Swinging for (and missing) the fences

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2010. Courtesy World Economic Forum.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2010. Courtesy World Economic Forum.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost writes in “Mending Wall” – one of two Frost poems, the other being “The Tuft of Flowers,” that addresses the nature of human relationships. “That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun; and makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”

The poem ends with the neighbor telling the poet famously, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Well, they certainly make resentful ones. This has been a week of walls, literal and metaphoric, courtesy of President Donald J. Trump. There is the actual, proposed wall between Mexico and the United States whose cost would be covered by a tariff on Mexican imports like avocados. (Oh, no, whither Cinco de Mayo?) To say that Mexico is not taking this well is the understatement of 10 lifetimes. El Presidente Enrique Peña Nieto – not exactly the most popular man south of the border – nonetheless got a boost at home after he cancelled his meeting with Trump, though the two have since spoken by phone.

Look, this is all about saving face. What was  Peña Nieto supposed to do? Take it with a smile? A wall says, “I have to separate myself from you, because something about you – or those with whom you associate – isn’t good enough for me.” Hardly the way to make friends and influence people.

No one is suggesting that the United States doesn’t need to secure its borders, which it could do with Mexico by cracking down further on the drug cartels and raising the standard of living in Latin America so the U.S. would be a less enticing place to escape to.

By grandstanding, Trump has raised the specter of a trade war with Mexico, our third largest trading partner, for whom our farmers grow plenty of corn and soy and with whom we participate, along with Canada, in a North American assembly line of car manufacturing.

The loser will be the American worker and consumer – the same people Trump swore to protect.

The stakes are even higher in the other “M” war – with the Muslim community. By banning refugees from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 120  days and Syrian refugees indefinitely -- but not those from oil-rich American pet Saudi Arabia, the breeding ground of Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 terrorists; nuclear-rich Pakistan; empire-graveyard Afghanistan; and, of course, the United Arab Emirates, which has a Trump hotel – and giving priority to Christians from this region, Trump ignores the rigorous American vetting process already in place and the law and Congress’ role in that process while sending a mixed, Big Bad Wolf message to the Muslim world that plays into Isis’ strategy of demonizing the West.

Brooklyn Judge Ann Donnelly – an oasis of clam and reason in all the ensuing chaos– has ordered a partial stay of the order while the administration has already backed down by exempting green-card holders. But the damage is done. Already, Iran has issue a retaliatory ban on Americans. What about U.S. cultural exchanges and commerce with these countries? What about the fact that the edict came down on World Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), a day in which the administration failed to remember specifically the six million Jews killed by the Nazis?

What about America’s compassion and reputation?

No one is suggesting that refugees shouldn’t be vetted stringently or that there aren’t Islamic terrorists or that Christians haven’t suffered in Muslim countries. (The last figures into a story arc in “Water Music,” the first novel in my series “The Games Men Play.”)

But what good does a knee-jerk reaction do as opposed to a carefully reasoned response? Then by rescinding a portion of the order, the administration looks like it really doesn’t know what it’s doing.

As with the potential 20-percent tariff on Mexican imports, all of this means nothing to Trump’s supporters. They don’t care about foreigners. They don’t even care about their fellow Americans who are heartsick over this. All they care about is their own fear and well-being.

“The whole damned history of the world is a story of the struggle between the selfish and the unselfish,” an enlightened reporter tells the mistress of an uncouth tycoon seeking to peddle influence in Washington in the still-timely 1950 film “Born Yesterday.” “All the bad around is bred by selfishness. Sometimes selfishness even gets to be a cause, an organized force, even a government. Then it’s called fascism. Can you understand that?”

Some of us can. And some of us understand that fear and selfishness are funny things. Fear can paralyze you or it can set you free. Selfishness can be used in service of others – if you let it.

Fences keep people out but they also trap others inside. And something tells me that there will never be enough walls to protect Trump and his supporters in their disquieted, mirthless minds.