A betrayal of American ideals: 'Mr. Trump, do not build this wall!'

A betrayal of American ideals: 'Mr. Trump, do not build this wall!'
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It happened in the dead of night, amid a din of wailing sirens and the pounding of rock. On Sunday, Aug.13, 1961, the communist government of the German Democratic Republic began construction of the Berlin Wall, 30 miles of concrete blocks and barbed wire that would render East Berlin — drab, colorless and firmly under the thumb of the Soviet sphere of Eastern Bloc nations — cut off from its vibrant, boisterous sister, West Berlin, a capitalist haven just a few hundred yards away.

Spun by the East German government as an “antifascist bulwark” meant to prevent Western agitators from entering the country, the wall was slapped hurriedly into place to rectify an ongoing public relations crisis: the strong, unrelenting tide of German migration from East to West.

But it created another one: Erected at a time when American’s Cold War with the Soviet Union was at its height, the wall became a tangible metaphor for the iron curtain that had descended on Eastern Europe and parts of Asia and posed a threat to other areas of the globe.


“Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains,” held the promise of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the fathers of modern communist theory. Yet, the wall imposed imprisonment of a different kind. If the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations stood behind the ideological purity of their party doctrine and promoted their nations as workers’ utopias, the wall offered proof of oppression and tyranny.

Used as a backdrop for some of the most powerful anti-communist rhetoric in the Cold War, the 35th U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, stood before the Brandenburg Gate two years after the wall was built and proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner” — I am a Berliner — in solidarity with the 120,000 rapturous Germans who stood before him. In 1987, two years before the wall fell, Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. president, stood in the same place and issued a challenge to his Soviet counterpart. “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question [of reuniting Germany] alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind,” he said, before demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Torn down it was, by East and West Germans who descended on the wall with pickaxes and hammers on Nov. 9, 1989, after the German Democratic Republic announced perestroika reform that allowed East Germans to cross freely into West Berlin. Once feared to be a permanent fixture on the geopolitical landscape, the wall now is rubble in the ash heap of history, felled by the irrepressible human desire for individual liberty.

Remarkably, as of this month, the wall that stood ominously and infamously for 28 years — 10,316 days — has been down longer than it was up, unknown to the world’s youngest generation.

The milestone comes at a time when the 45th U.S. president, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration MORE, is demanding not that we tear down a wall, but that we build one — albeit not to keep our own citizens in but to keep undocumented Mexicans out. In his proposed budget, the president calls for $18 billion for the border wall’s construction with the aim of fulfilling, at least in part, the promise that he made in his presidential campaign, in which he scapegoated illegal Mexican immigrants as being “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.”

Surely, the president sees the wall as a political expedient and a signature edifice reflecting his strength in protecting American interests — this, despite the fact his proposed wall likely would not stem the tide of illegal immigration. Most experts say it would be no less impregnable than the ineffective fences that already line much of the border.

“As soon as security is increased [in one place], it’s the balloon effect — you grab one area and the flow goes to another area,” Jason De Leon, University of Michigan associate professor of anthropology who has conducted extensive research around illegal immigration, told Time magazine. Even Texas’ senior senator, Republican John CornynJohn CornynOn unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 Poll shows competitive matchup if O’Rourke ran for Senate again On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week MORE, said last month that the wall “makes no sense whatsoever.” And it’s worth noting that, according to Pew research, more undocumented immigrants are leaving America than crossing its border. From 2009 to 2014, Pew estimates that 1 million Mexican immigrants left the United States versus the 870,000 who arrived.

Moreover, Mr. Trump’s wall would rise in stark contrast to the freedom and opportunity we stand for as a nation whose eminence comes from our openness, idealism and engagement in the world. Just as the Berlin Wall visibly contradicted the promise of communist utopianism, Mr. Trump’s wall would erode the American brand, personifying our most base instincts as a government and a people: nativism, isolationism and xenophobia. It would be a betrayal of our ideals.

If Mr. Trump wants to restore America’s greatness and make his mark on the world, he should concentrate less on championing literal walls and more on building figurative bridges.

Mark K. Updegrove is president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and the author of “The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush” (HarperCollins, 2017).