We weren’t ready for a world without walls

People from East Germany greet citizens of West Germany at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Dec. 22, 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall the month before.

The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago was a giddy moment, but the subsequent rush to tear down walls everywhere has yielded a global system in which bad actors are no longer held accountable.

At the time it seemed an unalloyed good. The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989—30 years ago Saturday—meant more than just the end of the Cold War. It meant the vanquishing of all walls, a giddy flinging-open of all doors—to free markets, to common political values across the world, to the birth of a true international community.

Three decades on, what we’ve got is less an international community than a vast wilderness, one full of vicious creatures that prey on us and our polities anonymously from dark digital places. This is not the classic anarchy of the realist conception: The so-called international community lives on, raggedly, in the form of global institutions and a still persistent (if flagging) consensus on open trade and norms against criminality and terrorism. Few nation-states are going to war with each other. But neither are they coming together. Rather than behaving like a community—in which members are made to feel responsible for their actions and mutual respect is a necessity—our globalized world more often seems more like an anti-community. It is a bottomless hiding place for bad actors—both real and algorithmic—who are no longer held accountable for their behavior, whether they are willfully disseminating lies over an internet manipulated by digital monopolies that don’t care a whit for social welfare (much less truth) or selling dodgy securitized loans around the globe to people whose reputation creditors no longer have to worry about, as banks once did in the actual communities they nurtured.

It can hardly be a surprise that, in response, we are seeing a demand for new walls—both real and metaphorical. And the most prominent booster of these proposed barriers is named Donald Trump.

The U.S. president embodies the most salient dimensions of the post-Berlin Wall backlash. It’s not just in the most obvious sense—that Trump seeks the dismantling of the post-Cold War system and America’s role as global overseer of stability, that he is an unapologetic isolationist and protectionist, and that millions of Americans fervently support him on these issues. It’s that Trump, more than any other politician, has aroused the racial and ethnic fears and xenophobia of Americans who want the walls back—whether on the southern border with Mexico or in their own minds. Trump’s greatest strength among voters, the political pundit Ronald Brownstein tweeted this week, is that he “presents himself as a ‘human wall’ against the cultural and demographic changes that they find threatening.”

Digital wilderness

But more than that, Trump is the political master of this digital wilderness. He is utterly at home in it, has become its greatest impresario, and the moment is as ripe for him in 2020 as it was in 2016. This is the grim subtext of the ongoing impeachment controversy, in which huge numbers of Trump supporters, dwelling determinedly in their separate reality, appear to buy Trump’s claim that his well-documented effort to hold U.S. foreign aid hostage to his personal political interests is just a malign fantasy concocted by his political enemies.

The Washington media and the Democrats on Capitol Hill still don’t seem to grasp that their painstakingly reported accounts of Trump’s behavior, no matter how well corroborated by witnesses who include Trump’s chief of staff—and the White House’s own transcript of Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—are simply dismissed as fake news by tens of millions of angry Americans who still plan to vote for Trump. In the irremediable fracturing of community and consensus, there is no direction home to truth any longer, as evidenced by recent poll numbers. Nor will there be at any likely impeachment trial.

How did we get to this place? Begin with another recent milestone that led ultimately to the advent of Trump: the 50th anniversary of the birth of the internet. On Oct. 29, 1969, an engineer at UCLA flipped a switch, and computers began communicating with each other online. After a couple of decades, ordinary people did too, to the tune of more than 4 billion online users today. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the internet at first seemed an unalloyed good, opening the door to a new kind of global community—and for a while it did. But the snowballing growth of the internet worldwide also began a long process by which we lost—gradually and then it seems suddenly—a personal sense of the people we were communicating with. And as people stopped worrying about whether they were offending or insulting someone in person—always hard to do in a real-life community, if you have any sense of decency or fear of retribution—they became freer and more reckless in their denunciations and defamation of others and more fierce in their alienation from any larger community.

Major political figures

Of all the major political figures in the world, it was Trump who figured out first how to navigate and exploit this digital netherworld, how to conjure up slander and innuendo from all quarters and make it go viral without fear of effective contradiction. It was Trump who realized that truth or factuality no longer had a real home in the global anti-community, whether he was conjuring up a ludicrous conspiracy from Ukraine or another one from China, and that he had unwitting but eager allies in the social media monopolies and cable TV outlets. On some level, Trump also seemed to divine that years of algorithmic targeting by the social-media giants—of isolating individuals in their own “filter bubbles,” in Eli Pariser’s phrase—had shattered much of America’s collective sense of nationhood and any concept of a common basis of information.

- Foreign Policy 

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