Trump’s rhetoric has affected his community.
“Walls do what walls do — they divide and separate,” he said. “The hispanic community that I have grown up around … is not scared of a wall. We are scared of how Americans will begin to see our people — as different, less than, to be feared.”
A field of study known as critical discourse analysis, developed in the 1970s, seeks to examine how power structures inform our discourse. That is to say, how the hierarchies of power inform the way we speak to one another and speak about one another.
Linguistic analysis of Trump’s speeches and rhetoric finds a consistent pattern of us vs. them language. The barriers are drawn linguistically, and now physically. There is America, and then there is everyone else. Trump has been clear on which comes first.
Alexis Smith, a senior psychology major at Cedarville, believes that the wall is anathema to the teachings of Christ and negatively affects the psyches of the minorities and immigrants she calls her friends
“The problem [with the wall] is that it has become a symbol of racist discrimination,” Smith said. “Jesus came to break down barriers, as there is only one Kingdom. And it won’t look like America.”
Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” includes the tongue-in-cheek observation that “good fences make good neighbors” — perhaps the basis of Trump’s foreign policy. The wall is a rhetorical symbol of division. Whether or not it manifests as a tangible one as well remains to be seen.
Alexandria Hentschel is a junior International Studies and Spanish double major and the Off-Campus news editor for Cedars. She enjoys old books, strong coffee and honest debate.