The Right wants to build Trump’s Wall at the southern U.S. border, insisting it will be a triumph; history suggests that it will be a Great Wall of Defeat.
The Fall of Rome
The Empire of Rome was one of the largest and most successful in history. At its height under Trajan, Rome controlled about 16% of the Earth’s arable land, and 21% of her people. Scholars vary about the exact date that Rome fell, but I would argue the Empire began to fall within a few years of its founding in 27 BCE. By my reckoning, Augustus ruled over both the founding of the Roman Empire, and within a few years, the beginning of its demise.
I suggest that the beginning of the end for Rome was the Varian Disaster, also known as the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in 9 CE. The Disaster takes its name from the Roman general at the scene, Publius Quinctilius Varus. Varus was the commander of a reduced Roman occupying force in Germany, marching through Teutoburger Wald — Teutoburg Forest — to their winter camp. As the three legions stretched through a narrow pass in the forest, they were attacked by German warriors under the command of a Roman-trained fellow German, Arminius.The Germans had wrongly assumed for some decades that Hermann was related to Arminius, hence the popularity of the former name.
It was, indeed, a disaster. Over the course of several days, all three Roman legions, over 15,000 troops, were annihilated. In one of the more dramatic retellings, when the report reached Augustus he banged his head repeatedly against the walls of his palace, screaming, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
The Great Walls of Rome
The reason I offer this as the beginning of the fall of Rome, is because it seems to have blunted Roman ambition. The Romans abandoned their goal of complete Germanic subjugation, and by 83 CE they began building the Limes Germanicus — a great wall to keep out the northern tribes.
Rome did not fall all at once. The Romans continued their expansion, but not so swiftly, nor successfully. In the first century they conquered England, but again found they could not defeat northern tribes, the people of the northern region of Caledonia, which was basically modern Scotland. In response to the failure, the Romans built not one, but two great walls: first Hadrian’s Wall, and later after a northward expansion by the Romans, Antonine’s Wall.
The walls were temporary solutions. Because the Caledonians and so many of the Germanic tribes were not subdued, and subsumed into the Roman empire, the northerners continued their incursions into Roman territory. In 410 CE Germanic tribes would finally reach Rome and sack the city, the first of three such devastations. As Rome slowly collapsed, the Germanic territories, England, and the rest of the Roman Empire sank into the disorder and misery of the Dark Ages.
The Great Wall of China
A millennium later, after Genghis Khan’s ravages across Asia and eastern Europe, various Chinese dynasties built walls to deal with the ever-restless Mongols. The Great Wall of China reached its largest extent in the Ming Empire.
That wall, too, was a temporary solution. By the end of the Empire, the Ming had retreated behind the Great Wall, and fell soon after to the Manchu and the Qing Empire.
The Great Wall of Berlin
In the modern world, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall. As the Russians were unwilling to attack the powers that held West Berlin, and as they were unable to stop those wishing to defect from East Germany, a great wall was constructed which encircled the demi-city, in an attempt to keep out the progressive governments that threatened Communist rule. The wall became a symbol of Soviet oppression. When it fell, it became a symbol of Soviet collapse.
And while it stood, it was a symbol of Soviet failure: a free, democratic, and progressive country does not need walls to keep its people in.
Because that’s what everyone seems to be missing in the debate over Trump’s wall. A wall limits the people on both sides. As it excludes those on the other side, it restricts and confines those who build the wall. It interferes with commerce and communication on both sides.
The Great Wall of Defeat
Even worse, it announces to the entire world that the ambitions and aspirations of the wall-builders are over. It signifies that they no longer fully believe in themselves, in their leaders, nor the inherent, irresistible superiority of their ideas and their culture.
In effect, they no longer believe in their beliefs.
That is the ugly secret that wall-builders hide: a great wall is a great admission of defeat. The physical defeat is obvious: the builders fear the invaders, and no longer believe they can stop them. But the more insidious conclusion, the one that is studiously ignored, is that the wall-builders are admitting a defeat of conviction: they no longer believe in the inherent superiority of their culture.
That is why I suggest that the Varian Disaster, and the resulting Limes Germanicus decades later, were the beginning of the end of Rome. The building of walls announced to the barbarians that the Roman Empire no longer fully believed in the Roman Empire.
The American Model
The American democracy has offered the world a different type of ‘conquest’. As the Marshall Plan demonstrates, since the end of WWII the goal of America is not to conquer other peoples, but to conquer their conquerors, and to defeat their tyrants. The United States, and all of the advanced countries, argue that the superiority of our culture is not a superiority of might and the right to exploit others; rather, our superiority is the obligation to disseminate our ideals, and to finally end the horror that has dominated life since it appeared on this planet.
So Trump’s wall is an admission that many of our leaders believes the American dream is over. If completed, it would be a stinging defeat: we will be stating that our holy trinity of free elections, free markets, and free expression, are not irresistible, they are not clearly superior, they are not sacred after all. We will be confessing to the world that we no longer believe that the American model will solve the world’s problems, and that we cannot provide salvation to the countries beyond our southern border.
Nor to much of the rest of the world.
So how can we claim that we are “making America great again,” while simultaneously admitting that America was never that great to begin with?
And Trump’s Wall is also a demonstration that we are abandoning one of our most treasured resources: immigrants. Over recent years, the U.S. focus has been on immigrants with professional degrees, those who can immediately go to work in high-demand, high-paying jobs.
There is overwhelming evidence over the past 170+ years that amply proves that this approach makes no sense at all. Almost without exception, every successful American can point to recent, unschooled immigrant ancestors. Poor, illiterate immigrants have produced the life-blood of this country since the Great Irish Potato Famine, a crisis which not only opened the door to the Irish, but kept it open for many subsequent poor and disenfranchised peoples of expanding diversity.
And in a great irony, that group of impoverished immigrants includes Donald Trump’s mother. For that matter, two of his wives were immigrants without remarkable professional skills, who wished to take advantage of, and contribute to, the superiority of the American system.
Trump’s wall suggests to friend and foe alike that Americans no longer believe in ourselves. So while the partisans bicker over immigration policy, border security, and the spread of terrorism, they are missing the real problem.
Trump’s wall would signify the beginning of the end.
Click for an explanation of the dysfunction between Trump and his followers.
This post was inspired by a piece by Nina Krushcheva about her great-grandfather, Nikita Krushchev, and the Berlin Wall.
Border art by Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano, photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
|↑1||The Germans had wrongly assumed for some decades that Hermann was related to Arminius, hence the popularity of the former name.|