How the wall with Mexico symbolizes the Utopia of Trump’s supporters


Prof Marc Hooghe 

Professor of Political Science at the University of Leuven (Belgium), and he has published mainly on participation, political attitudes and the democratic linkage between citizens and the state



Dr Sofie Marien

Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Leuven, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania


US2016 - Section 3

Section 3: Policy

One of the boldest proposals put forward in the 2016 US presidential electoral campaign was Trump’s plan to erect a wall on the US-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants. Although at first sight nonsensical, Trump repeatedly claimed he indeed wants to build the wall, insisting the Mexican government would pay for the construction of this border protection device.

The proposal, and the way it has been received by the Trump supporters, poses a challenge for professional observers of electoral campaigns. The broadsheet media quickly pointed out the proposal was not feasible. Not only would it be cost prohibitive, the US federal government does not even own the land where the wall would be built. Furthermore no reasonable person actually imagines the Mexican government would be inclined to pay. During his visit to Mexico, then candidate Trump carefully avoided talking about the wall and its financing, allowing commentators to assume these problems effectively killed the entire idea. However, surprise, surprise: candidate Trump went on to repeat the proposal, and crowds at his rallies cheered. Commentators already flabbergasted by the proposal were even more surprised that their serious criticisms had no tangible impact, as they were simply ignored by a vast majority of the Trump supporters. In fact exit polls suggest concerns about immigration had been an important mobilizing factor for Trump voters, and ‘the wall’ had been very successful in symbolizing fears while offering a solution.

Research offers clues for why. Firstly, most US voters are not well informed about politics. So we cannot assume median Trump voters read or understood criticisms. Second, partisans tend to disregard information that runs counter to their own beliefs, so would be inclined to question the reliability of this information.

More importantly we turn to understanding populism, which rejects this kind of reality check. Populist proposals typically appeal to emotional sentiments, rather than standard institutional mechanisms. Populism offers the opportunity to escape the incremental muddling through so typical of institutional politics – by definition it feeds on radical proposals and questions of feasibility runs against the basic emotional appeal of populist rhetoric. ‘The wall’ symbolizes the longing for a closed society, as Popper would label it. Has there ever been a more powerful symbol for closure than a wall?

The wall is not meant as a realistic proposal, and may not be judged that way by all Trump supporters. The wall is a utopian metaphor for an ideal society. For those concerned about crime, drugs, unemployment, the rise of Spanish language rights, and increasing diversity, the wall offers a perfect metaphor. It keeps dangers out of the perfectly tranquil small town American life. The wall offers a return to a way of life that has disappeared, because of increasing globalization, economic flows and demographic change. The wall symbolizes the promise of happiness in a closed society under threat. One could hardly think of a better metaphor for a closed society than simply building a wall around that secluded piece of land, where one can continue to live free from globalization, diversity and other causes of fear. Within rural, rather homogeneous communities, Trump succeeded in mobilizing most voters.

Any ideal society can be labelled a utopia. A utopia is the reification of a concept that is considered to be ideal. Intellectuals generally like the ‘I have a dream’ rhetoric about white and black children going hand and hand together to school. But there are alternative dreams. 

The wall signifies the exact opposite utopian project. If Trump had more rhetorical talent, he might defend his proposal with exactly the opposite words of that famous speech of more than half a century ago. 

“I have a dream that one day, up in New York State, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of multiculturalism and minority rights – one day right there in New York, little white boys and girls will be left alone, with other white boys and white girls as only sisters and brothers. I have a dream that one day every valley will be closed, and that on every hill and mountain there will be a wall, and that we can just live the life we have lost”.

Some will be appalled at reading this, but we should realize that for some the appeal of a homogeneous society is just as strong as the appeal of a society without prejudice is for others.