President Donald Trump is trapped inside the White House, as a tall and imposing wall is erected around him, and prison guards stand watch.
The fencing is intended to keep other people out, of course, and to provide security for the White House. But walls don’t just keep people out—they keep people in too, a reality dramatized by the fact that some of those standing watch are officers of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Unlike a true prisoner, Trump can get out, but on Monday, a simple walk down the block from his house required a massive deployment of riot police and pepper balls.
It makes sense that Trump, who won the presidency in part on his promise to build a wall at the southern United States border, would gravitate to the same solution for the White House. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he warned of chaos seeping into the country from Mexico; now he sees the chaos creeping toward his own lawn. (This sequence is not much of an endorsement of his claims to be a “law and order” president.)
The administration has undertaken a contradictory dual strategy. On the one hand, as my colleague Anne Applebaum writes, the president wants to gin up fear among people far from the protests. On the other hand, he wants to show that he has matters under control. To that end, Attorney General William Barr has aimed to “flood the zone” in Washington, D.C. (Barr seems to be leading the effort in part because, while Pentagon leaders blanch at Trump’s attempts to send the military into the streets, Barr has a vast legion of law-enforcement officers at his command, and shares few of the compunctions of the military brass.)
The first part of the strategy may or may not work; the second will probably not. No doubt this show of force will prove convincing for some Americans, especially Trump’s core supporters. Washington has been calmer the past couple of days, at the expense of being a de facto police state—although that may have more to do with the restraint of protesters and the reluctance of police to escalate than the show of force.
But what’s happening in the capital is mostly being done to soothe a president terrified of protest. It’s another version of the security theater Americans have been treated to at their airports for the past two decades—but this performance is being put on for the sole benefit of the president. And as Trump tries to project strength, he instead appears weaker than ever.
There’s a long history of American hostility to being fenced in, or fenced out. Colonists bristled at Westminster’s attempts to restrict westward expansion, one spark that helped ignite the American Revolution. President Andrew Jackson—whom Trump once named as a role model—famously threw open the White House to the public at his inauguration, albeit with messy results. In “This Land Is Your Land,” practically an alternative national anthem, Woody Guthrie sang of coming across a no trespassing sign: “But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing / That side was made for you and me.”
Not everyone has gotten to enjoy this freedom, of course. Westward expansion of white settlements meant the expulsion and extermination of Native Americans, a process infamously accelerated by Jackson, who was also one of 12 presidents to own black slaves. (More than a century later, Guthrie would criticize the racism of Trump’s father, a New York landlord.) Yet like many other cherished national ideals, the antipathy to walls has become central to American identity in spite—or because—of the fact that it has not been extended to all. It’s no accident that Japanese American internees at the World War II Manzanar concentration camp loved to hear bands play “Don’t Fence Me In,” a song made famous by Roy Rogers, who himself laid claim to the mantle of the old Wild West cowboys.
A high point for American anti-wall sentiment came in Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, where he called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. As Reagan understood, the barrier had been erected to starve free West Berlin; instead, it had become a prison for East Germans living under Communist rule, who risked (and often lost) their lives trying to escape, while their fellow Berliners to the west thrived. Tearing down that wall was a triumph of freedom.
But as time has gone on, the people’s house has become walled off from the people. The grounds around the White House become more and more closed to the general public, a process that began in earnest after overseas terrorist attacks during the Reagan administration. After the Oklahoma City bombings, Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to traffic. After September 11, pedestrian traffic was banned too, though it was allowed again a few years later. Following several intrusions on the White House grounds, the Obama administration introduced plans to heighten the existing fence.
Just as Trump is often more an accelerant of existing trends than an anomaly, he has turbocharged clearance of the land around the people’s house. Amid the current domestic crisis, Trump is not demanding that walls be torn down; instead, he’s erecting new ones. He’s also emulating the tactics of a former KGB agent stationed in East Germany: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Where Putin dispatched “little green men” to Ukraine, devoid of any markings or insignia, Trump and Barr have flooded the streets of the city with officers who refuse to even say what agency they work for and cover up their affiliations. The White House has erected temporary fencing and pushed back the public, and as Thursday dawned, more barriers were coming.
The president’s security is no laughing matter. Though Trump likes to say that he is treated worse than any other holder of his office, four have been assassinated, and another shot and badly injured. The Secret Service rushed Trump to an underground bunker last week. There ought to be no shame in that—although amid mocking hashtags, Trump tried to deny it had happened, and claimed that he was just doing an “inspection” on the bunker.
That risible denial is all the more peculiar when paired with Trump’s open militarization of the White House vicinity. Past presidents have resisted such dramatic steps during previous crises, in part because of optics: There are other ways to tighten security without complete closure. But in addition to walls, Trump has always favored vast displays of force and military parades.
The president is now closed off on many sides. Polls pan his handling of both the protests of police brutality and the coronavirus pandemic. He’s facing unusual criticism from his former secretary of defense and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as more muted but unmistakable pushback from the current holders of both positions. A series of recent polls shows him trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Trump has never been especially open to outside or contradictory opinions, and he has fewer of those available, as his administration is composed largely of loyalists.
Trump may believe the show of force in Lafayette Square makes him seem more powerful, but the more he closes up—physically and figuratively—the more isolated and smaller he becomes.