By Chris Trotter*
It all looks so ridiculous. From the rest of the world’s perspective the current partial shutdown of the US Federal Government – over a Mexican “border wall” – piles irresponsibility upon absurdity. It was President Richard Nixon who, in 1970, warned against allowing America to become “a pitiful, helpless giant”. Nearly fifty years later that giant, the world’s “indispensable nation”, seems to be sliding into dementia.
One of the most tragic aspects of dementia is the sufferer’s loss of memory. Adrift in the fog of an eternal present, all awareness of where one has come and where one is going evaporates. Such would appear, from the rest of the world’s perspective, to be the most apt diagnosis of the present difficulties confronting President Donald Trump’s America.
The rest of the world (and a great many of America’s own citizens) would, however, be wrong. The problems besetting the United States are not the result of its people having too little awareness of the past and the future, but too much.
Where to begin?
Why not in San Diego, Texas, 1915 with a collection of jailed Mexican revolutionaries? Together, they conceived a plan to reconquer the Mexican territories ceded to the United States in 1848 (after two years of war) by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. They were seeking to recover Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico, along with vast additional chunks of the American South-West. In what would become known as the Plan of San Diego, these revolutionaries plotted to enlist Mexican-, African- and Native-Americans in their bloodthirsty reconquista. In the process of establishing their new “Republic of the North”, every white American male aged between 16 and 60 was to be killed.
Not really. Between 1910 and 1920 not only was Mexican society convulsed by revolutionary upheavals, but so, too, was the relationship between Mexico and the United States. All along the Rio Grande, incursions, raids, skirmishes – sometimes escalating into pitched battles – pitted revolutionary militias against local ranchers, the Texas Rangers and, ultimately, the armed forces of United States. These events (which provide the backdrop to the Netflix series “The Son”) became known as “The Border War”, in the course of which sizeable contingents of American troops twice invaded and occupied Mexican territory. The second of these incursions followed a cross-border raid by the revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa, whose forces attacked and burned the New Mexican town of Columbus on 9 March 1916.
This is the context in which the infamous “Zimmerman Telegram” was secretly cabled to the Mexican Government by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman. In it the German Government offered to help the Mexican Republic reclaim its lost territories in the US South-West – but only if it agreed keep the American army pinned down on the USA’s southern border and, consequentially, out of Europe. It was the Zimmerman Telegram (helpfully decoded and forwarded to Washington by British military cryptologists) which finally persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to bring the USA into World War I alongside the Allied Powers.
Clearly, the Mexican-American border is about a great deal more than illegal immigrants and drug cartels. Americans living on the eastern and western coasts of the United States may possess only the haziest memories of high-school history lessons about the Mexican-American War. But, for middle-aged Americans living in Texas and New Mexico, the Border War was a vivid feature of their grandparents’ youth.
Pancho Villa’s raids and their aftermath were concurrent with Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele. One hundred years later, we still remember them. It is, therefore, fanciful to believe that either Texan whites or their brown compatriots have forgotten the Border War. Not when upwards of 300 Mexican-Americans were lynched by enraged white vigilantes as US authority was steadily reimposed along the border.
The story does not end there.
In 1969, as civil-rights activism was peaking in the United States, young Hispanic Americans (who then referred to themselves as Chicanos) reinvigorated the reconquista dream by appropriating to their cause the symbolic power of the origin myth of Aztec civilisation. By equating the territories lost to the United States with the legendary home of the Aztecs – “Aztlan” – the purveyors of Chicano nationalism were able to infuse their “anti-imperialist” struggle with the potent legacy of indigenous America’s pre-European cultural achievements.
Aztlan may have faded from the memory of contemporary Hispanic Americans who daily face a raft of much more urgent demands on their attention. For those right-wing white Americans who see themselves as the beleaguered victims of adverse demographic trends, however, Aztlan has taken on the character of a looming, existential threat.
Their fear is not that some twenty-first century equivalent of Pancho Villa will come roaring across the border hell-bent on razing El Paso or Santa Fe. (Although, the near panic generated by the “caravan” of Central-American migrants wending its way north towards the Rio Grande does makes you wonder!) The great concern of the Right is that the birth-rate of Hispanic Americans greatly exceeds that of Whites. Unless the “flood” of migrants from the south is checked, Aztlan will be brought into existence not by bullets – but babies!
Thus was the nationalist rhetoric of Chicano radicals: rhetoric directed at the white supremacist assumptions of the border state governments of the 1960s; transmuted into the prime-time gold of right-wing Anglo paranoia. It was no less a luminary than CNN’s Lou Dobbs who made Aztlan known to “mainstream” America. In an impressive piece of political conjuring, Dobbs (now working for Fox News) took this colourful example of radical sixties romanticism and reassembled it into a frightening conspiracy theory in which the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is undone by the children of millions of illegal immigrants, and the US-Mexican border advances all the way to the Mississippi. It should come as no surprise that Dobbs is one of people President Trump listens to most attentively.
Donald Trump’s border wall is, thus, very far from being the political obsession of an eccentric New York billionaire. The idea of constructing a substantial physical barrier along the entire length of the Mexican-American border is not a new one. Though Nancy Pelosi may not know it, the idea found favour with President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) who was, according to the history books, a “progressive” Democrat.
A historically literate American Left would not have chosen this particular ditch to die in. Though he may not mention Aztlan, or the Border War, or Pancho Villa, President Trump knows very well how the Anglos of the American South-West feel about the border with Mexico. How it large it looms as a constant and deeply worrying reminder of the fragile historical contingency of the United States “manifest destiny”.
If the Democrats were smart, they would let the President build his wall.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.