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Barbed wire, border walls and other American narratives

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CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

By the time this column is seen in print, the big story of the week — the midterm elections — will already be two days past its prime. Regardless of whether the story is of a blue or red wave, I'm banking we'll still be tempest-tossed.

Election Day is always about story and narrative — a moment when we sport "I voted" stickers like a badge of civic honor. Power peacefully transferred, our elections provide us with the comforting story that despite the ever-sprouting warts on our body politic, our institutions are still the best around. In reality, our deeper narratives persist long after the polls close.

Zach Hagadone
  • Zach Hagadone

I've always felt it fitting that Election Day comes so close on the heels of Halloween — another day put aside for indulging in narrative fancy. On that holiday, we access whatever parts of our identities we keep locked up and let them bubble to the surface, for good or ill. This past Halloween we saw larger political identities seep into the masks we wear. First, it was a doughy-faced dad from Kentucky who kitted himself out as a member of the Death's Head division of the SS — the group that patrolled the barbed-wire barriers in Nazi Germany's death camps. Photos emerged of Nazi Dad a few days before Halloween, his little son standing dutifully at his knee wearing a mini Hitler mustache. The outrage was swift and rightly severe.

The guy's defense: He and his son enjoy dressing up as historical figures, and we should all stop being such prudes. Whatever the layers of narrative justification, observers saw past his innocent grin and recognized the unironic glint on his jackboots. He wasn't pretending; not really.

The day after Halloween, another group of supposedly well-intentioned costumes made the news, this time much closer to home in Middleton, Idaho, a small farming community about 30 miles west of the capital city. There, a group of elementary school teachers dressed up as President Donald Trump's supposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. Some donned brightly colored sarapes, sombreros and faux mustaches — maracas in hand — while others held cardboard panels in imitation of the wall, the words "Make America Great Again" written across its brick-painted surface. Behind the wall, the teachers held American flags, one dressed as a fuzzy blue eagle and another, drawing a lethal bead on irony, was the Statue of Liberty.

Again, the backlash was swift and severe. The school district acknowledged the bad judgement and put 14 staff members on paid leave, but also again, there was much noise made about how unjustly touchy we've all become. So what, many argued, it was just a silly costume.

Not quite. Nazis and border walls have loomed large in our present political narrative, with Trump himself ginning up panic over the so-called "caravan" of Latin American migrants making its way to the southern border. When it gets here, Trump has vowed, he'll use his executive power to strip birthright citizenship from the 14th Amendment, ensuring those who get past the 15,000 troops he's ordered to the border won't be able to "anchor" their as-yet-unborn children here.

Like the Statue of Liberty standing behind a cardboard wall in Middleton, Trump sees no cognitive dissonance in the narrative he so busily wove during the run-up to the midterms. Likewise, he clearly sees no paradox in meddling with the Constitution to bar access to citizenship — and thus participation in civic rituals like a midterm election — for precisely the "huddled masses" supposedly welcomed to this country by Lady Liberty.

"Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight," he said Nov. 3 at a rally in Montana.

If that's true, then a Nazi uniform worn to evoke "historical figures" can be a beautiful sight, too. ♦

Zach Hagadone is a former co-publisher/owner of the Sandpoint Reader, former editor of Boise Weekly and current grad student at Washington State University.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mad Masks"