Needless Cruelty as Policy

Oversimplification is sometimes useful. Donald Trump’s base loves defiance and doesn’t see it as a counterproductive at all. Sure, the guy makes stuff up, and he’s offended all our allies – no one trusts the United States now that it’s America First in all things – but this new Republican base is unforgiving. The whole world has been laughing at us, even our allies. Everyone is screwing us over – everyone! Everyone is out to get us! It’s time to humiliate them! When someone hits you, hit them back ten times harder. That’s in Trump’s books. That’s what he keeps saying. That will make America Great Again. America won’t just win. America will humiliate all others.

That’s an oversimplification but things have played out that way. Everyone, even Donald Trump, knows Mexico was never going to pay for that wall. That was never the point. The point was humiliating Mexico by saying that they would be forced to pay for that thing – By Donald Trump – proving that they’re useless wimps and he’s not a wimp. And now Trump is being defiant again. He’s threatening to shut down the government unless the Democrats, every damned one of them, change their minds and vote to give him all the money for his wall – twenty-six billion dollars up front, right now. They will bend to his will. He’ll humiliate them for not putting America first. It’s a simple shift in targets.

It’s all defiance. Self-control is for losers. Trump pulled the United States out of the TPP and will pull us out of NAFTA – or so he says – and so he will. Pulling out of NAFTA will decimate our auto industry and ruin most American farmers, especially corporate agribusiness, but such details don’t matter when everyone is out to get you. We’ll enter no multilateral trade agreements. We’ll do one-off trade deals with individual nations, screwing over every nation that has be screwing us over for years and laughing at us.

It was the same with the Iran nuclear deal. That was working pretty well. So what? Trump was defiant, as he was with the Paris climate accord – where each nation sets its own emission standards. So what? Both were Obama deals. Screw that, and screw all his clear-air rules too. Everyone, even Republicans, likes clean air. Trump likes humiliating Obama more than he likes clean air. So does his base. This is defiance.

Everyone thinks those “dreamers” should stay, even most Republicans? DACA was Obama’s idea. Trump would rather humiliate Obama. He would rather be needlessly cruel. He has his priorities.

He also just had this happen:

A D.C.-based federal judge on Friday ordered the Trump administration to restart in full the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The decision is the latest legal blow against President Donald Trump’s decision to phase out the Obama-era program, which offers deportation relief to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

The judge in this case seemed to be saying that defiantly trying to humiliate Obama would work better with an actual coherent legal argument behind it:

The restart won’t be immediate. U.S. District Judge John Bates said Friday that the order would be delayed until Aug. 23 to allow the government to appeal, but he denied a Justice Department motion to reconsider his earlier decision, saying there were still deficiencies in the administration’s rationale for rescinding DACA.

There never was an actual coherent legal argument for any of this:

“The court has already once given DHS the opportunity to remedy these deficiencies – either by providing a coherent explanation of its legal opinion or by reissuing its decision for bona fide policy reasons that would preclude judicial review,” said Bates, “So it will not do so again.”

Bates in April became the third federal judge to order the administration to restart renewals for people previously approved for DACA.

He also threatened to vacate the memo ending DACA – and thereby restore the program in full – if Trump officials could not present an adequate reason for ending it.

There never was an adequate reason for ending it. This was about humiliating Obama, and humiliating Hispanics too. There’s too much Spanish spoken in the streets already. Hit back ten times harder. Judge Bates wanted something else:

Specifically, he criticized a June memo issued by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. In the memo, Nielsen said she stood by the legal rationale laid out in a Sept. 5 directive from then-acting Secretary Elaine Duke.

Bates said the Nielsen memo, like Duke’s before it, “offers nothing even remotely approaching a considered legal assessment that this court could subject to judicial review.”

Judge Bates wanted something to work with, something to review. He’s the third judge to want something legal to review. There was nothing, so there was this:

More than 700,000 undocumented immigrants are enrolled in the DACA program, according to the latest statistics. If Friday’s ruling goes into effect later this month, the administration will be required to accept new applications from people who meet DACA’s eligibility requirements.

