Trump's Wall Echoes the Venetian Ghèto

by Michael Dorf

During the presidential election campaign, criticism of Donald Trump's proposal to build a wall at the southern border and make Mexico pay for it took various forms. These included: skepticism about the cost; doubts about efficacy (given the possibility of going over the wall via ladders and ropes, under it via tunnels, etc); and doubts about the ability of Trump to require Mexico to pay, especially after Trump's meeting with Mexican President Peña Nieto, when the latter announced that he flatly told Trump that Mexico would not pay for the wall.

The last question--about payment--was revived recently when Trump sought funding for the wall from Congress. When critics objected that this was contrary to his campaign rhetoric, Trump took to Twitter (of course) to explain that Congress would, in effect, be providing mere bridge funding until Mexico reimburses the U.S.

That tweet in turn restarted the debate about how Trump would extract billions of dollars from an unwilling Mexico to fund his wall. Would he impose tariffs on Mexican goods? Higher tolls on border bridges? Taxes on remittances? Such ideas are discussed in a recent article in the Kushner-owned official state newspaper of the country formerly known as the United States, perhaps soon to become known as TrumpmenistanThe Observer/Pravda story bore the Trump-friendly headline "Yes, Donald Trump Can Make Mexico Pay for the Wall."

I am willing to stipulate that Trump (with the aid of Congress) can make Mexico pay for the wall, but the question of how to get Mexico to pay for the wall tends to crowd out a different, perhaps more basic question, that seems to go largely unasked in discussions of the financing of Trump's wall: Why? Even if one assumes that building a border wall is sound policy, why should Mexico have to pay for it?

One answer might be because the U.S. can get away with forcing Mexico to pay. But that answer, standing alone, doesn't survive inspection, because there's no reason to limit it to funding a wall. Why not tax remittances of undocumented (and documented?) Mexican immigrants at a high enough rate to pay for other Trump priorities, like infrastructure projects in the interior of the country or, after the GOP Congress rejects such projects, tax cuts for the super-wealthy? If the U.S. can get away with forcing Mexico to pay for U.S. spending projects, why stop there? Why not make China, Canada, and other countries pay too?

The notion that Mexico should pay for the wall appeals to a different, or at least supplemental, sort of logic beyond might makes right: Mexico should pay for the wall because the wall is needed to address a problem that is Mexico's fault. In this logic, because Mexico is sending crime, drugs, and rapists, Mexico should fund the construction of the wall to keep out the bad actors.

Although I freely admit that the following analogy is not perfect and could be seen as explosive, because I recently read Paul Johnson's magisterial 1987 book A History of the Jews, in thinking about the Trumpian logic of making Mexico pay for the wall, I was reminded of Johnson's description of the first European ghetto, in Venice. (The word ghetto derives from ghèto, a term of uncertain etymological origin for the selected area.)

Johnson writes that the immediate motive for ghettoization was the influx into Venice of over 5,000 Jewish refugees, many of whom had been expelled from Spain and Portugal, and the sermons of friars demonizing both the new arrivals and the longstanding Venetian Jewish community. Confining Jews to the ghetto was seen as a somewhat milder remedy than expulsion from Venice. The authorities then turned to practical concerns. As Johnson writes:
The spot chosen was . . . formed into an island by canals, equipped with high walls, all windows facing outward bricked up, and two gates set up manned by four Christian watchmen; six other watchmen were to man two patrol boats, and all ten were to be paid for by the Jewish community, which was also instructed to take out a perpetual lease of the property at one-third above the going rate. (p. 235)
Not only did Venice build four walls and make the Jews pay for them; the Venetians turned a profit in the bargain! Perhaps Trump can learn a thing or two.

To be clear, in invoking this comparison I do not mean to say that Trump's wall aims to make a ghetto of Mexico, but I do want to note a couple of disturbing points of contact between the Venetian ghetto walls built almost exactly 500 years ago and the wall that Trump proposes to build in our time.

First, is the lying. Of course Trump lies about so many subjects that this is too easy a point of comparison, so I should be clear that I just don't mean lying in general but the nature of the lies. Trump's various campaign statements about undocumented immigrants and crime coming across the southern border earned four pinnochios from the Washington Post. His focus on illegal immigration ignores the fact that the population of undocumented immigrants in the United States has been stable, not increasing, for the better part of a decade. Meanwhile, although of course some undocumented immigrants commit crimes--as do some other immigrants, tourists, and citizens--substantial evidence indicates that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the baseline population. Their addition to the population thus lowers rather than raises crime rates. Trump's incendiary and dishonest rhetoric that launched and sustained his campaign served something of the same function for his most ardent anti-immigrant supporters as blood libels served for the medieval anti-semites whose agitations led to the ghetto.

Second, is the idea of collective responsibility. Even in his original "they're bringing drugs" speech, Trump repeatedly elided any distinction between what the people escaping Mexico were bringing to the United States and whom and what Mexico was supposedly sending to the United States. He did so even though he went on in that speech to state that the problems were not coming only from Mexico but from "all over South and Latin America, and . . . probably from the Middle East." Nonetheless, Trump did not propose that the countries from which undocumented immigrants originate each pay their pro rata share of the cost of building and maintaining the wall. Mexico must foot the whole bill. One has the sense that for Trump, everyone coming over the border is in some sense being "sent" by Mexico. Just as the Venetian authorities left for the Jews of Venice to sort out how to collect the money to be handed over, one imagines Trump leaving to Mexico the task of proceeding by way of indemnification against other countries from which undocumented immigrants originate. No doubt he considers them all sufficiently similar others such that a tax on any is a tax on all.

Notions of collective responsibility appear elsewhere in Trump's ugliest rhetoric, especially in his discussion of Muslims. There was, of course, his call to kill the family members of terrorists, regardless of any complicity. And, spreading collective responsibility community-wide Trump twice asserted--after the San Bernardino shootings and after the Orlando nightclub attack--that the American Muslim community as a whole was responsible for such acts for supposedly choosing not to prevent them. In the latter instance, he said of the people likely to perpetrate terrorist acts, "Muslims know who they are, largely. They know who they are. They have to turn them in. They know who they are. They see them." That statement combined a group libel with the imputation of collective responsibility.

To return to the puzzle with which I began--Why should Mexico pay for the wall?--we see that the logic of Trump's implicit answer resonates with his most despicable views and political instincts. Preposterous as it was when considered as a policy proposal, Trump's plan for a southern border wall always made a kind of deranged sense as the psychological centerpiece of his campaign.