Prior to winning the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump campaigned as a tough-on-immigration candidate who vowed to build a wall at the Mexican-American border. This was the pinnacle of promise made to his political fan base. At one campaign rally, he vilified Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants in one swoop: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Trump’s promise to build a wall added further insult by casting Mexicans as modern-day Mongols, as hordes of invaders breaching the Southern border to commit crimes, rape and pillage.
Trump’s commitment to wall-building necessarily invokes comparison to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” an enormously successful soundtrack released in 1979 and later a cult film released in 1982. Foreshadowing a character like Trump and his political rise, Pink Floyd’s critically acclaimed work offers a frame for considering the project of wall-building — both physically and in the mind — and the devastating consequences that can follow.
The story is about a young boy whose father was killed in World War II. The boy struggles with adolescence, undergoing illness and other traumas, and eventually survives to adulthood and becomes a successful musician, Pink. Along the way to his rising fame, he experiences increased mental illness, which becomes a pervasive theme in his adult life. At one point, he is thrown into a depression triggered by his wife’s infidelity, a downward spiral from which he never recovers.
The end of Pink’s career shows him in the position of political power, or at least fantasizing as such. His fantasy regime is a political machine that mirrors the tactics and appearances of the German Nazi Party. As the leader, he delights in the authority of being able to ostracize and oppress minorities. At one rally, he declares:
Are there any queers in the theater tonight?
Get them up against the wall
There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right.
Get him up against the wall
That one looks Jewish! And that one’s a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
There’s one smoking a joint! And another with spots!
If I had my way—
I’d have all of you shot!
From these xenophobic expressions, the mentally ill entertainer-turned-politician continues his decomposition into destructive violence. The film’s last scene shows small children in a war-torn city who are left to clean up the remains of what was once a riot or war. The image suggests itself as the destruction caused by the erection of walls. Although not having a father was a major hole in his life, Pink ended up causing innumerable children to experience the very same.
Pink and Trump’s story overlap in intriguing ways. Both begin their careers as popular entertainers, giving them a stage from which they launch a political career. Trump’s campaign and presidency displays sharp racial rhetoric and policies that are aimed against specific religious and racial groups. At rallies, Trump has asked pointed questions like, “Any Hispanics in the room?,” drawing supporting boos and hisses from the audience. There is also the thinking that informed the Muslim ban: “I would close up our borders until we figure out what’s going on,” echoing Pink’s own bewilderment: “Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?”
Beyond physical barriers, Pink Floyd’s work challenges the audience to incorporate wall-building within one’s thinking. The film portrays the traumatic events in Pink’s history as “bricks in the wall,” the very wall that alienates him from sanity. The wall represents more than just barriers that separate people, but also a path to self-loathing and uncontrollable rage, to being separated from one’s self. Pink’s journey begins as a boy who once tenderly cared for a dying rat, but later does not hesitate to destroy humanity.
Although time will tell if Trump follows the character portrayed in the film, he has already shown a willingness to play brinksmanship politics. It may be only a matter of time before war coincides with his personal or political agenda. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” displays a leader burdened by mental infirmities and narcissism, capable only of leading the country astray. As Pink’s rally showed, singling people out for their race, religion, or other qualities seemingly has no end—at some point everyone will be engulfed.
The overarching lesson of “The Wall” is that little good happens when repressive walls are built. When mental barriers are erected, estrangement from the other side can lead to disastrous consequences. “The Wall” anticipates a character like Trump and suggests that only harm can come from such an individual assuming power. Released decades ago, this work remains one of the top-selling albums of all time in the United States; in the Trump era, its message rings louder and clearer than ever.