Defiant needless cruelty, as national policy, might be emotionally satisfying to Trump and his base, but it’s still needless. And there’s no legal argument for it. That’s what another judge ruled:

The federal judge overseeing the court-ordered reunification of the 2,551 migrant children separated from their parents at the border blasted the Trump administration Friday for lacking a plan to reunify the remaining 572 children in its custody with their parents and the slow pace of progress.

In a Thursday night status report filing, the Trump administration said only 13 of the parents had been located by the American Civil Liberties Union, which U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California called “unacceptable at this point.”

The parents of 410 children are currently outside of the United States, likely having been deported before reunification, according to the court filing.

The Trump administration had proposed the ACLU take the lead in locating and identifying what the judge had called “missing parents” of children still in government custody

The Trump administration argued that wasn’t their problem, that this was the ACLU’s problem. Let those bleeding-heart liberals fix this if it means so much to them. The Trump administration had done nothing wrong. The judge wasn’t buying it:

Sabraw said that plan was not acceptable and placed that responsibility squarely on the government.

“Many of these parents were removed from the country without their child,” Sabraw said. “All of this is the result of the government’s separation and then inability and failure to track and reunite. And the reality is that for every parent who is not located there will be a permanently orphaned child. And that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration.”

Defiant needless cruelty, as national policy, has consequences. The Trump administration will have to clean up its own damned mess. You can’t hurt people and just walk away, as emotionally satisfying as that might be.

Andrew Sullivan tries to straighten all this out:

The first chapter in Judith Shklar’s 1984 book, Ordinary Vices, has an arresting title: “Putting Cruelty First.” What Shklar was exploring was whether a liberal society, properly understood, can coexist with institutional and personal cruelty, or whether it truly is a corrosive acid to a democratic society. I don’t mean individual acts of cruelty. They, alas, will always be with us. I mean a culture increasingly comfortable with it, and a government capable of enabling it. I picked the book up again the other day after reading about the continuing horror of the migrant children being separated from their parents in the asylum process. Hundreds are still cut off from their families. Some may never see their parents again.

But that was the plan:

A Trump administration official said Tuesday he warned for months about the potential for harm to migrant children if they were separated from their parents before the administration launched its “zero tolerance” border policy earlier this year.

“There is no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” Commander Jonathan White, a Health and Human Services official who led the agency’s family reunification efforts, told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Trump shrugged, and Sullivan sees this:

So this was a premeditated, conscious attempt to hurt vulnerable children in order to deter future would-be asylum seekers who might bring their kids with them. It was an instrumental cruelty in which children were not seen as subjective beings to be protected but as objects to be used. It wasn’t a policy designed to be hidden, but to be broadcast. Yes, you can see how the previous system perversely incentivized the smuggling of children, and we needed to do something. But when a solution to that problem is the institutionalizing of cruelty against the helpless, a liberal society simply has to say no.

Sullivan thinks that might be a good idea:

Many evils and vices exist, some arguably worse than cruelty. It is not included in the deadly sins, for example. But it is a vice particularly dangerous for any sort of liberal democracy. Its incompatibility with the liberal idea is rooted, quite simply, in the immense inequality that cruelty invariably entails – between, say, an armed adult agent of the law and a helpless, alien, exhausted child. It’s the vast imbalance that turns mere force into unforgivable vice, which is why we tend to associate cruelty with tyranny. Cruelty also violates any sense of human dignity and empathy. It tears at our connective, human tissue. And it is almost always imposed out of cowardice rooted in some kind of fear.

Shklar puts it this way: “No child can deserve brutality. Punishment is justifiably inflicted in the service of retribution, education or public security, but if it goes away from or beyond these ends, we call it ‘cruel and unusual’ and forbid its use.”

