Messrs. Graves, Blunt, and Hawley,
Tear down this wall.
They’re going to get jobs. I think I’m going to do very well with Hispanics. But we’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.
— Donald Trump, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, which aired on The Lead with Jake Tapper on June 3, 2016, and on State of the Union with Jake Tapper on June 5, 2016
We have to get a win, or I’ll have to go national security. One or the other. Either we’re going to win or make a compromise. I’m O.K. to making a compromise. Compromise is in my vocabulary very strongly. So we’re either going to have a win, make a compromise — because I think a compromise is a win for everybody — or I will declare a national emergency.
— Donald Trump, in remarks at the White House before visiting to the U.S.-Mexico border, on January 10, 2019
I’m writing today to give you a grade. I’ll explain the grade you’ve been given.
As my members of Congress, the way I see it, you have an obligation to try to do wise things with the power and treasure entrusted to your care. You’re responsible for the ways that our nation’s treasure, borrowed and paid, gets spent. You’re responsible for the ways our government — of the people, by the people, and for the people, sure — behaves.
The way our elected government is behaving right now: F.
I once wrote a letter to one of you, Congressman Sam Graves. You responded. Most of your response was how you don’t “hear much” from university professors.
Maybe that’s why I’ve decided to approach this how I’ve decided to approach it.
Maybe I’m feeling like a professor right now, a dissatisfied professor. I don’t grade with red pens. But I feel that’s the metaphor people will understand. I’m getting the pen out. It’s red. Red and angry.
I’m confining my assessment to one issue, the issue of the day. A wall at the border between United States and Mexico, a wall made of steel or concrete.
Your grade so far, Senator Blunt: F
Your grade so far, Senator Hawley: F
Your grade so far, Congressman Graves: F
I’ll explain why.
Failure to show your work.
First, you all haven’t said much about this wall. I haven’t seen any interviews with you three on KQ2. Do you have their number? You should give them an interview! They’re struggling. They could really use some help.
I haven’t read any lengthy descriptions of your plans for this wall in the newspapers. The newspaper in my hometown, The St. Joseph News Press, was one of the first, and only, newspapers in the country to endorse Donald Trump for president. That’s kind of crazy! I always feel bad telling the man standing outside the Hy-Vee that that’s why I’m not subscribing again. I don’t know why I feel bad telling him that. Maybe because he’s likely not on the editorial board.
But my real question: Why aren’t you three publishing op-eds in any of the newspapers I read? I’d buy a copy, no matter which paper it was in. If you want this wall, shouldn’t you be explaining to us why? And how?
I just read an article. It took me, I don’t know, maybe four minutes or so to read the whole thing. (I was also eating pizza and putting together a whale puzzle with my daughter, so my reading was interrupted a bit.) Bret Stephens, in an article in The New York Times, explains a decent model for a border-security measure: an Israeli-style “smart fence.” It’s interesting to think about. I’ve been trying to find recent statements by the three of you that are as exhaustive as this one article by Bret Stephens. Which probably took him a couple days to write, I know, but still. I know you’ve just had Christmas break and everything, but, still, it seems odd that the government is partially shut down and you all are kind of, you know, staying pretty quiet.
So far, here's what I could find:
I know the bar's been lowered a bit in recent years, but, Senator Hawley, this is a big ask. Billions of dollars. That's pretty substantial!
So I think we need a bit more than a Tweet.
What's the wall made of? What about the foundation? Is it hard to dig under? What about monitoring stations? Have you studied the attention spans of men and women, the way the Israelis have? Is that part of the plan, an all-women surveillance team? What have you studied about this issue? Could you share your assessment with us? What's wrong with those scary-looking fences outside of prisons?
In short, I think it's time for you to show your work. Let us know, at the very least, why it needs to be a wall.
Lack of specificity
One of you recently sent me an email. So, Congressman Graves, I do have to give you credit for attempting to show your work.
The main issue I'm encountering as I assess this one, though, is that you haven't yet figured out how to connect your evidence to your claims. You're having some trouble with specificity here.
Here's what you sent me:
So, first, I like the tone, at least at first: "Dear Friend"! Very nice.
What you've got here is familiar to me. Your thesis has two parts—or perhaps it "wants" to have two parts. A problem and then a solution. I'm interested.
The problem you present, though, seems a collection of distinct problems: gangs, crime, drugs, human trafficking. A little broad, I'm afraid. These are all different problems, correct? And because these seem distinct problems, do they all share the same cause?
Or is it more likely that each of these complex problems drags with it a tangle of causes? Are some of these problems sequelae of some other identifiable societal ills? Is that what you're arguing?
I'm a little confused.
Will the wall prevent every gang? Are you sure?
Let's put aside for a moment that these seem like different problems with likely widely different and complicated causes. Let's talk about your solution. The solution is interesting.
