Read: James Mattis denounces President Trump and describes him as a threat to the Constitution
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.
Jeffrey Goldberg: The things he carried
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.