Sullivan thinks that’s naïve:

America was founded in cruelty. Slavery was inextricable from it – not just because of the violence and humiliation, but because of the continuing psychological torment of being treated as captive subhuman, to be nakedly subject to brute power and violence. All forms of torture likewise represent a cruelty of the most unbalanced and cowardly type, because of the vast power differential between the torturer and his victim. Mistreatment of animals fits into the same category, something that Montaigne, in his famous essay on the subject, found particularly intolerable. He insisted, way ahead of his time, that “there is, nevertheless, a certain respect, a general duty of humanity, not only to beasts that have life and sense, but even to trees and plants.”

Cruelty, in this view, is abuse of power at its most extreme. Which is why, in so many ways, our wanton destruction of this planet’s ecosystem and the subsequent suffering of so many other species may be the cruelest act of humankind in our time.

America was founded in cruelty. Trump is elected president. The one follows the other. Sullivan would like that to end:

Wherever this dark strain in us comes from, it should not, it seems to me, be underestimated, or allowed to slide. We have progressed immensely over the centuries on this question, but it is always a temptation. Small cruelties easily lead to larger ones. And larger ones require, for most people, the dehumanization of the victims, which makes cruelty more tolerable and therefore more likely.

It spreads, this stuff, which is why we have slowly constructed a liberal civilization over the last few centuries in which this most ordinary and yet most pernicious of the vices has been kept under control. Letting it slip, allowing it to fester, becoming numb to it – this is the danger we face in this authoritarian moment.

We simply cannot let these children down. We simply cannot look away until everyone is accounted for.

Ah hell, let those bleeding-heart liberals at the ACLU handle it – the Trump view.

Adam Serwer has this to say about that:

The crisis, to the extent that one exists, is of the administration’s own making. The people fleeing to the U.S. border are a threat neither to American economic prosperity nor to public safety, there is not a great surge of border crossers requiring an extreme response. There are a variety of options for dealing with them short of amnesty, and the separation of families is not legally required.

The policy’s cruelty is its purpose: By inflicting irreparable trauma on children and their families, the administration intends to persuade those looking to America for a better life to stay home. The barbarism of deliberately inflicting suffering on children as coercion, though, has forced the Trump administration and its allies in the conservative press to offer three contradictory defenses.

That’s where things get odd:

First, there’s the denial that the policy exists: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen declared, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”

Not so, the administration’s defenders in the media have insisted. The policy is both real and delightful. The conservative radio host Laura Ingraham called the uproar “hilarious,” adding sarcastically that “the US is so inhumane to provide entertainment, sports, tutoring, medical, dental, four meals a day and clean, decent housing for children whose parents irresponsibly tried to bring them across the border illegally.” She also described the facilities as “essentially summer camps.” On Fox News, the Breitbart editor Joel Pollak argued that the detention facilities offer children both basic necessities and the chance to receive an education. “This is a place where they really have the welfare of the kids at heart,” he said.

Others in the administration – such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his former aide, the White House adviser Stephen Miller – offer a third defense. The policy exists, they say, and it’s necessary to uphold the rule of law. Sessions told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the measures in question are routine. “Every time somebody gets prosecuted in America for a crime, American citizens, and they go to jail, they’re separated from their children,” he said. Miller has presented family separation as a “potent tool in a severely limited arsenal of strategies for stopping immigrants from flooding across the border.”

So there’s no such policy, or it’s a delightful policy, or it’s just business as usual. Choose one, or try this:

The policy of shattering families and the cacophony of conservative voices defending it are the fruits of a campaign of dehumanization that began when Trump announced his candidacy for president, declaring that Mexico was sending rapists and drug dealers to migrate illegally to the United States. Trump’s advocates have said that his generalizations about religious and ethnic minorities apply only to some members of those communities – but as president, Trump has used fears of terrorism and criminality among the few to justify persecuting the many. Only some Muslims may be terrorists, but that “some” justifies barring as many as possible from the country. Only some immigrants are MS-13 “animals,” but that “some” justifies caging all unauthorized immigrants.

Dehumanizing “some” dehumanizes the whole. This has been Trump’s strategy from the beginning.

But that is America:

The uncomfortable echoes of America’s past with its present are difficult to ignore. There is the intentional cruelty inflicted on the innocent and the denial of that cruelty; the insistence that those targeted by law enforcement are less human than those implementing the law; and the assertion of the primacy of federal law over the wishes of communities to be sanctuaries for all their people.

To preserve the political and cultural preeminence of white Americans against a tide of demographic change, to keep America more white and less brown, the Trump administration has settled on a policy of systemic child abuse intended to intimidate prospective immigrants into submission.

The one follows the other, but no one should be surprised:

I suspect that part of what horrifies Americans is not the novelty of Trump’s policy, but its familiarity. Americans are fighting a part of themselves that they naively thought they had vanquished. From chattel slavery to American Indian schools to convict leasing, child-snatching has been a tradition in America since before there was an America. If one is convinced that the parents are not truly human, then the children cannot truly be children, and what should be unthinkable becomes inevitable.

The sins of the past are not guardrails. There is nothing to prevent them from being committed again…

And that is what is happening:

Americans should have fathomed the depth of the crisis Trump would cause in 2016, but many chose denial, ridiculing those who spoke the plain meaning of Trumpism as oversensitive. Since then, Trump has failed the people of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria; deliberately revoked the immigration status of hundreds of thousands of black and Latino immigrants; retreated from civil-rights enforcement; applied an immigration ban to a set of predominantly Muslim countries; attempted to turn black athletes into pariahs for protesting the unjust killings of their countrymen by the state; and defended the white nationalists who terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia. The separation of children from their families at the border in order to punish children for their parents’ decision to seek a better life America, as the forebears of millions of Americans once did, has now clarified for many what should have been obvious before.

This is needless cruelty as public policy. And there is a price to pay for that:

Few of the Trump administration’s policies better exemplify the Trump campaign’s commitment to restoring America’s traditional hierarchies of race, religion, and gender, than family separation. That commitment – and Republicans’ muted opposition to or vigorous support of the administration’s actions – has plunged the United States into a profound moral crisis that will define the nation’s character for decades to come. To harden oneself against the cries of children is no simple task. It requires coldness to suffering that will not be easily thawed. The scars it inflicts on American civic culture will not heal quickly, and they will never completely fade.

There are some things that are now embedded in American civic culture. They come from this president. When someone hits you, hit them back ten times harder. America won’t just win. America will humiliate all others. Those come from this president. He tapped into something. He spoke for many. Coldness to suffering is American too. As Sullivan noted, it always has been.

This won’t end well, as Adam Serwer notes:

People who would do this to children would do anything to anyone. Before this is over, they will be called to do worse.

What would that be?

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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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One Response to Needless Cruelty as Policy

  1. Rick says:

    What I find frustrating about all of this kidnapping of children business is that, if you or I did it, there would be legal consequences, as there would, and ought to be, for anyone who does this — unless, apparently, if you work for the government.

    But Adam Serwer brings up an interesting point:

    People who would do this to children would do anything to anyone.

    And not just to any old “anyone”, maybe even to their own children!

    This leads us to the question of whether we shouldn’t take the children away from anyone who, for instance, institutes a public policy that kidnaps children away from immigrants as a way of scaring them away from even thinking of coming across our borders.

    For example, I wonder if the DC Department of Children and Protective Services, or whatever it’s called there, is exploring the thought that Baron Trump might be in danger, and, given the fact that the father of that family put in force a program to permanently separate children from their parents, whether the boy ought to be removed from the toxic family environment in the White House.

    And what happens if the government were to lose track of him? No worries! The president can always call the ACLU for help in finding him.

    Who knows? Maybe they’ll find him somewhere in the slums of El Salvador.

    Rick

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