Has Trump Overestimated the Cruelty of His Own Supporters?

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

President Donald Trump speaks with Pastor Franklin Graham in March. Graham is one of several conservative religious leaders to criticize the administration's family separation policy. 

When it comes to public policy, Donald Trump doesn't believe in very much. He has little in the way of strong feelings about abortion or guns or health care, for instance, though he understands that staying consistent with Republican orthodoxy is politically important for him. But there are a few issues he cares deeply about, and has since before he became a politician. Trade is one of them; he thinks that whenever an American buys something made in another country, the country has been made to look the fool and the world is laughing at us. The other major issue on which Trump has firm beliefs is immigration, and now we are truly seeing those beliefs put into practice, and the result is one of the more intense controversies of this presidency.

After a lengthy internal argument in which the utility and morality of separating children from their parents when they try to cross the border was debated by Trump administration officials, the hardliners won out. Now, instead of putting families into immigration detention (where they could stay together), the adults would be criminally prosecuted and their children removed from them.

The cruelty of this policy was its very rationale: The more horrifying the site of children being torn from their parents' arms, the more powerful a deterrent to illegal immigration it would provide. On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new policy with evident pride. "Today, the Department of Homeland Security is partnering with us and will begin a new initiative that will result in referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution," he said. "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."

Had things worked as planned, people in Mexico and Central America would have been aghast, but Americans would have found it right and proper. And in recent weeks, President Trump has been trying even harder than usual to dehumanize immigrants. "You wouldn't believe how bad these people are," he said at a recent White House roundtable. "These aren't people. These are animals." Facing criticism for the remark, Trump's spokespeople insisted he was only talking about the MS-13 gang, but Trump seemed to relish the controversy, saying to a crowd at one of his rallies, "They are not human beings. This is why we call the bloodthirsty MS-13 gang members exactly the name I used last week. What was the name?" To which the crowd shouted, "Animals!"

Perhaps that enthusiasm for dehumanizing language displayed by his most ardent supporters led Trump to believe that the family separation policy would be warmly embraced. But it wasn't, and faced with a steady stream of alarming news stories as well as condemnation from some unexpected quarters like conservative religious leaders, the president hit on a creative solution: Keep the policy, but claim that it's actually the Democrats' fault.

So he's been spreading this bizarre and obvious lie on Twitter, and forcing his representatives to pretend it's true. At an impromptu press gaggle on the White House lawn on Friday, the president said, "I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law. That's their law." It's not, of course—no law requires removing children from parents, and the practice was rare until the Trump administration decided that under its "zero tolerance" policy all border crossers would be criminally prosecuted. The Democrats, furthermore, are in the minority in Congress. If he wants to, Trump can end the policy today, and if Republicans like, they could pass a new law clarifying how families are to be handled.

In the meantime, more and more children are being subjected to the nightmare of being taken from their parents. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security reported that just under 2,000 children were separated from their parents over a period of just six weeks.

When the president says "I hate the children being taken away," he's lying, just as surely as he's lying about this all being the fault of the Democrats. If he were telling the truth, he'd do something about it. But this is the path he chose, precisely because he saw traumatizing children and parents as an effective tool to deter immigration.

While most of us would not characterize Donald Trump as a particularly smart man, he has long possessed a kind of dark genius for locating and exploiting what is worst in people. As a businessman he harnessed people's greed and envy to enrich himself, while as a politician he cultivated resentment, hatred, and fear. Few people realized that those malevolent forces could be so powerful they would overcome any hesitation voters might have about electing such an obviously corrupt con artist to the most powerful position on earth, but about that at least, he was right.

Yet today he's testing the limits of the voters and Republican politicians who helped him become president. How much hypocrisy will the "family values" party tolerate? How much cruelty can they stomach? Do they really see immigrants, even children, as subhuman?

The reaction to this ongoing controversy suggests that as a group, conservatives may not be quite as sadistic as the president hoped they would be. It's hard to find more than a few Republicans not in Trump's direct employ who are willing to publicly defend this policy, even if most of them respond in that tone we've gotten used to, the one that says, "I'm deeply uncomfortable with this, but please don't ask me if I'm going to do anything about it."

If nothing else, supporting the president for the last couple of years has not left them without a few remaining ounces of shame. Imagine what would happen if they actually stood up to him.

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