Resolute Square

The Wall And The Drill: Authoritarianism Means Controls For Some, License To Plunder for Others

Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes, "Xenophobia and plunder: what would authoritarianism be without them?"
Published:December 21, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

"I said I wanted to be a dictator for one day. You know why I wanted to be a dictator? Because I want a wall, and I want to drill, drill, drill." As a skilled propagandist, former president Donald Trump is a seasoned liar. Telling falsehoods and half-truths always figured heavily in how he managed his business, and they figure heavily in how he manages his political career.

And yet in his comments about why he wants to being a dictator, Trump told the truth. The wall and the oil drill stand for two essential elements of authoritarianism: they will to lock up and keep out undesirable bodies, and a predisposition to see everything and everyone as assets to exploit, no matter the consequences to humanity and the planet.

Xenophobia and plunder: what would authoritarianism be without them? By mentioning the wall and the drill, Trump meant to reassure elites that he will take care of their interests if he returns to power.

Xenophobia allies with misogyny and racism to create justifications for authoritarians to fulfill their desires for control and possession. They seek to control minds and bodies, they seek to legislate what can be seen and said and done, and they even seek to police the past, through control of historical narratives, and convince people that they and they alone can guide the nation to a glorious future.

"The wall," in this scheme, is shorthand not just for keeping non-White immigrants out, placating the many who fear Whites are being "replaced" due to mass immigration. It also alludes to an expansion of the militarization of the border and the systems of captivity and trafficking in enemy bodies that characterized Trump's first term. Sweeps of immigrant neighborhoods, policies of family separation at the border and more benefitted private prison systems and bad actors in de facto paramilitaries such as Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Central American migrants held by Customs and Border Protection, El Paso, TX, March 27, 2019. Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters.

All of this would be expanded in a second Trump term, along with the detentions of homeless people in giant camps, roundups of immigrants to be deported, the use of psychiatric institutions to house critics (Trump has mentioned Special Prosecutor Jack Smith as a candidate for confinement in a "mental institution"), state regulation of female and trans individuals' bodies, and more.
These measures add up to the autocrat's dream of controlling millions of bodies so he can feel powerful and implement large-scale political and social change.

Yet this is only half of the equation. Even as enemies must be monitored and locked up, collaborators and cronies are given liberties that they never dreamed of: freedom to kill, lie, steal, and plunder the labor force, the earth, and the bodies of state enemies with impunity. The drill, here, stands for concrete policies of economic exploitation of land, denial of the climate crisis, and deregulation in areas that benefit Trump's partners and cronies.

During his first term, Trump rolled back over 125 regulations regarding environmental protection, food safety, and more to benefit agribusiness and other corporate interests. His partners and cronies are waiting for him to return to office, finish his clean-out of environmentally-minded bureaucrats in the EPA, and facilitate extractions and exploitations on a vast scale, regardless of damage to natural resources, food supply, and the planet.

Trump is in line here with autocrats who attract supporters by advertising their discarding of accountability. The chainsaw carried as a campaign prop by Javier Milei, Argentina's new libertarian and far-right head of state, stands for his slashing of public spending. Yet such leaders also “slash” norms and expectations related to notions of good governance and the rule of law.

The secret of authoritarianism is that many find this breaking of taboos and discarding of accountability thrilling. In Trump's first term, many former conservatives (Lindsay Graham, Bill Barr) experienced the rush of partnering with an amoral individual for whom there are no limits or restraints. The storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, which sent Graham and his peers of both parties running for their lives, was a revolutionary act that declared nothing to be off limits to the pursuit of power.

“Is there no bottom?” legions complain, citing the former president’s latest lies, incitements to violence, and flattering comments about murderous autocrats. It is precisely this absence of a bottom that draws many to leaders like Trump, who make the unthinkable possible. A coup attempt? Withdrawing from NATO? Governing as a dictator? Check, check, check.

This state of duality —controls on the many and freedoms for the few— is built into the conception and operation of authoritarian systems of governance. The executive branch seeks to politicize and remove the independence of the other branches of government so that the leader and his cronies will not be restrained. The army of MAGA zealots who are now selecting the "right" kinds of lawyers and bureaucrats to manage Trump's autocracy as of 2025 (which means lawyers and bureaucrats unburdened by democratic notions of professional ethics and accountability) work explicitly with the idea of liberating Trump from checks and balances in mind.

Trump chose his words well in explaining to the public why he wants to be a dictator. The "wall" and the "drill" are bait to draw in partners for Trump's second term, which would bring confinement and plunder to new levels in America and empower a damaged and dangerous individual to destroy our democracy.