TUCSON, Arizona - When Ronald Reagan declaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” a sardonic addendum came to mind: “We need it in Arizona.” Even back then, too many Americans believed that some physical barrier could actually keep them safe in an unruly world.
And now today Donald Trump, committed to a monumental erection to satisfy his base and his own vanity, threatens to seal the entire southern border. That would shut Americans in, evoking the Berlin Wall that choked off a paranoid despotic state.
True, migrants can slip through barbed wire along some remote desert stretches south of here, unless bandits get to them first. But even if those green border patrol SUVs bristling with gun barrels don't swoop down, survival odds amount to a snowball's chance in a sauna.
Only the poorest, eager to work menial jobs and avoid trouble, come in the hard way. Drug smugglers tunnel under or fly over sturdy fences already in place. Mostly, those “bad hombres” Trump reviles fake papers or sneak past ports of entry in trucks and freight trains.
In fact, more Mexicans have returned home than have come north since 2010. Now Central Americans, driven by crop failure or violence, besiege the border. Trump's answer is to stop the economic aid they need to stay home and to embrace regimes they fear.
This standoff reflects a global threat second only to rising temperatures. Scores of millions are fleeing poverty or war. Europe has taken in many, but hard-right movements refuse more. As the climate worsens, human tides will swell, increasingly desperate and embittered.
Rebuffed people in dire straits are easy prey for extremist recruiters. But Trump, taking sensible pushback as a personal affront, paralyzes America's own government in the delusion that he is protecting the country from terrorism that his policies feed.
The world needs to stop creating reluctant migrants and refugees. Diplomacy can head off conflict. Paltry U.S. foreign aid should be increased, not slashed, and aimed at development rather than swaying U.N. votes. Pushing fossil fuels and ignoring climate change is planetary murder-suicide.
A fully employed nation of 325 million with yearly population growth of 0.7 percent can do more. In the past three months, America took in 5,000 refugees. From January to March, it admitted 29 Iraqi victims of a needless war, a 98.6 percent drop from the same period in 2016.
Over the holidays, I skipped “A Christmas Carol” and watched “Vice.” Scrooge made only one family miserable, and his conscience set him straight. Dick Cheney, unrepentant, set the Middle East ablaze. That killed millions, cost trillions, and the toxic fallout is still spreading.
Then I read Michael Lewis' “The Fifth Risk”: spine-chilling detail of how Cheney's notion of an authoritarian America run by big money morphed into Trump's bald plunder, with self-serving inept ideologues who put us in grave risk of nuclear accidents, among assorted unthinkable calamities.
“Vice” attracted only an engaged audience. “Aquaman” skunked it at box offices (seven times the receipts), and so did Mary Poppins. Yet people around me in the theater seemed shocked to learn what anyone within hearing distance of Iraq knew back in 2003.
Cheney seized on what is known as the unitary executive theory, which removes restraints on presidential prerogative. The White House decides what's right. For instance, torture is illegal, so if the president orders “enhanced interrogation” such as waterboarding, it is not torture.
After 9/11, Cheney pushed George W. Bush into Iraq. Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni, hated Osama bin Laden, but Cheney wanted oil and a reshaped Middle East. Soon after the invasion on spurious evidence, tortured and humiliated Sunnis plotted the Islamic State.
By the time Barack Obama took office, Iraq was beyond solution, and so was Afghanistan. He restored the U.S. economy, leading to the prosperity for which Trump claims credit. But he blew it in Syria.
In 2013, the Paris daily “Le Monde” found evidence, confirmed by French military scientists, that Bashar al-Assad used sarin gas on civilians. France was ready to attack Damascus. Obama equivocated despite his red line against the use of chemical weapons.
Then Russia moved in. Efforts to depose the Syrian tyrant shifted to a fight against Islamic terrorists. Vladimir Putin cleared the way for his client and ally to rain bombs and gas his opposition.
Now Trump is pulling U.S. forces out of Syria and Afghanistan, declaring that America is not the world's policeman. That leaves a world on the boil with only the law of the jungle.
A new Congress, and a changing mood in America, could finally turn around a pattern that we old-crocodile reporters have watched since John F. Kennedy's first moves in Vietnam mushroomed into endless, unwinnable wars.
Arundhati Roy, acclaimed author of “The God of Small Things,” put it plainly in an interview with TruthOut: “People spend so much time mocking Trump or waiting for him to be impeached. And the danger with that kind of obsession with a single person is that you don't see the system that produced him.”
The reality, she said, is that American and European economies depend on selling inconceivably destructive weapons, forcing arms races such as she sees in India and Pakistan.
“To keep that economy going, you need a world at war, or almost at war, or just about to go to war, whatever it is…How is it possible to continuously believe that you can destabilize country after country after country and anything good is going to come of it?”
As Americans look inward, China threatens to invade Taiwan. Russia tests limits from its European borders to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Trump, having pushed Kim Jong-un to hostility with his taunts of “little rocket man,” claims preposterously that we would be at war with North Korea but for his genius diplomacy.
Yet again, America is abandoning the Kurds, putting them at risk from Turkey when they are badly needed to fight a remaining ISIS threat. It heaps praise on fascists like President Jair Bolsonero, who evokes Brazil's old death squads and targets the Amazon for agriculture.
At home, Trump's touted deal-making has spooked Wall Street, and investors suffer from his trade war with China. U.S. markets had their worst December since 1931. As I write, Apple is in free fall, and its stock price lost 10 percent in a single day.
A full list is hardly necessary for anyone with an open mind. It is enough to look at the southern border. Trump is holding hostage the nation he is sworn to protect. After accepting blame for the shutdown, he now faults Democrats for resisting his cynical power play.
Reporters should avoid political leanings, but this is a global emergency. Republicans might abandon Trump and vote to impeach. Not likely. Americans need to rally behind a Democrat who can prevent a second term. Even a real donkey - perhaps a Mexican burro with papers - would be better than the jackass we've got.