President-elect Donald Trump pumps his fist as he arrives during the 58th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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It’s amazing that we are actually having a discussion over whether the US and Mexico can mend their differences over the US demand that Mexico pay what amounts to a war indemnity to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. It’s not just that Mexico hasn’t agreed to this. It is important to step back and realize that this is the kind of demand that usually happens in the context of punishment or exaction for losing a war or some other belligerent action.

The demand that Mexico pay for a wall has never really been about money. As wasteful and needless as the wall is, its cost would be manageable in the context of the total US national budget. The point of the demand is humiliation. It is comparable to the way authoritarian regimes (like China, for instance) sometimes charge the family of an executed criminal for the bullets used to execute their loved one. It’s not the money; it’s degradation.

The wall payment drama brings into a sharp relief something I discussed over the weekend: how to defend the national interest when executive power is in the hands of pirates who seek to destroy the best of what the country is. It’s not just that Mexico doesn’t need to pay for Trump’s wall. It would be terrible if they did.

In recent decades we have as a society radically changed our collective attitude toward bullying and abuse of various kinds – the denigration, the demeaning and damaging of the weak by the strong. With respect to Trump, Mexico and his wall, our position as Americans is comparable to being bystanders to abuse. We’re complicit if we don’t at a minimum speak up because between nations, on a national level, this is assault. It is one party with greater power using that power over a weaker party with the specific aim of demeaning and denigrating, of theft.

There’s no equitable question here we’re trying to resolve – some relative level of protection for US wages vis a vis lower wage workers in Mexico, no negotiation about who should foot the bill for some environmental degradation in the shared border region. This is, like I said, akin to a war indemnity, something that is always unlovely and perhaps wrong but at least has some logic in the resolution of armed conflict.

Nor is this some accidental parallelism. It is of a piece, intrinsic to the President’s entire worldview and instincts. The strong abuse the weak and society is structured around the hierarchies such abuse creates. As I described at various points over the course of the 2016 election, in the Trumpian worldview there are only the dominating and the dominated. There is no middle ground, let alone broad relations of equality and consensual freedom, where most of us experience much of the world. All relationships are zero sum. For me to win, you have to lose. This is the root of Trump’s endless references to humiliation, to being laughed at. This worldview is the essence of Trumpism and its politics is the promise to put “us” back on the dominating side of the equation.

In this sense, the wall drama and who pays for it, isn’t really a budgetary issue at all. It’s something far more basic, far more essential to who we are, how we act as a nation. It’s wrong. It should be viewed in that light.

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