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“Borderline Insanity,” Modernity and Democratic Possibility



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The New York Times editorial board entitled its January 7 commentary concerning President Trump’s decision to shut down a substantial share of the government, as that closure entered its third week, “Borderline Insanity.”[1]  Trump imposed this ongoing (as I write) nightmare on federal employees and the American people to force Congress to provide funds toward building a wall along the border with Mexico. In so doing, he elected to address the preferences and fears of a small percentage of Americans, roughly 33 percent of the voting public and an even smaller portion of the nation’s total population, and to ignore the overwhelming majority who do not support such construction. Moreover, the government shutdown will cost the nation’s economy billions of dollars. He also chose not to acknowledge the fact that no nonpartisan observer has argued that his proposed wall will accomplish the purposes he has ascribed to it.

More, Trump took this action after Republican Senators had already crafted a bill in December to fund the government to prevent a shutdown and he had signaled he would accept it. Then, two or three “conservative” media pundits, including Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, criticized him for accepting a compromise to avoid a government closure.[2] In response, Trump quickly shifted his position and once again publicly offered his original lies that border immigration constitutes a national security crisis because of its volume, that many entering this nation as immigrants are criminals and terrorists and that only a wall could prevent this wholesale usurpation. Never mind that the idea of building the wall began as a memory trick devised by his campaign staff members so he would remember to talk about immigration during his stump speeches. Once he began using it in his rhetoric, Trump became fixated on the border barrier, and now has chosen to shutter a portion of the government in an effort to obtain funds to construct a portion of it.[3]

There was and is no factual evidence for any of Trump’s propositions regarding the wall, but the President had made these lies a central focus of his campaign and later, his periodic political rallies. I take up two related questions here. First, why a portion of the voting public either believe, or have chosen to act as if they believe, the President’s mendacious claims. Second, why Republican Party leaders would go along with these monstrous lies and with the cruel policies that have attended them while undermining major American values, and now governance itself, as they have done so. I suggest a number of possible reasons for both citizens’ and GOP officials’ support and emphasize that the arguments I sketch are all profoundly anti-democratic and illiberal at their foundation. Indeed, their obvious demagogic character raises deep questions about the willingness of leaders sworn to uphold the regime to fulfill their obligation. It also raises analogous concerns about the capacity for self-governance of those who would call themselves citizens, but then cheer, or profess to accept, Trump’s hate-filled lies.

None of these matters can fully be rationally explained. Nonetheless, it seems clear that this situation has not arisen because citizens lacked access to the facts concerning immigration on the Mexican border if they wished to become aware of them. Instead, it appears that some have believed Trump’s assertions that any negative coverage of him or of his lies on this or other topics is politically motivated and/or the product of “Fake News.” Likewise, some of Trump’s supporters may simply be ignorant of the facts and unaware of their ignorance and so indisposed to correct their misunderstandings. Finally, some may be relying on news sources that provide biased or untruthful information and nonetheless imagining that information is accurate. Whatever the reasons for their willingness to believe Trump and his lies, their continuing collective stance raises the question of the bases on which they have done so and therefore the degree to which they can arguably be said to have been manipulated by Trump or others. Whatever one believes concerning this matter, the overarching issue is why these individuals would know so little, prove so mis- or uninformed and/or be so credulous as to be persuaded by simple-minded hate slogans whose practical, moral and ethical, not to say democratic, bankruptcy could be exposed with a few minutes of critical consideration.

Most broadly, Trump’s lies concerning the border and immigration appeal to a fear of change and the “other” as uncontrollable and unknown and therefore inimical and risk laden. They also appeal to ignorance of difference among some groups that can be heightened by appeals to racial, ethnic or religious animus or fear. Trump has played to such unfamiliarity and to all of these emotions in his lies concerning who and how many individuals are seeking refuge in the United States from Latin America and why. This propensity to grant Trump credence among some citizens is in turn linked to human willingness to rationalize cruelty in the name of flattery and power. The President’s consistent message to those willing to believe his claims is that those he attacks are “less than” and unworthy and therefore inferior. Those who accept these arguments can then be readily persuaded to dehumanize those targeted and treat them with impunity while believing themselves superior to, and more powerful than, those they choose to hate. Still more deeply perhaps, Trump’s simplistic scapegoating and even more simple-minded “solution” of a wall allows those who accept these assertions to imagine that a complex array of conditions are instead the product of, to use Trump’s descriptor, “animals” who must be prevented from stealing American jobs and wreaking crimes by a technological solution—a massive “beautiful” wall.