You're proposing a Big Government solution to the problems of drugs and crime and human trafficking. Big Government will need to seize private land through eminent domain. The money for this project —"a modest amount of funding"—will come from additional government spending. Are we borrowing this money? Are we raising any taxes here?
I'd like to know.
One of the legitimate roles of our government, as I understand it, is to spend our pooled money wisely to solve problems. Especially ones that the private sector, or individuals, have little incentive to solve themselves.
So, I'd be kind of on board, in principle. Government should take a look at these problems and spend our money on solving them. Sure.
But your email seems to indicate that you've perhaps just thought of this idea—the wall—as a kind of panacea for drug trafficking and crime. Doesn't seem like you've teased out all the possibilities of your idea and its ramifications. And what's the analgesic effect you can prove that this wall will have on these problems?
Maybe you had a brain storm last night? And this idea kind of emerged victorious? (I love it when that happens to me!)
Still, I'd suggest you try to develop your thesis further, more directly address counterarguments, and perhaps find evidence that more directly shows how your proposed solution will solve these problems.
Right now, your argument is underdeveloped.
Failure to acknowledge that the wall isn't just a wall.
Why don't the Democrats support this barrier when, in the past, they've supported other barriers?
I think you know why, Senator Hawley.
Because Trump's wall isn't just a wall. A couple years ago, he turned it into a very particular kind of weapon.
In June 2016, Trump connected his proposal to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to what a person of Mexican heritage is constrained, by heritage, to think about his proposal to build a wall.
Did he really? And then he got elected? Whoa!
At the time, my sense was that we were all getting a bit confused and turned around by the label that got applied to the presidential candidate. Racist. Donald Trump said something racist! Uh-oh, do you think he might be, himself, sort of racist?
What got especially muddled is how exactly what Donald Trump said was racist.
Bipartisan labeling of Trump’s comments as “racist” enabled a straw-man to be erected. He got to say he wasn't racist in one way, which meant that we weren't paying attention to the way he was racist. It's kinda complicated. I'll explain.
Trump posted a statement of June 7, 2016, to his campaign website:
It is unfortunate that my comments have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage. I am friends with and employ thousands of people of Mexican and Hispanic descent. The American justice system relies on fair and impartial judges. All judges should be held to that standard. I do not feel that one’s heritage makes them incapable of being impartial, but, based on the rulings that I have received in the Trump University civil case, I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial.
In Trump’s various interviews, he didn’t say all people of Mexican ancestry are unable to be federal judges. He does “not feel that one’s heritage makes them incapable of being impartial.” That would indicate he was drawing on a superiority-inferiority racist ideology. He didn't go there.
What he actually said in June 2016 is that a judge of Mexican heritage is oriented — by way of his ancestry — to be opposed to him, Donald J. Trump.
Trump's statement about Judge Curiel relies on an ideology of the homogeneity of racial identity. His comments were not a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage. Rather, his comments displayed a categorical assumption about what people of Mexican heritage believe.
So, um, not good. Fairly damning. Truly repugnant. And also embarrassing. For your local dog catcher. For a guy scraping your driveway after a heavy snow. For a guy that just is crazy for Twitter and, I don't know, might be one of the masked singers on The Masked Singer.
"But we’re building a wall," then-candidate Trump said. "He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico."
According to Trump, back in 2016, there’s an anti-Trump belief essential to Mexican or Mexican-American identity.
And we haven't forgotten that.
The wall isn't just a wall. The wall is a Wall.
That's kind of an important point, sirs, so I'll repeat it. I'll mess with the font, too, so you'll linger on this sentence just a tad longer. In fact, I encourage you to fondle it with your eyes.
According to the President of the United States of America, there's an anti-Trump belief that is essential to Mexican identity.
To be Mexican or Mexican-American (Curiel, as has been widely reported, is an American citizen of Mexican ancestry, born in Indiana) means, among things, to be opposed to Donald Trump.
Even I know the phrase “ideology of the homogeneity of racial identity” — not even the punchier, TV-ready, pungent “racist” — retains its fangs only for those who already agree with me. It sounds like fancy university talk (and there are too many words ending in y and too many ofs). But the problem is pretty straightforward.
I'm guessing you know this already.
I'm guessing this is why you've been so quiet, really.
Because if you thought the wall was a really a good idea—that it actually would solve, say, the opioid crisis or eliminate violent crime—then you probably would have done something to find a compromise with Democrats in the past couple of years. And you'd probably be able to make a cogent argument in favor of your position. (Which, by the way, is in your job description, isn't it?)
Senator Blunt, you didn't seem to be champing at the bit for the wall back when you were working on the FY17 Defense bill. Maybe you knew then that it wasn't just a wall?
