Originally published by the History News Network on September 19, 2016.
For most of the month of August I lived beyond the wall. I know that sounds a bit like the opening line from a Stephen King novel, but for those who follow Presidential politics, it refers to one of the many machinations of Donald Trump , the one in which he promises to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is one of the cornerstones of his campaign.
Trump is a devotee of what an old friend of mine, an Atlanta PR legend, has long promoted – the idea that, “It is better to be known as the village idiot than not to be noticed at all.” Thus no statement is too ridiculous if it keeps your name in the headlines. Such a strategy is not new, it’s been around for centuries.
During World War I in Britain, there was a Trump-like character who mesmerized the British public in much the same manner. His name was Horatio Bottomley, a businessman, a journalist, a Member of Parliament and a crook who ultimately ended up in prison for fraud. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw explained Bottomley’s success as, “The man gets his popularity by telling people with sufficient bombast just what they think themselves and therefore want to hear.” This is clearly Trump’s strategy. He is long on bluster and short on specifics. He allows his supporters to fill in the blanks – drawing upon their own personal opinions about what is wrong with our country and what will “make America great again.”
Nineteenth Century America had an earlier version of Trump. P.T. Barnum, famous for his circus and celebrated hoaxes, was more than the showman extraordinaire. He too dabbled in politics, serving in both the Connecticut legislature and as mayor of Bridgeport. Like Trump, Barnum was honest about his primary goal in life. He openly admitted that everything he did was designed to make money. In fact, he was a proponent of what he liked to call “profitable philanthropy,” doing good deeds that made him money.
Our world is filled with con artists, flim-flam men, hucksters, profiteers and charlatans. Bottomley, Barnum and Trump are just three prominent examples. Their fame and fortune are based on an idea erroneously attributed to Barnum – “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Living beyond the wall, even for a short period of time, offers a welcome respite from Trump’s outlandish oratory. It also provides a reality check on one of his central campaign tenets, that we need to be protected from immigrants, especially those from Mexico.
Mexico is a wonderful country and, in my experience, the Mexican people are honest, hardworking and family-focused. They are not rapists and murders as Trump suggests. The vast majority of Mexicans are good people, with the same basic needs and desires as their neighbors to the north.
Sadly, too many Trump supporters fail to recognize that they are being sold a wall that is as absurd as the fraudulent selling of the old Brooklyn Bridge. The problems that make them so violently angry are not caused by their fellow North Americans, they are created by greedy, dishonest con men like Donald Trump.
Thinking about Trump’s proposed wall, I am reminded of President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 West Berlin speech when he called upon the Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down that wall.” In that speech, Reagan also noted that “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”