Trump’s Wall and the Limits of Literal Truth

Trump’s Wall and the Limits of Literal Truth April 3, 2018

Does it matter whether Trump builds his wall? Or are we mistaking the finger for what it’s pointing to?

The New Reality

Trump’s campaign promise about a wall along the border between the USA and Mexico is one of his most memorable pronouncements. Even though there are a host of logistical and economic problems with this grandiose scheme to seal the almost two-thousand-mile border, the Trump administration refuses to abandon the plan.

We could attribute this to hubris or delusion, but either of these options assumes that the wall is something Trump truly intends to build. There’s a much more plausible explanation for the administration’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge how unfeasible and ineffectual such a wall is in reality: the wall doesn’t have to exist in reality.

Literally Symbolic

Let’s not forget that Trump made his political stock rise during the previous administration by pushing a conspiracy theory about President Obama having been born in Africa rather than Hawaii. Anyone at this late date who still believes that the birther phenomenon was all about a birth certificate has no business accusing anyone else of a lack of critical thinking skills. Whether or not Obama was born in Hawaii, Trump made hay by pandering to the racism and xenophobia of people who were desperate to deny the fact that a black man occupied the Oval Office. People admired Trump for telling them what they wanted to hear: that Obama was Constitutionally unfit to be President, and that this newly multicultural America was something just as easy to deny.

Trump’s wall is just as folkloric as Obama’s African provenance. Whether Trump really intends to build the wall, or whether such a feat is even feasible, is less important than the act of pandering to his supporters’ need for division from, and security against, their perceived enemies.

The Facts of the Matter Don’t Matter

Sam Harris closed his manifesto The End of Faith by declaring that “Nothing is more sacred than the facts.” Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the way we skeptics and atheists tend to define these matters: we have a faith in facts that’s just as naïve as religious people’s faith. When confronted with things like conspiracy theories and wild assertions, we fact-check the claims online, spew out the results, and then consider the matter closed. Trump now sits in the White House; what does that say about the magic power of our sacred facts?

I still vividly recall the times folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in the 80s, and the idea of urban legends really interested me. Stories like “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” and “The Choking Doberman” spread by word of mouth, becoming popular legends because there’s something in them that resonates in the imagination of the society in which they circulated. They tell us a lot about the hopes and anxieties of a culture: the fear of strangers, the longing for justice, the legitimacy of the social order. Whether they’re true or not is beside the point.

This is the thing that rankles our rational outlook on society. Isn’t the literal truth of a claim, whether it’s about God, Obama’s birth certificate, or whether the local courthouse was constructed to face the wrong direction, the be-all and end-all of the meaning of the claim? I’d say no. What a story means to people in a culture has more to do with their emotions, their moral sense, and their fears about the future.

The Truth About Truth

I keep coming back to the sad fact that literal-mindedness doesn’t help us establish why a claim has so much power over us as a nation. If we had understood how insidious the appeal of the birther conspiracy theory was, how deeply Obama’s election stoked the fear of the Other in white America, and how effectively Trump was able to capitalize on this paranoia, we might not be talking about a border wall right now.

Is the literal truth really the only important truth? Or are current events showing us that we need to dig deeper to find the truth?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The Truth is that Americans are bored and alienated. Anything that livens up the day by inducing rage or paranoia is a welcome change, regardless of whether it’s true or not.

  • Anthrotheist

    It seems to me that the wall is a symbol of Trump’s core platform: protectionism. The wall promises to provide physically what his supposed mastery at negotiation was to provide economically; it’s the promise that America will be put up on a pedestal where it can shower the world with gold while remaining unsullied (though the metaphor is more accurate if the ‘gold’ describes the color of the shower).

    Ideologically, it seems to hit on a couple of essential core beliefs of American culture, specifically righteous inequality and American exceptionalism. The idea seems to be, “America is so amazing that everybody wants to come here and steal all of our amazingness from us to take back to ‘shit-hole’ countries!”. This implicitly acknowledges that America possesses more than other nations, and requires that such a state be justifiable: thus the righteous inequality of great entities (the same ideology that props up inheritance capitalism, as well as racism and sexism). This only works if America is exceptional, and therefor one of the great entities worthy of having more than anybody else.

    To the main point of the article (maybe I should have started there), I’m a bit disappointed that the term ‘post-truth’, after being Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year, appears to have been nothing more than a linguistic fad (Google Trends). After some intense scrutiny, we all seem to have fallen into a comfortable post-fact world without much of a fight. Everyone in modern America has been conditioned since birth to respond to emotional appeals for decision-making, from advertising to politics. If we valued literal truths, we wouldn’t blithely go along with economic conditions in which the only way to feel like we have the same standard of living we had 30 years ago is to take on a mountain of debt we will never get out of.

    I honestly believe that logic is not humanity’s strong suit. Babies aren’t logical, and the learned skill that is ‘rational logic’ is both unevenly taught and difficult to exercise when it matters most (you know, when things are important and we are excited or scared).

  • I agree the prospect of the border wall is also supposed to evoke the concept that foreigners want our stuff, but we have to stop them because there’s not enough to go around. This is an inversion of Cold War mythology, where we were proud of the fact that people in totalitarian hellholes were struggling to come here and enjoy the West’s bounty.

    I just don’t think that the post-truth society is that much different than the old one. Vietnam and Watergate made it clear to people of my generation that the powerful felt no compunction about lying and cheating to get their way. My point isn’t that we shouldn’t be concerned at all about literal truth; just that assuming it’s the only relevant aspect of the search for meaning is so wrong it’s almost delusional.

    Human decision making isn’t conscious and rational, and that’s a scientific fact. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the neural network in which decision making takes place, and it’s regulated much more extensively by our fear of bad outcomes than knowledge or a rational assessment of options. The idea that humans are rational agents is an illusion, and we have to start taking that into consideration when we’re dealing with cultural phenomena like this.

  • Flint8ball

    I live in SW Arizona. We have a wall (or tall sturdy fence) across much of CA and AZ. We also have a HUGE Border Patrol presence and advanced technology to monitor the border. My perspective is that we need to modify policy and procedures to ensure illegals are immediately turned over to Mexican authorities. Unfortunately, the current process is this: Once you cross the border, you stay in the US. Yes, you are processed through ICE, but then released WITHIN the US with the expectation you will actually turn up at your future hearing. That seems pretty ridiculous. What’s the point of border patrol? Maybe the wall is necessary if our policies are this out of whack

  • Phil

    If economics is a problem, just build it 2ft high and maybe put in some flower beds, shrubberies etc. That would be worth going to see. I might even chip in for a few quid.

  • Admittedly, any physical wall built along the border will be largely decorative.

  • Jim Jones

    None of the proposed walls will stop determined people. Maybe children and pregnant women.

  • And, as I said in the post to which you’re ostensibly responding, maybe that’s because it’s not really about creating a literal barrier.

  • Erik1986

    The wall is irrelevant. The vast majority of “illegal aliens” get here legally, e.,g. on work visas, and just DON’T LEAVE after they expire. So wall, schmall. Even if it were 50 feet high and stretched from coast to coast it wouldn’t accomplish anything except the spending of vast amounts of money.