“It all started with the border, and that’s still where it is today.” These are the first lines of the Drive-By Truckers’ song “Ramón Casiano,” released just before the election of Donald Trump in 2016. I’ve been humming the song for much of the last four years, because Mr. Trump’s journey to the White House began with promises of a “great wall” along the border, and that’s also where it ended.
The song describes a 15-year-old Mexican boy shot and killed by Harlon Carter, who was 17, in Laredo, Texas, in 1931. Mr. Carter later led the Border Patrol and then the National Rifle Association, overseeing its transition from an organization for sportsmen and hunters to one focused on Second Amendment rights.
Mr. Casiano was killed a couple hours away from McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where Mr. Trump went just a few days after delivering a fiery speech that spurred violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It was a swan song for a presidency whose legacy will be, above all else, the divisions he has sown; a coup de grâce after an attempted coup d’état.
Mr. Trump went to Texas to commemorate the completion of mile 45 of his new border wall — a symbolic location for the 45th president of the United States. Despite Democrats’ hopes that Joe Biden would flip the state, Mr. Trump found support among Hispanics along the border, who, he said, understand “better than anybody” that it takes strong law enforcement to “help them live safe lives.”
In his speech, he celebrated his accomplishments, and lobbed grenades at his opponents as his walls of support back in Washington crumbled. The 25th Amendment provision to take away presidential powers was of “zero risk” to him, but it “will come back to haunt Joe Biden and the Biden administration,” he said.
Despite rabid opposition, the border wall looming behind him was a win. With its construction, he had defended the nation, prevented terrorists from entering the country, saved jobs for Americans, arrested and deported hundreds of thousands of criminal migrants, and, as an unintended benefit, stopped infected immigrants from passing the “China virus” to U.S. citizens. He did all this, he said, while also improving relations with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
It is a symptom of our division that he can live in a friction-free zone that doesn’t require him to grapple with contradictory facts. His supporters hear the words of a martyr who defended them to the end so their country can remain safe and free. His opponents hear a jingoistic refrain — the repeating chorus of his presidency — that criminalized hard-working immigrants.
He created fear of outsiders even though most of our problems were homegrown, and bent the law to find billions for his wall at the same time that he cut taxes for billionaires and sought to slash federal spending on the arts, education and various safety net programs.
Those who hold these opposing views rarely have to contend with one another.
Indeed, the most durable wall Mr. Trump built is the one between Americans, not the one between the United States and Mexico. In many ways, his wall of steel and concrete is for show. Since the early 1980s, the United States has outsourced much of its immigration policing to Mexico, which detained Central American migrants attempting to enter Mexico through Guatemala in exchange for U.S. lenience toward Mexican migrants. Border communities have, on average, been safer than other American cities. More than anything else, they’re communities where families live, work and go to school, not dens of crime and vice that require further militarization.
Nevertheless, in contrast with many Mexicans and Americans who have long viewed the border as a point of connection, the beginning of their visits to friends and neighbors, a first stop on a day of shopping, leisure, or business on the other side, he sees the border as a line of division. It’s how he approached most other things as well.
In Texas, he said this is a “tender time” for our country, a “time for our nation to heal,” but Mr. Trump never was a healer of wounds. Not after the “Unite the Right” white power rally in Charlottesville, Va. Not after the murder of George Floyd. Not after mob violence at the U.S. Capitol.
Whenever he faced turmoil, he furthered division. He returned to the site of traumas he inflicted, as he did in McAllen, home to the largest U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention center, which became notorious in 2018 when national and international observers decried the cruelty of family separation.
A polarizing figure, he embodied the border itself. He was a magnet that simultaneously attracted and repelled, organizing Americans like iron filings in support or opposition: the us-versus-them, friend-versus-foe mentality that conflates perceived external and internal threats, and now targets the latter as much as the former. His supporters — “men who’d rather fight than win … like in mind and like in skin,” as the Drive-By Truckers crooned — marched on the Capitol to fight a revolution they knew they wouldn’t win. They scaled the walls outside the building to wage war against the country they claimed to love and hoped to save.
Mr. Trump wasn’t the first sower of divisions or builder of walls. That started long before Mr. Casiano was killed, with the dispossession of Mexican lands after the U.S.-Mexico War; relegating Mexican workers to the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs; casting them as carriers of disease; and lynching them by the hundreds in the first decades of the 20th century. Over the past century, politicians have argued that immigrants steal jobs, commit crimes, bring disease, and take advantage of our safety nets.
President Biden will not close the divisions that our former president deepened, or created himself. It’ll take more than one man, and longer than four or eight years. But Mr. Biden has an opportunity to begin the work of healing. The challenges we face at the beginning of this new administration are momentous.
Mr. Biden has already begun to reverse some of the damage, offering a draft of immigration reforms and halting construction on the border wall. These efforts will help get us back to status quo. That’s not enough, but it’s an important step toward moving beyond the border thinking of Mr. Trump and his supporters.
Geraldo L. Cadava (@gerry_cadava) is the author of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, From Nixon to Trump.”
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