The Department of Homeland Security is lacking in many basic human capacities, but it is not illiterate. Yesterday’s announcement about the department’s push to “build wall” did read, to normal users of American English, as if someone were trying to speak caveman:
DHS is committed to building wall and building wall quickly. We are not replacing short, outdated and ineffective wall with similar wall. Instead, under this President we are building a wall that is 30-feet high.
FACT: Prior to President Trump taking office, we have never built wall that high.
Build wall! Stop bad! Safe white America! But that’s not really what was going on here, grammatically, and this is a situation where grammar genuinely is politics. What the Homeland Security message did was it treated “wall” as a mass noun.
Donald Trump’s original campaign promise, chanted back at him by his supporters, was to “build the wall”: one wall, a specific and identifiable structure, whose purpose would be to seal the border between the United States and Mexico. This was always, like every Trump project, ridiculous—even the Great Wall of China is not really a single thing—and nothing remotely resembling it is ever going to happen.
So instead the Department of Homeland Security is talking about building “wall,” with no “the” or “a,” as an undifferentiated substance. It lists individual wall projects and multiple walls, all subsumed under greater wall-ness. Building “the wall” would be a project with a fixed (if absurd) goal and a particular budget; building “wall” is vague and open-ended. Consider Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” in which the poem itself deals with a particular wall but the title expands to the generic condition of wall-making. The task of building a wall is something that can fail; the process of building wall may go on forever.