Trump’s Wall

External and Internal Boundaries

In mid-January 2018, the U.S. federal government  shut down for three days for lack of funding, after President Trump had gone back on his legislative deal with the Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer. Just before the “first Trump shutdown,” Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly, had talked his president into going back on his deal with Schumer to keep the government running. Schumer, who had met with Trump in the White House the day before, claimed on the Senate floor that he had agreed to discuss Trump’s border wall with Mexico and that he had a “done deal” with Trump before receiving a late-night call from Kelly rescinding the agreement.

On Tuesday, December 11, 2018, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, a former WrestleMania owner who had body-slammed his opponent and rival Vince McMahon (see WrestleMania 2007), engaged in a bizarre on-camera verbal wrestling match in his Oval Office with U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, the leaders of the Democratic opposition in the U.S. Congress. Trump threatened that if Pelosi and Schumer blocked the five billion dollars he needed to build a Wall between the U.S. and Mexico  he would “proudly” shut down the U.S. federal government as of December 21 “for national security.” The meeting broke down amid shouts and threats. Both before and after the meeting Trump made unreal claims about the wall (see Oval Office Squabble). The “second Trump shutdown” went into effect at midnight on December 21 and became the longest federal-government shutdown in U.S. history.

The psychoanthropologist Howard F. Stein published a book in 1987 entitled Developmental Time, Cultural Space: Studies in Psychogeography in which he explored the unconscious meaning of the sense of vulnerability, the fear of invasion and death, and the need for impermeable borders and boundaries (a second edition was published in 2014). Together with the psychoanalyst William G. Niederland, Prof. Stein also edited a book in 1989 entitled Maps from the Mind: Studies in Psychogeography, in which similar themes were explored by psychoanalytically-minded scholars. One of those themes was that of the unconscious meaning of borders, boundaries and barriers.

Trump’s obsession with borders and boundaries dates back to the third year of his life. When he was a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler his mother nearly died in childbirth. She had several operations, which she barely survived. The toddler “Donny” lived in mortal fear of losing her (see The Trumps p. 227). When she came back from the hospital, he clung to her for dear life. She, however, had not only survived a near-death, but also had to care for her nee baby, Trump’s younger brother, Robert. Mary Anne MacLeod Trump rejected Donny’s attempts to cling to her, which only made him feel helpless and cling to her even more in his panic. The result was an ambivalent symbiotic relationship in which he could not live without his mother but also could not live with her. His internal boundaries, the boundaries of his self, remained fragile, permeable, and ill-defined. Throughout his life, he has sought external boundaries to bolster his shaky inner ones.

A person’s signature is a representation of his self. The respected graphologist Sheila Lowe thought that Trump’s signature was like a wall. She had come across Trump’s handwriting and signature in the 1990s and had been keeping a professional eye on it ever since. “Handwriting changes over time in people who grow and change,” the graphologist said, “but Trump’s handwriting has remained largely consistent for the last twenty years. He’s the same person he was all those years ago — an empty narcissist. There’s absolutely no softness in his signature, it’s just mean and tough and rigid, and there is no room [in his mind] for anybody else. He’s not interested in anyone else’s opinion. It’s like a big fence, and he hides behind it. He’s afraid of being seen.” (see Signature).

During his presidential campaign of 2016, Trump traveled to Mexico to meet its president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and was seemingly friendly to him; the following day, however, back in the U.S., Trump attacked the “illegal and criminal Mexican immigrants.” Peña Nieto felt manipulated and humiliated. When Trump announced that Mexico would pay for his border wall, Peña Nieto emphatically denied it. The wall was projected to cost many billions of dollars, and many millions of dollars more every year to maintain. In early 2018 Trump, whose mother had been a poor immigrant from Scotland, and who hated poor and illegal immigrants, was forced to offer the Democrats granting DREAMER Act citizenship to illegal immigrants in exchange for their grudging agreement to funding his wall.

For Trump, the wall with Mexico is a personal matter of life and death. Thanks to his unconscious splitting, Trump sees everything in black an white. For him, there are either “terrific guys” or “terrible persons.” During the 2016 presidential election campaign, when Trump spoke about the need to build a great wall on the border with Mexico, he said “there are a lot of bad honchos over there.” A few days after Trump’s inauguration he announced again that he would build his two-thousand-mile-long wall between the U.S. and Mexico and that Mexico would pay for it. Peña Nieto, who is twenty years Trump’s junior, promptly denied this statement and canceled his scheduled meeting with Trump. Unable to endure this humiliation, Trump announced that this had been a joint decision and that if Mexico could not “treat the U.S. with respect” their meeting would have been fruitless.

The respected Holocaust historian Christopher Browning has compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler (see The Suffocation of Democracy). Like Hitler, Trump suffers from a borderline personality disorder. Unlike Hitler, however, Trump cannot build “concentration” camps in the U.S. for his opponents. The U.S. Congress and people would never stand for it. Like Hitler, however, Trump has incited to violence and encouraged his bodyguards and his followers to violently attack the protesters at his rallies. He has not deported all the “bad honchos” in the U.S. back to Mexico, he “only” wants to build a wall to make it impossible for any more “bad honchos” to enter illegally. In the fall of 2018, when a caravan of poor Central American immigrants made its way on foot through Mexico to the U.S., he called it “an invading army” and sent thousands of troops down to the border to stop them.

