As so often, South Park saw it coming. In “The Last of the Meheecans”— which first aired in October 2011 — the obnoxious Cartman joins the US Border Patrol, only to find himself facing the wrong way as hordes of disillusioned Mexican workers seek to flee the economically depressed United States back to Mexico.
Undaunted, Cartman makes it his business to stop them leaving. After all, without Mexican labour the American economy would grind to a halt.
Very often the Trump presidency feels as if it’s being written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the comic geniuses who created South Park more than 20 years ago. In this week’s real-life episode, Trump/Cartman shuts down the federal government in retaliation for the refusal by the Democratic Party’s leaders to approve the border wall he campaigned for in 2016.
In a preposterously solemn TV address from the Oval Office, Trumpman refers to the situation on the southern border as “a humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul”. Hilarity ensues as Kyle (Chuck Schumer) and Butters (Nancy Pelosi) deliver their response crammed together behind a single lectern, in an unintended homage to Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic.
The result is that the government employees responsible for controlling the vastly larger flow of people into America through airports don’t get paid. Desperate to end the shutdown, for which he is being blamed, Trumpman declares a national emergency under laws that allow redirection of Department of Defence construction funds, provided it’s for military defence.
Trumpman’s attempt to use DoD money to build his wall is challenged and defeated in the courts, but he goes ahead anyway, only to run into a shortage of construction workers. The episode ends with the arrival of the “caravan” of Central American asylum-seekers (last seen in the November mid-terms episode), who gratefully accept jobs to build Trumpman’s wall.
Few if any commentators have had positive things to say about this episode of South Lawn (yes, that’s the area behind the White House where Marine One, the presidential helicopter, takes off and lands).
Writing in New York magazine, my old friend Andrew Sullivan went full Weimar Republic. If Trump does declare a national emergency, he warned, the president will have “gone over the line in erasing democratic and constitutional restraints on his personal power”.
Steven Rattner (best known for his work as President Obama’s “car czar” during the financial crisis) offered a few killer facts. First, as per South Park, the number of Mexicans seeking to cross the border illegally has plunged 92% since 2000. The majority of people now apprehended at the border are from dysfunctional Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and most are families or unaccompanied children.
Sure. But does that make Nancy Pelosi right to call extending the existing barriers along the US–Mexican border an “immorality”? Should we agree with the newly elected congresswoman and social media sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says Immigration and Customs Enforcement has “systematically violated human rights” on the border, whereas people trying to cross the border are “acting more in an American tradition than this president is right now”?
Implicitly — and at times explicitly — the American left is arguing for open borders. You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to regard this as folly. The historian Charles S Maier, a former colleague of mine at Harvard, is the personification of the old, decent, cerebral liberalism of the northeastern seaboard. But, as he argues in his outstanding book Once within Borders, “Borders are more than just barriers; for some they guarantee community and belonging.
“All our customary homelands,” he writes, “seem assailed by global trends that transgress once reassuring borders and spatial stability — by threats of terrorist attacks, uprooted refugees, tidal flows of international capital, the scary spread of new diseases, and the threat of climate change oblivious to frontiers. Peoples who have long enjoyed territorial security no longer feel sheltered.” In such a world, there is much to be said for the view of the poet Robert Frost’s farmer next door that “good fences make good neighbours”.
As Maier shows, since ancient times walls have principally served to keep citizens or subjects safe by excluding all kinds of invader. The Great Wall of China was a Ming dynasty reconstruction of a crumbling barrier erected 2,000 years earlier; the difficulty of protecting the Middle Kingdom from nomadic raiders was perennial.
Go to Jerusalem and you see the walls erected around the Old City by Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman sultan. But they stood atop defences built by King Solomon about 2,500 years earlier. The zenith of the fortified wall came in the 17th century, when Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban served as Louis XIV’s master wall-builder.
Jail walls aside, walls to keep people in, rather than out, have been less common. They came to the fore in the Cold War, when totalitarian regimes from Berlin to Pyongyang were forced to fence in their populations to prevent them from voting with their feet. Those sections of the Iron Curtain were what gave walls such a bad name in our time. It was not only Ronald Reagan who condemned them. Western leaders from Churchill to the present Pope have repeatedly inveighed against political barriers. And let’s not forget Pink Floyd.
Yet the notion of a world sans frontières was always hopelessly naive. It was easy to be against walls when they were imprisoning East Germans and North Koreans. It is a lot harder when the world’s most objectionable regimes make almost no effort to contain their citizens behind borders.
All over the world, people are on the move from messed-up countries — and there is remarkably little to stop them. According to a Gallup survey in 2017, more than 700m adults around the world would like to move permanently to another country. Of that vast number, more than a fifth (21%) say their first choice would be to move to the US. The proportion who name an EU country as their dream destination is higher: 23%.
Yet recent polling by the Pew Research Centre points to an equal and opposite resistance to mass migration by the people in potential destination countries. Across 27 states, 45% of those surveyed said fewer or no immigrants should be allowed in, while 36% said they wanted about the same number of immigrants. Only 14% said their countries should take in more. In America the proportion wanting more was 24% — only Spaniards are more welcoming — but that’s still less than a quarter. For the UK, the proportion wanting more immigrants is just 16%; for Germany 10%; for Italy 5%.
Cartman rarely has the last laugh in South Park. But the denouement may be different in South Lawn. If the choice is between open borders and defensive walls, history suggests walls — and those who build them — will win.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford