Direct Causation Everywhere

The world that everyone thought they knew may be falling apart – our allies are our enemies and our enemies are our friends now – but no one should have been surprised by Donald Trump. He promised to slap our enemies around, and to slap our allies around too, and to settle all domestic matters too. He’d cut through all the bullshit – the niceties of government and the law – and just do what he said he’d do. He was going to fix everything.

He hasn’t – there’s no wall and we’re still in NATO and both North Korea and China have been making him look foolish at best – but his base still loves him. They always will. Robert Mueller can prove whatever Robert Mueller proves. Another porn star can document and prove another kinky affair she had with him. He can make all the money he wants for himself, shifting our foreign policy to make his family and friends even richer. They can lose their jobs or the family farm when he pulls the United States out of NAFTA and slaps tariffs in everything the nation needs to make things, and other nations, in retaliation, do the same, closing their markets to our stuff – but his base will still be with him. And yes, he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and they’d still be with him. He was joking, and he wasn’t.

His base will never turn on him, and in October 2016, one month before the election, the Washington Post’s Dan Zak explained what was going on:

The hyper-partisanship of today – and the campaign of Donald Trump – might be understood through two kinds of family forms: the “nurturant parent” family (liberal) and the “strict father” family (conservative), according to George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the strict-father worldview, Lakoff says, there is a moral hierarchy led by dominant forces: God above man, man above nature, rich above poor, adults above children, our country over other countries.

“Trump is the ultimate strict father,” Lakoff says. “It’s in everything he does. It’s in his body language. Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct causation: Build a wall, throw them out, use the bomb. Direct causation everywhere.”

Zak saw that was what was going on:

Certainly some Trump supporters like him because they like his policy positions. But maybe some of Trump’s supporters secretly like him because he’s seven inches taller than Hillary Clinton and a man. On CNN in April, “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams, who has opined extensively about the Trump mystique this year, predicted the general election would be about Mom vs. Dad.

“The thing about Dad is that Dad is kind of an a-hole, but if you need Dad to take care of some trouble, he’s going to be the one you call, you know,” Adams said. “If there’s a noise downstairs, you’re probably not going to call Mom, even if she’s awesome. You’re probably going to call the biggest person in the room.”

That’s what was going on:

Stern and resolute, Trump has promised to make everything better if elected. “The Apprentice” established his reputation as a hard-to-please disciplinarian, which he cemented on the campaign trail. His moral hierarchy is stone cold.

But what was the final sentence of his law-and-order acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention?

“I love you.”

Tough love. A strict father’s greatest gift.

The election was over at that point. Scott Adams was right. Just enough voters called the biggest person in the room. They didn’t call mom – Hillary. They called dad, even if he was kind of an asshole. He still is, but they didn’t care and still don’t care, although sometimes an asshole is more than an asshole. Sometimes an asshole is a moral monster. Sometimes an asshole steps over the line. Maybe there is no line.

Greg Sargent addresses that:

News organizations bent over backwards to chastise themselves for having failed to put Trump’s “animals” remark “in context.” And, yes, reports on it should have included the fact that MS-13 was being discussed. But “context” is a malleable thing. The still larger context is Trump’s well-documented use of dehumanization word games, not to mention his explicit conflation of immigrants with criminals. Downplaying that context is to err on the side of credulousness about Trump’s actual intent.

Sargent is talking about this:

The comment in question happened at a White House roundtable discussion on the subject of immigration and so-called “sanctuary cities.” Complaining at the roundtable about confusion between different levels of law enforcement, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims brought up the violent gang Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13.

“There could be an MS-13 member I know about – if they don’t have a certain threshold, I cannot tell Immigration and Customs Enforcement about it,” Mims said.

Speaking immediately after Mims, Trump said, “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in – and we’re stopping a lot of them – but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”

Sargent adds this:

Whether he’s talking about Latino immigrants or kneeling African American football players, President Trump has a consistent way of disguising his racism, bigotry and dehumanization while dog-whistling it out to those voters who he believes may thrill to it.

The game is always that Trump fluidly conflates one set of individuals who constitute a less sympathetic target – one he ostensibly goes after, and one that is harder to defend – with the broader group he’s actually trying to belittle or dehumanize but cannot do so overtly.

This morning, Trump unleashed an assault on Democrats, claiming they are rooting against America. He tweeted that Democrats are “coming to the defense of MS 13 thugs, saying that they are individuals and must be nurtured.”

By “individuals,” Trump perhaps meant “people.”

Or he didn’t mean that:

MS-13 “thugs” are in fact people, but as you’ll recall, Trump recently described some undocumented immigrants as “animals.” He says he was referring to MS-13 members, but his real meaning wasn’t entirely clear – and regardless, the obvious target was the broader group; the only question is whether this was implicit or explicit.

