20 June 2018

Trump, border separations and the twilight of American moral leadership


They say that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. The moral and political failure on America’s southern border has, however, many fathers. It is entirely accurate to blame Donald Trump for the disgraceful cruelty of separating parents from children. The buck stops there, on the president’s desk.

Previous presidents have wished the whole border and immigration business would go away, or hoped that another, legislative form of magical thinking would fix it. This president arrived at the White House promising to introduce a punitive theme into America’s already harsh border policing.

For years, politicians from both parties have talked about “getting tough” at the border, especially when campaigning in the Southwest. Sometimes, they even secured new, tougher laws. And now we see the cumulative effect of foolish talk and foolish law-making.

This is what “getting tough” at the border means: forcibly separating children from parents, and incarcerating the lot, because the children come with the parents, and anyone who crosses the border is breaking the law. That is what it meant under President Obama too.

On Tuesday, Todd Rosenblum, writing in The Hill, called Trump’s policy “morally reprehensible”. He should know. When the number of children crossing the border spiked in 2014, Rosenblum was a senior civilian official at the Pentagon, charged with border defence policy. He describes the surge in the numbers of unaccompanied children, from 16,000 in 2014 to 68,500 in 2016, as the parents’ fault: “The surge was driven by a misinterpretation of President Obama’s decision to provide legal status for the children of person already living in the United States. These are the Dreamers. Fuelled by traffickers and violence, families in Central America sent their children to the border, incorrectly believing their children too would get legal status if they could request asylum directly.”

It is impossible to read Rosenblum’s euphemistic, self-serving account without being reminded of prior instances of bureaucratic euphemism. Vichy France springs to mind.

The “broad consensus” at the White House, Rosenblum writes, was that “we had to stem the flow, both at the source and at the border”. Those “seeking asylum”—in other words, the children and families who had been arrested — were collected at “harsh holding facilities proximate to the border”. They were locked up in “cold and dehumanizing pens, much like the ones the Trump administration is using today for longer term detention”. Rosenblum admits that he found it “difficult walking through these pens, seeing open toilets in the middle of group cells housing 20 or more asylum seekers and illegal entrants at a time”.

During processing, families were “kept together unless there was a deemed reason for not doing so”. Unaccompanied minors were taken away and locked up. Rosenblum insists that the Obama policy of “temporarily holding unaccompanied minors in closed centers… pending determinations of their legal status” is completely different from the Trump policy of temporarily holding unaccompanied and forcibly separated minors in closed centres pending determinations of their legal status.

The difference, Rosenblum reckons, is that the Obama Adminstration locked up 68,000 children in “administrative detention” under the “custody of the Department of Health and Social Services”, while the Trump Administration has moved 2,000 forcibly separated children to administrative detention in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. Not much of a difference if you’re a child who is locked up.

The only real differences between the Obama and Trump policies are those of punitive intent and forcible separation. This is vile. Yet, as Rosenblum admits, it was also done under the Obama Administration when there was a “deemed reason for doing so”. It was legal then, as it is legal now. The law is wrong, immoral, and disgraceful — and a testimony to the collective failures of successive Congresses and presidencies.

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” said the host on my local NPR phone-in on Tuesday morning, when a caller asked why Obama’s incarceration of children at the border was not newsworthy in 2016, but Trump’s makes headlines now. The host’s reply should be taken literally. The partisanship of American politics is so total that even those whose job it is to look at what is going on will declare that they see no evil when it is perpetrated by their side

Trump knows this, and he knew its political potential long before the political class and its media proxies took his candidacy seriously. Once my NPR host had shaken off the caller, she consulted a Politico reporter who was on a rare excursion outside the Beltway, in this case to the Arizona-Mexico border. Their conclusion was that Trump was torturing children in order to force the Democrats to the tables and secure funds for his border wall. Trump had helped the analysts to this probing conclusion, as he usually does, by saying pretty much the same at his morning press conference.

So normal service resumes. Soon, there will be nothing to see, beyond the spectacle of Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump in the same room. To keep the story fresh, the pro-Democratic media will turn smoothly from moral outrage to wondering whether the Democrats will compromise their strategy for the midterms by working with Trump. Pro-Republican media will blame the Democrats for not walking in the trap fast enough.

The outrage about the “new normal” in American politics is false. Not because Trump isn’t outrageous; the separation of children from parents is barbaric. But because the corrupt normality of American politics was not born suddenly in the presidential elections of 2016. Nor was the tendency to administrative barbarism.

The United States is on the slide — economically, strategically, morally. With the economic and strategic dividends of the 1990s long spent, morals are a luxury. The Bush Administration’s recourse to crude torture after 9/11 — even the work of “rendition”, it turned out, could be outsourced — smacked of desperation. So too did the Obama Administration’s massive and largely secret program of assassination by drone strikes.

As with the drone strikes, so with the border incarcerations. The Democrats are the party of big government, the Republicans the party of patriotism. So of course the Democrats tend towards technocratic managerialism, in which one of the things being managed is public perception, while the Republicans romanticise the use of blunt force, and, as Trump is doing at the border, even advertise it to intimidate.

The arrangements at Guantanamo Bay appalled the world. But no one minded too much when, in 2011, Obama signed off on the execution by drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, American citizen and al-Qaeda recruiter, just as no one minded too much when America’s prison population shot ahead of that in any other liberal democracy. Both parties, though, serve each other in some terrible Hegelian manner, by extending the powers of government and the force with which they may be applied. The result is the rapid and infinite coarsening of America’s handling of outsiders, whether they are criminals, terrorists, non-violent beard-wearers, or children from Guatemala.

We did not get here overnight. But we seem to be well into the twilight of American power in the world. As the long day closes, Americans seem utterly incapable of finding common purposes and shared identity. Only an assault from outside, far greater than that of the children now imprisoned in Texas and Arizona and California and New Mexico, can remind Americans of their shared fate. What comes next is a long darkness.

Dominic Green is Culture Editor of Spectator USA and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.