This last contention in particular, a Trump favorite, surely appeals to modernist claims that a technology, in this case, a wall, can constitute a simple answer to all manner of social and economic change. Trump has promised that a constructed edifice can assuage fears, prevent (imagined) crimes and address long-term capitalist system economic shifts, even as he has knowingly, cruelly and unjustly maligned a largely innocent population to do so. In a similar sense, Trump’s claims appeal to the modernist impulse to believe that humans can employ technology in a systematic way to manipulate and control contextual conditions to secure desired results.[4] The President constantly tells those willing to countenance his hate-filled rhetoric that a border wall can overcome political or economic shifts and that its construction or manipulation of the environment can control conditions to which it bears no clear relationship. This argument especially reminds one of philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s related contention that


On the other hand, a collective conquest of absolute certainty, psychologically seen, is quite comprehensible, and one often has the impression that the desire for certitude is significantly more important than the belief.[5]


That is, it may be that human’s desire for certainty, even when the objects of that longing are patently false, applies to those wishing to believe Trump’s lies that a simple solution, a wall, can address their personal fears and concerns.

The President’s falsehoods concerning the purview and power of a wall have persuaded significant numbers of Americans to embrace his mythology and also to countenance his cruelty to those he has targeted. These supporters’ inability or unwillingness to consider facts and their choice to accept degrading the rights of others and thereby their nation’s nominal principles, undermines their country’s structure of governance and their role in securing its functions. It does so since their actions are prima facie unreasoned and undemocratic, not to say inimical to freedom.

If these arguments seem apt as possible partial explanations for why a minority of Americans would support Trump’s immigration and border-related lies, one must also ask why GOP leaders would do so. Presumably, those elected officials, especially in the Senate, know full well that Trump has lied about this issue since his campaign announcement in 2015. The majority of them nonetheless have not contradicted his stance, even when he elected to shut the government down to press for funds toward its construction. Indeed, in recent days, Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, has argued he will not bring a bill to the floor reopening the government that the President has not first indicated he would sign. And so far, Trump has not budged from his demand for funds for wall construction and the Democrats, who now control the House, have not moved from their position that they will not provide such support. Meanwhile, the government remains hobbled. In taking this stand, McConnell has ceded the co-equal role that the Constitution provides the Congress even as he has abandoned all pretense of exercising his duty on behalf of the common good, which is surely not being secured by failing to provide the citizenry needed services and costing the economy billions. He has instead sought to help Trump begin to concretize a lie that could not be gained in the normal give and take of law-making.

McConnell and his GOP Senate colleagues have also made it clear in taking their position of non-action that they value power above all other considerations. As such, the most persuasive explanation offered for their stance is a fear that Trump will criticize them and make them more vulnerable to a primary challenge among his supporters in their next campaigns. Whatever the explanation for Republican officials’ complicity, those legislators continue privately to grouse about the President’s lies and inability to bargain in a trustworthy and reasoned way while saying nothing publicly about their concerns and choosing not to challenge Trump overtly. Nevertheless, to the extent they have supported the President’s claims, they have collaborated in his fearmongering and lies, and backing away from those arguments and maintaining any semblance of credibility while doing so may prove as difficult for them as for Trump.

Put plainly, this sad and unnecessary episode has raised the specter of whether the United States can remain a self-governing nation. The longer GOP senators countenance the President’s unreasoned lies and misrepresentations, the more difficult it will be to contend that America has not simply become a failed state. This turn has also highlighted the important question of whether a significant share of the nation’s citizens are any longer equipped to evaluate the realities of the nation’s challenges and consider alternative ways of addressing them rather than simply falling prey to the manipulations of profit-oriented or power-seeking demagogues. The current situation has placed these questions in sharp relief and the character of their resolution will doubtless prove revelatory for the future of the country.


[1] Editorial Board, “Borderline Insanity,” The New York Times, January 7, 2019, Accessed January 7, 2019.

[2] Poor, Jeff. “Limbaugh to Trump on Wall Funding: ‘Hold Firm’—'This Shutdown is one that the Democrats Own,’” December 25, 2018, Breitbart, Accessed December 27, 2018; D’Angelo, Bob. “Ann Coulter Rips Trump for Failing to Build Border Wall,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 20, 2018, Accessed December 20, 2018.

[3] Hirschfield Davis, Julie, and Peter Baker. “How the Border Wall is Boxing Trump In,” The New York Times, January 5, 2019. Accessed January 11, 2019; Politi, Daniel. “Trump’s Wall Reportedly a Gimmick Campaign Aides Came Up With So He’d Remember to Talk Immigration,” Slate, January 5, 2019, Accessed January 11, 2019.

[4] Gay, Craig. The Way of the Modern World, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William Eerdmans Publishing, 1998.

[5] Kolakowski, Leszek. Modernity on Endless Trial, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 126. 

Publication Date

January 14, 2019