Sargent then cites this item – a long backgrounder on how Trump is increasingly enraged with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen – America is closed, damn it, and people keep getting in, and it’s all her fault. He’s angry-dad and she’s the pathetic little girly-girl, but there’s an account of a meeting Trump held with his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his senior adviser Stephen Miller, the very angry young architect of Trump’s immigration agenda:

The night before Trump delivered his first speech to Congress in February 2017, he huddled with Jared Kushner and Miller in the Oval Office to talk immigration. The president reluctantly agreed with suggestions he strike a gentler tone on immigration in the speech.

Trump reminded them the crowds loved his rhetoric on immigrants along the campaign trail. Acting as if he was at a rally, he then read aloud a few made up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, like rape or murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country – as they did when he highlighted crimes by illegal immigrants at his rallies, according to a person present for the exchange and another briefed on it later. Miller and Kushner laughed.

A senior White House official said that while the president did discuss the “crowd enthusiasm for crackdowns on criminal aliens,” the official disputed that Trump used Hispanic names to illustrate the point.

Sargent doesn’t believe that White House official:

Trump is raging about the undocumented immigrants still crossing the border, and this anecdote reminds us how viscerally this connects him with his base, which makes him more likely to demand insanely draconian concessions in exchange for protecting the “dreamers,” making that less likely…

According to this report, Trump just selected Hispanic names at random – because they were Hispanic names – and then attached those names to heinous crimes. He then envisioned exciting his crowd by telling them that he was deporting these imaginary Hispanic criminals, just as he highlighted actual crimes by real undocumented immigrants on the campaign trail.

And he’s still at it now with his most recent “animals” comment:

Even if you adopt the most charitable interpretation – that Trump’s surface meaning was exclusively about MS-13 members – it is still not exonerating. That’s because the conflation of MS-13 members with undocumented immigrants is not an accident stemming from an imprecisely worded statement. The conflation is itself the statement.

Dehumanizing rhetoric works in exactly this way: It slaps the dehumanizing slur on the least sympathetic subgroup and then conflates that subgroup with the larger group that is the real target, and then piously feigns innocence of any intention to tag the slur on the larger group. The dead giveaway here is that this is a selectively applied technique: When Trump attacks criminals who don’t belong to the out-group he’s scapegoating. No such conflation is in evidence.

Trump’s reported play-acting gives away the game. There would be no reason to select imaginary Hispanic names to attach to crimes unless the whole point was to broadly associate Hispanics with criminals. A similar tactic is afoot when Trump attacks kneeling African American football players. They are protesting police brutality and systemic racism, but Trump instead attacks them for disrespecting the flag and our country, to avoid drawing attention to who and what he’s actually denigrating – African Americans who are demanding racial equality.

Megan McArdle is having none of that:

It’s instructive to compare Trump’s harsh language about immigrant “animals” with his response to a direct question about a different group of people behaving badly. After white nationalists staged marches in Charlottesville, culminating in a death, Trump was at pains to distinguish the Nazis from the “people in that group that were there to innocently protest.”

He’s less careful when immigrants are involved. Immigrants actually have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans, yet Trump sure seems to spend an awful lot of time talking about the small fraction who are criminals. And he doesn’t make much effort to distinguish them from the overwhelming majority of immigrants who are just here to make a law-abiding life for themselves and their families.

That’s awful, but McArdle argues that others do the same thing:

It’s a common human failing to characterize outgroups by the worst examples we can find while dismissing our own bad apples as isolated minorities who have nothing to do with the rest of us.

Consider how conservatives feel, for example, when the left focuses disproportionate energy on the tiny portion of the population that belongs to the alt-right or to white-nationalist groups. Sometimes writers come right out and say that these two minuscule factions represent the final flowering of conservatism’s decades-long plan to Make Racism Great Again. But often they just obsessively focus on these outliers as if they constituted the actual majority of conservative voters. Conservatives have no trouble at all discerning the implicit message: that these are the most representative parts of the right, and that therefore – by the transitive property – all conservatives are racists.

As a conservative, she resents that too:

Rhetoric is like a camera lens; what you focus on tells your audience what the most salient information is. If most of your conversation about conservatives involves the KKK, it’s reasonable for a viewer to think you’re telling them that conservatism and the KKK are roughly synonymous. And if, when discussing immigration, you take every opportunity to point the camera at terrorists, criminal gangs and rapists… well, the conclusion goes without saying.

