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Tue 20 August 2019
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As Steve Bannon’s PR stunt near El Paso is swiftly followed by a horrific mass shooting, Hardeep Matharu looks back at the Cambridge Analytica origins of ‘Build the Wall’.


A week before a 21-year-old man walked into a Walmart store in El Paso and shot 22 people dead “in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”, the far-right ideologue Steve Bannon was in the same city launching a “symposium” on the need for Americans to build a wall at the border to keep Mexicans out.

Revelling in three days of speeches, fundraising and discussions – titled The Symposium at the Wall: Cartels, Trafficking and Asylum – Bannon was trumpeting the building of a privately-funded, 25-foot high steel wall at the US-Mexico border on private land as part of the ‘We Build the Wall’ project.

The wall will eventually meet the government-funded one some 20 miles down the road and put into action Trump’s belief that America must defend itself against the Mexican criminals and rapists pouring in. (Though since news broke today of a potential criminal investigation into what has happened to some of the $20 million so far accumulated through We Build the Wall’s Gofundme campaign, this could be in doubt).

Just a few days after the spectacle kicked off, the BBC decided to broadcast an interview with Bannon at the border. With a choreographed setting resembling a movie set rather than the scene of a serious interview, there were some strange props surrounding Bannon. The backdrop framing him was the wall, while an American flag and war truck were positioned between himself and the BBC’s North America Editor Jon Sopel.

The wall may be a powerful symbol, but the hate it can create is real and the consequences lethal. For those like the El Paso shooter, who already harbour problematic worldviews, such rhetoric can act as a rallying call.

As Hicham Yezza commented on Twitter: “Only one of these two men understands what is happening in this photo. And it’s not the journalist.”

In an interview which gave Bannon an easy ride and an unchallenged platform for his blatant agenda, he stated unequivocally that Trump’s crackdown at the US-Mexico border, including his policy of separating migrant children from their parents, was “anti-racist” because “what the President is trying to do is protect African American and Hispanic workers and people in this city”.

He spoke of “the crime that’s being brought here” and “the competition for jobs that’s being brought here”.

The President’s condemnation of four Democratic congresswomen of colour, who have called out Trump’s controversial tactics at the border, was not racist, Bannon said – including Trump’s lack of disapproval at a rally in North Carolina when his supporters started chanting “send her back”,  in reference to the Somali-born American congresswoman Omar Ilhan, who Bannon claimed is “anti-American”.

“You’ve got to show your patriotism… If you love this country, you put this country first. That’s not racist.”

Steve Bannon is interviewed by the BBC‘s North America Editor Jon Sopel at the US-Mexico border

Sopel had no response to this iteration of the white supremacist idea that anyone not of white ancestry and born in America is not really American.

It was a disturbing move by the BBC. Why did the public broadcaster feel the need to interview Bannon and in such a manner? Did it not have any say or a veto as to the location of the interview? Did it consider how the presentation of the piece could feed into Bannon’s agenda? And, will it hold a mirror up to itself and consider whether its output is being subverted to further racism and extremist views?

These questions become all the more urgent in light of what has emerged about the suspected El Paso shooter since he opened fire.

Named by American media as Patrick Crusius, from Dallas, two Twitter accounts in this name – now suspended – expressed support for Trump’s “Build the Wall” policy, which Crusius referred to as the “best way that [the President] has worked to secure our country so far”. Also referenced was “#MAGA” [Make America Great Again] guns, Christianity and the Ku Klux Klan.

In a ‘manifesto’ published online before the attack, the shooter wrote: “Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs. They will turn Texas into an instrument of a political coup which will hasten the destruction of our country.”

Curiously, Crusius decided to defend Trump in his missive, claiming that his views “predate Trump and his campaign for president… some people will blame the President for the attack. This is not the case”.

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The attacker’s desire to exonerate the current president from blame is telling as it draws attention precisely to the context in which he has committed his murders: Trump’s America. Crusius chose to turn his beliefs into action at the very time America is in the grip of a President willing to escalate and exploit people’s deeply-held beliefs around race, in an environment which has seen the normalisation of right-wing, white supremacist racism.

In the years before Trump took up residence in the White House, his future campaign manager Steve Bannon tested how ‘build the wall’ would fare as a political messaging tool, via his data analytics company Cambridge Analytica.

The now-defunct firm conducted focus groups across the US showing Americans pictures of walls and people scaling them. They resonated and Bannon decided to put what he had found to good use – to Make America Great Again.

According to former Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistle-blower Chris Wylie, Bannon and Trump’s obsession with building a US-Mexico border wall took inspiration from a concept known as die mauer im kopf – ‘the wall in the mind’. A study into the lasting psychological effects of the Berlin Wall after it came down in 1989 had found that Germans tended to overestimate the distance between cities on opposite sides of the former East-West German border, far more greatly than the distance between cities on the same side.

“Building the wall is not to stop immigrants – most come on a plane – it’s to embody separation,” Wylie revealed.

Whether a physical wall would ever be built or not, Bannon adopted messages such as ‘build the wall’ for their symbolism. He knew the concept could create separation and breed hate in people’s hearts and minds towards anyone seen as non or anti-American. That people are now taking it upon themselves to fundraise for its construction is testament to the power of this idea; the embodiment of separation through action.

The wall may be a powerful symbol, but the hate it can create is real and the consequences lethal. For those like the El Paso shooter, who already harbour problematic worldviews, such rhetoric can act as a rallying call. 

The question is: with another presidential election on its way next year, what will Donald Trump do to hold onto power – and how many more lives will his politics put in danger?  

@Hardeep_Matharu

Meet Hardeep Matharu at the Byline Festival

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