Impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful”: Donald Trump’s decree ordering the United States’ Department of Homeland Security to begin work on the border wall during his campaign should make clear to even the most resolute optimist that the new US president indeed means to deliver on his promises. This is not — strange as it may seem in a world accustomed to lamenting the failure of politicians to do just this — good news.
The list of actions the president has promised is a grim one: “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”; the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants; enhancing defence funding while slashing taxes. Trump’s foreign-policy recommendations are even more disturbing: He has already killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ceding power to China; let it be known he believes the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is obsolete; threatens to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal and thus unleash atomic instability across West Asia and to allow the US intelligence services to torture terrorism suspects. His policies on Russia, opposed by his own cabinet, have panicked the European allies of the United States.
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Through Trump’s election campaign, many had dismissed promises like these as populist polemic, to be abandoned once the last vote was cast. It ought to now be clear that the president in fact meant what he said. Even a cursory glance at interviews he had given since the 1980s show many of these are deeply held positions, rooted in a belief that the ruthless exercise of power can overcome complex, intractable problems. Trump had, for example, argued that President Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to put down protests would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, contrasting it with China’s handling of the Tiananmen Square protests. There was no room in his analysis for the complex welter of economic and social factors that corroded Soviet communism from within — and allowed China, conversely, to survive.
Four years from now, it’s more likely than now that the Mexico border wall will be remembered — if built — as an expensive folly. Leaving aside costs, which independent estimates suggest could range up to $25 billion, illegal immigration has been in sharp decline, with apprehensions on the south-west border falling from 1.6 million in 2000, to just 3,00,000 in 2016, despite a doubling of border guards and the installation of expensive electronic surveillance equipment. The reason is simple: The decline of low-wage jobs in the US, which are certain to shrink further. In the grand scheme of things, however, it will be a small, cheap folly, compared to the larger ones the president seems set to inflict on his country, and the world.
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