But she argues it’s just not fair. Trump, in his careless needy eagerness, may have crossed the line, but she’s not like Donald Trump. Most conservatives aren’t like Donald Trump, but E. J. Dionne sees this:

The slippery inexactness of Trump’s language is often ascribed by his detractors to the deficiencies of his verbal skills and his lazy tendency to return again and again to the same stock words and phrases. Trump’s admirers frequently cite his use of colloquial language as key to his success in convincing so many that he is not a traditional politician. After all, the way in which he uses the word “animals” is drawn from common street-corner or barroom talk. It’s not a usage he invented.

But both of these innocent explanations underestimate Trump’s gift for using incendiary words that send clear messages to his supporters. He is brutally calculating in finding ways of casting large groups of people as undeserving of dignity. Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.

And thus the strong father, who is a bit of an asshole, becomes a moral monster:

No one wants to be put in a position of seeming to say anything good about gang members. Yet Trump’s strategy of dehumanization must be resisted across the board. We cannot shy away from what history teaches. Pronouncing whole categories of people as subhuman numbs a nation’s moral sense and, in extreme but, unfortunately, too many cases, becomes a rationale for collective cruelty.

Collective cruelty comes next. There’s direct causation everywhere. Collective cruelty is here. Eugene Scott covers that:

The Trump administration is receiving criticism after a top official disclosed during testimony before a Senate subcommittee that the Department of Health and Human Services lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children placed with sponsors in the United States.

According Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at HHS, officials at the agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement attempted to reach 7,635 children and their sponsors last year. The conversations revealed that only 6,075 were still living with their sponsors. Twenty-eight had run away, five had been removed from the country and 52 had moved in with a non-sponsor.

The rest – 1,475 children – were missing, their locations unknown.

Concerns that these youth could become victims of human traffickers or subject to other abusers are significant.

That may be so, but they’re gone, and UCLA professors Jaana Juvonen and Jennifer Silvers had noted this:

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have argued that this policy change is inhumane, and it is. But evidence from developmental neuroscience suggests it is more than inhumane.

It’s also, by definition, torture.

Children arriving at the U.S. border in search of asylum are frequently a particularly vulnerable population. In many cases fleeing violence and persecution, they also encounter hunger, illness and threats of physical harm along their hazardous journey to the border. This combination of experiences puts migrant children at high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Scott then reports this:

Trump and his top administration officials repeatedly stated Wednesday that unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border could potentially expose the nation to eventual gang crime. Although immigrant advocates argue that the children are fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking safe harbor in the United States, Trump said the migrants have “exploited” America’s immigration laws.

“We have the worst immigration laws of any country, anywhere in the world,” he said at the roundtable held at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, N.Y. “They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.”

“They look so innocent. They’re not innocent,” Trump added.

They’re little animals of course, or will grow up into animals, not “people” at all – every damned one of them. Trump is sure of that, and sure of what Scott notes here:

The president’s hardline immigration policy won him the support of his base – and others wanting to see the U.S. government take a tougher approach to illegal immigration. Issues pertaining to children have traditionally presented a line, even for hardcore immigration opponents. This week, the Trump administration has showed its willingness to cross that line.

That’s the line between being what Scott Adams called a bit of an asshole, and being a moral monster:

Immigrant children in the custody of U.S. border authorities allegedly suffered pervasive abuse ranging from insults and threats to physical assaults, according to documents reviewed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

A report released this week by the ACLU is based on more than 30,000 pages of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents, it says, “expose of culture of impunity” within U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security.

There’s direct causation everywhere:

The allegations include reports of physical, verbal, sexual and psychological abuse of migrant children and the denial of clean drinking water and adequate food.

Among the allegations, U.S. officials are said to have denied a pregnant minor medical attention when she reported pain, which preceded a stillbirth – subjected a 16-year-old girl to a search in which they “forcefully spread her legs and touched her private parts so hard that she screamed” – left a 4-lb. premature baby and her minor mother in an overcrowded and dirty cell filled with sick people, against medical advice – threw out a child’s birth certificate and threatened him with sexual abuse by an adult male detainee – ran over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle and then punched him repeatedly.

And so on and so forth, and this too:

Laura St. John, legal director of the immigrant support organization The Florence Group, shared Friday night the horrifying details of the U.S. government’s policy of taking immigrant children away from their families to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

“What’s happening right now is really unprecedented,” she explained. “What we’ve seen here in Arizona is actually, since January, over 200 cases of parents being separated from their children. And some of these children are extremely young, as you mentioned. We’ve actually seen children who are 2 years old, regularly, and just last week we saw a 53-week-old infant in court without a parent.”

Hayes paused and gulped, betraying his inner emotions as he continued: “I’m sorry. I’m having a really hard time thinking about this.”

Hayes was having a really hard time, thinking about all of this, but no one should have been surprised by Donald Trump. Just enough voters called the biggest person in the room. They called dad, even if dad was kind of an asshole. They wanted tough love. Collective cruelty came next. There’s direct causation everywhere. America owns this.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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