Trump is obsessed with the border wall that he wants to build between the U.S. and Mexico. The two-thousand-mile-long border is porous. Less than one third of it has barriers in place. It is constantly crossed by illegal immigrants. In mid-March 2018 Trump flew to California to inspect prototypes of the wall on the Mexican border amid great pomp and ceremony. Two weeks later he announced that “we have started building the wall” and that it would be paid for out of the U.S. military budget, contradicting his previous declarations that Mexico would pay for the wall. The U.S. Congress, however, despite its Republican majority in both houses, did not approve the budget for Trump’s wall, and neither Mexico nor the Pentagon were willing to pay for it. After the Democrats won the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2018, Trump had even less of a chance to get his wall. Yet he never gave up his attempts to build it; his need for it was more powerful than any rational argument.

In the spring of 2018 Trump announced that until the wall could be built, the U.S. military would guard the U.S.-Mexican border. It was not clear whether U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis or the Joint Chiefs of Staff had agreed to this. Trump said he had discussed the idea with General Mattis, that they were preparing the military to secure the border between Mexico and the United States, that he and Mattis would meet about it again “in a little while,” and that it was “something that we have to do.” Trump announced that he would send National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico. Did he plan to order that anyone trying to cross the border illegally be shot and killed?

In October 2018, when a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants made its way through Mexico to the U.S. border, Trump sent thousands of troops to the border to stop the “illegal invasion.” In November the Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives. In December Trump had his televised shouting match with Pelosi and Schumer in the Oval Office. The President, who as the boss of the Trump Organization had been used to having all his wishes immediately and unquestioningly gratified, like an infant, never got used to sharing power with the legislature or the judiciary.

The courageous Yale psychiatrist Dr. Bandy Lee has repeatedly warned the world, Cassandra-like, about Trump’s dangerous emotional illness (see The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump). Trump has no idea that his obsession with protecting America by building a wall between “her” and Mexico had to do with the vulnerability of his own shaky and porous inner boundaries, and with his deep fear of their breaking down. Also, in Trump’s unconscious mind, he is America, and the “bad honchos” are the invading parent. Walls are not only external: we all have our inner walls as well. They are called “ego boundaries” or “boundaries of the self.” They help us distinguish between ourselves and our “objects” in the external world, they tell us where we end and where others begin. The infant has no clear inner boundaries: it experiences its mother as part of itself.

The philosopher Costica Bradatan wrote that “While walls and fences are certainly physical things — imposing ones at that — a good deal of their power comes from elsewhere. As their role in political discourse makes clear, they are also things of the mind. And it is not a concept confined by American borders. The Germans, who seem to have a name for everything, use the phrase Mauer im Kopf (“wall in the head”) to refer to the phenomenon. The Berlin Wall may have been torn down long ago, but many people in Germany still feel divided; the wall is intact in their minds” (see Scaling the “Wall in the Head”). Indeed, Trump’s fantasy of his wall is more powerful than any actual border wall.

In our unconscious mind, external boundaries symbolize and resonate with internal ones. The external boundaries are visible to us: walls, fences, barriers, demarcation lines, checkpoints, border controls and border guards; there are also external laws, rules and prohibitions that tells us what is allowed and what is not. The internal boundaries are invisible, yet no less real: they are the boundaries of the self, the sense of where we end and where others begin; internal prohibitions, such as the incest taboo; and the superego, or conscience, that tells us what to do and what not to do and makes us feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed or tormented when we have transgressed its statutes or trespassed its boundaries.

A person like Donald Trump, whose internal boundaries are weak and porous, badly needs firm external ones. Borders, walls and fences defend the self against the anxiety aroused by the wish for fusion with the other and the dread of loss of self and being through that symbiosis at the same time. The absence of a wall with Mexico threatens to throw “Donny” back to the panic of his impossible fusion with his mother as a toddler. Donald Trump’s internal boundaries are fluid. He does not have a clear sense of self, his identity is diffuse, he has different selves at different times, and he needs external walls to defend himself against his panic. Hence Trump Tower in New York, a well-guarded fortress that separated and shielded him from the external world, and Mar-a-Lago in Florida, a palatial Xanadu separated from the American mainland by Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway.

Trump’s overwhelming need to build a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico comes from the same wellspring: in his unconscious mind, America is himself, and Mexico is his bad early mother, who threatens to engulf him by sending in “bad hombres,” or his evil early father, who threatens to invade his good mother. Needless to say, Trump had no awareness of any of this. All he knows is that he must have his border wall “for national security.”

Trump’s irrational obsession with building the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, which was, among other things, the product of his unconscious fear of his own internal boundaries breaking down, erupted again during his acrimonious televised meeting with the Democratic leaders of the U.S. Congress, Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Trump, whose self-esteem depends on his ability to put down his opponents, tried to humiliate Pelosi as weakened by the threat of her new rivals for the House Speaker position: “Nancy’s in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now,” he said. Pelosi shot back, “Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.” Trump declared that he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.” 

After the meeting, Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, had a “psychological” explanation for the president’s irrationality: “This wall thing is like a manhood thing for him — as if manhood could ever be associated with him,” she reportedly told fellow Democrats. The reason for Trump’s intransigence on the wall, however, to the point of shutting down the U.S. government, is not his “manhood thing” but his “being thing”: in his unconscious mind the U.S. border with Mexico represents his internal boundaries: he fears their breakdown, and his total emotional collapse, as the perceptive Dr. Lee had been warning for a long time.