So we don't need a wall. Unless what the country really needs right now is a racist weapon, a message of intolerance made manifest, a monument to nativism. Unless what the country needs is a monument to one fella's ego, which seems extra-constitutional and really, really lame. Unless what the country needs, in an emergency fashion, is a monument to those American citizens in the "I'm not racist, but . . . ." camp.
A couple years ago, most Republicans polled—65 percent, according to YouGov’s research—felt Trump’s comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel were “not racist.” These folks, I’d wager, were hearing exactly what the rest of us were hearing. They weren't dumb. They were perhaps just tired of hearing the word. They were tired of having to figure out if, in this or that situation, the word "racism" applied. They were tired, some of them, from feeling they couldn’t use their "common sense" from time to time.
I think that fatigue is a big reason why we have the president we have. I think it's a big reason why part of the government is shut down over the president's desire to fulfill a promise that, even he admits, wasn't to be taken literally.
But I don't believe it's why you were elected.
The people of Missouri, or the people in your district, Congressman Graves, voted for you not for the same reasons that they overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. Is there some overlap? Sure. But I hope you're not confusing what these voters expect of you. They expect of you very different things than what they expect of the President. You have different jobs.
You probably know this already, but we're not going to allow you to be as incoherent as the fella at the top. You could not, for instance, get away with saying this:
We have to get a win, or I'll have to go national security. One or the other. Either we're going to win or make a compromise. I'm O.K. to making a compromise. Compromise is in my vocabulary very strongly. So we're either going to have a win, make a compromise—because I think a compromise is a win for everybody—or I will declare a national emergency.
Our president, on a good day, on the best of days, even when he's had plenty of sleep and plenty of time to prepare, doesn't seem to understand what he's saying.
He's like that friend who insists on taking the class with you. Sitting next to you. He wants to study with you. He's always asking to borrow your notes. He's a leach. His success is only going to come at the expense of yours. He won't help you do better in the class. He'll ensure that you do worse, and that you drag him across the finish line.
What I'm trying to say is that we expect more of you. You can do better. We believe in you. You might have to leave the leach behind.
You are currently not meeting expectations
That the president will solve this "crisis" by declaring a national emergency doesn't pass the smell test. If it's actually a national emergency, wouldn't we be paying the Custom and Border Protection agents today? If it's so important, why would we mess around with their ability to do their jobs, stay in their houses and apartments?
If it were a true national emergency, wouldn't it have been called already?
One thing I've learned about real emergencies is that, for the most part, you don't walk around for days and days, casually musing about whether or not "emergency" is the best word for it.
So putting up the wall is not an emergency.
Perhaps "securing the border" isn't even an emergency?
Whether you like it or not, the Wall has been weaponized by your boss. Too late. It's a racist weapon.
Are you absolutely sure you want to be known as a wielder of a racist weapon?
If you don't think that's how you'll be remembered, uh, you might think about showing your work! You might have to get specific. You might have to make an argument.
If you want history to remember you as the person who supported the wall but not for the same reasons as what the confused and confusing president articulated, you're going to need to show your work.
Otherwise, if you kind of hang back and "let things play out" and steer clear of hot mics, the racist weapon will be yours. Are you sure that's the legacy you want?
He did nothing. Tweeted that he thought it was "partisan." And, in that, he embraced the racist weapon.
That's a sad epitaph for the tombstone.
By the way, I'm checking my phone every 6 minutes to see these headlines:
Senator Blunt Donates December 2018 Paycheck to TSA Workers in Kansas City
Congressman Graves Pays Two Monthly Mortgage Payments of Constituent, Says It's the Least He Can Do.
Senator Hawley "Adopts" IRS Workers, Pays Their Rent, Says He's Going to Stop Avoiding a Hot Mic and Be Brave, Finally
So far, nothin'. Oh well.
This is such a big gamble! You all are gamblers! I don't know that I'd have the guts to bet this much that the people of Missouri will stay in love with Big Government "solutions" to every problem you can shake a jingoistic stick at. Truly gutsy! Truly a big, scary gamble, for three conservatives. Wow. Conservatism is really different now!
I'd play it safe. I would even be pretending to want this wall, gentlemen.
I'd be worried that people might get wise.
I'd be worried that folks will figure out the truth. Not only are you making us pay for the big, ineffective, monument to a bad idea today. In a few years, I'm guessing you're going to make us pay to tear it down.
Save us all the trouble. Tear it down now. Tear it down before you start.
Tear it down by telling the President that it's over. He's not winning. He's not even losing. He's lost.
Richard Sonnenmoser blogs about politics, fatherhood, music, literature, and pop culture at rsonnenmoser.com. He's published fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction in magazines such as Harvard Review, West Branch, and Crab Orchard Review.