Mark Twain's Yankee in King Donald's Court: Thoughts on Trump's Solar Wall

Perhaps as a ploy to deflect the wave of intense criticism that followed his decision to withdrawal the U.S. from the Paris Accord on Climate Change, Donald Trump recently floated the idea of placing solar panels atop his anti-immigrant wall along the Mexican border.  For a politician gung-ho for the expanded production and use of fossil fuels, Trump’s peculiar nod to renewable energy seems symbolic at best, perhaps a gesture to American greens worried about his flagrantly anti-environmental policies or, alternately, a sop to those, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, who might embrace solar electricity as a project for the (as yet imaginary) White House Office of American Innovation and its quest for “private sector solutions” to boost national prosperity.

At this point it seems unlikely that solar panels could ever be added to Trump’s pet project.  Congress now balks at using tax dollars to pay for even the bare bones model.  The Mexican government has emphatically rejected the bizarre suggestion that it fund the wall’s construction.  Thus the utility of adding solar panels to the existing design remains a serious puzzle.  What would its function be?

One idea is to use the electricity generated to power flood lights on the wall and perhaps digital equipment for surveillance.  Another possibility is to feed energy into the country’s vast electric grid, an idea that encourages Trump supporters to imagine that The Wall would eventually “pay for itself.”  Some enthusiasts speculate that the several hundred mile long solar ensemble might eventually become a popular tourist attraction, a kind of high tech Grand Canyon.

An obvious but as yet unmentioned function of a Solar Wall is to achieve its primary goal directly – repelling undocumented immigrants, something it could achieve by subjecting them to severe electric shock.  Especially in states (including Texas) where the death penalty is still legal, this might seem an attractive option.  Those seeking refuge could be put on notice that any attempt to scale Trump’s Wall would result in automatic, self-inflicted death by electrocution.  For an administration experimenting with a muslim ban and the elimination of health care for the poor and elderly, a proposal of this kind seems entirely within the ballpark.

A remarkably similar device was imagined more than a century ago in the visionary novel by Mark Twain, Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  The story involves a late 19th century American industrialist, Hank Morgan, who travels back through time to legendary medieval England, the world of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Merlin, described in Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur.  The Yankee becomes thoroughly involved in the life and conflicts of the time and eventually offers his knowledge of modern technology to assist in preparations for war.  At the book’s conclusion several thousand well armed soldiers hurtle headlong into the set of electrified fences Hank has built to repel them.

“I sent a current through the third fence now; and almost immediately through the fourth and fifth, so quickly were the gaps filled up. I believed the time was come now for my climax; I believed that that whole army was in our trap.  Anyway, it was high time to find out.  So I touched a button and set fifty electric suns aflame on the top of our precipice.

“Land, what a sight!  We were enclosed in three walls of dead men! ….I shot the current through all the fences and struck the whole host dead in their tracks!  There was a groan you could hear!  It voiced the death-pang of eleven thousand men. It swelled out on the night with awful pathos.”

Twain was entirely prescient.  At a time in the nation’s history in which an “awful pathos” has absorbed the purposes of our ruling powers, solutions of this kind cannot be rejected out of hand.  As people often exclaim: “We have the technology!”