Trump’s Wall and the Dictator Aesthetic

Well, look, we’re going to have a border. It’s going to be a real border, and we’re going to build a wall and it’s going to be a serious wall. Just remember that. And you remember I said it…. It’s going to be a serious wall. It’s going to be a real wall. It’s not going to be a wall that they just climb up, and you know, you see what they do, over.
— Donald Trump on Fox’s Hannity show, February 29, 2016

Anthropologists no longer have the privilege of laughing at Trump’s “braggadocious” statements. It would be comic if it weren’t, at this point, tragic. Yes, our president wants to build a beautiful wall that is real. What does this mean? Another iteration of phallic power and masculinist logic?

Over the last 30 years, 70 nation states have constructed border walls. But, until now, states have not embraced border walls as monumental statements of sovereignty as they have done with other massive public works projects, such as bridges, damns or public buildings. Famous architects neither design nor attach their brands to border walls. Republics do not have public unveiling ceremonies for border walls. Perhaps with Trump we will produce the first wall designed by Gehry and a nationally televised ribbon cutting with Ted Nugent providing musical entertainment?

Border walls are, of course, about exclusion and defining who can live and who is killable. Who can deny the obvious consequence of walls as they re-border, mark, and reconstitute sovereignties as well as empower petty sovereigns to confuse citizenship with color—conflating legal status with a human one. Some states hedge themselves from that project. Those with a more democratic geist blame deserts, rivers, seas, other security forces, traffickers and even migrants themselves for the effects of border fortifications. Like the border region itself, states treat border walls as essential yet distant, marginal yet key to their survival. In this context, what is important about Trump’s embrace of the aesthetic qualities of a border wall, “huge and beautiful,” is his claim that the wall is a monumental project central to the nation-state’s identity and that this message resonated with the US electorate. Racism and heterosexism suffuse that identity. Trump bolted from just another candidate to the frontrunner in the Republican primaries after calling Mexican men rapists. The chant “Build the Wall” is now regularly yelled at Latinas/os in a variety of contexts, including high-school sporting events. And, of course, wall construction itself is surrounded by a variety of discourses about preserving—read Anglo, heterosexual, patriarchal—national identity and culture.

2008 Hidalgo, Texas. Margaret Dorsey

Until Trump a militaristic, not “aesthetic,” ethos guided border wall construction. Walls were “tools” (Chertoff) or “tactical barriers” (standard Department of Homeland Security lingo) with an emphasis on function. What qualities does Trump desire in a wall? Tall and blond? We do not have many details about Trump’s vision, other than the side facing the United States being aesthetically pleasing. Will the wall, if built, be modern or post-modern? Will the wall exhibit the sleek and functional lines of the internationalist style or the curves, playfulness, and historical blending of current monumental projects? There is another possibility that might not be too far-fetched. The wall might represent what Peter York (2006) terms “dictator style”—loud, gaudy, imposing, and golden. This dictator aesthetic, through its “repro” approach to wealth and materialism, is meant to impress and express absolute power.

Underlying this façade of power are all the cruelty, menace, violence and arbitrariness that mark dictatorial rule. The US-Mexico border wall could become a perfect example of the dictator aesthetic. On the side visible to the US, there can be ornate and “beautiful” structures that exude grotesque wealth, and on the Mexican side the full-force of “real” military power with towers, sensors, floodlights, and weapons that will harm. This unleashing of necropolitics is not hypothetical. Trump supporters joke about electrifying the wall and putting up signs that migrants will be killed while emphasizing that the US side will be pleasing to the eye. These two elements of the dictator aesthetic feed off of each other: the more gaudy and impressive the US side the more deadly and imposing the Mexican side. Each side, in a logic that is best understood by dictators, justifies the other. In this case, “all that glisters is not gold”: it is powerful and deadly.

Miguel Díaz-Barriga is professor of anthropology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Margaret Dorsey is an associate professor of anthropology and founding curator of the border studies archive at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Margaret Dorsey (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, [email protected]) and Aimee Villarreal (Our Lady of the Lake University, [email protected]) are the contributing editors for the Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists.

Cite as:  Díaz-Barriga, Miguel, and Margaret Dorsey. “Trump’s Wall and the Dictator Aesthetic.” Anthropology News website, August 4, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.546

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