Donald Trump’s critics are becoming more strategic. Democrats who contend that the left should be more selective with what they chose to become outraged over have been winning the argument. Most influential Republicans in and out of elected office stifle their criticisms of the president lest they anger the majority of their constituents who support him. These are sound political strategies, but they leave us with a conundrum. Just because it is politically imprudent to condemn Donald Trump’s divisive impulses doesn’t mean that those impulses are unworthy of criticism. Indeed, even at the risk of sacrificing political capital, Trump’s reckless rhetorical flourishes must be called out for what they are if the country’s humane and republican character is to be preserved.
Last week, Donald Trump was brazenly taken out of context by a handful of media outlets when he called criminal migrants subject to deportation “animals.” The president’s detractors suggested that he was referring to all undocumented immigrants, while Donald Trump’s defenders insist that he was only and obviously referring to the vicious El Salvadoran gang MS-13. Watch the clip for yourself; the president is, as ever, not particularly specific. That ambiguity has proven a strategic asset for Trump. The president and his political operation claim that those who take issue with his remarks are defending a gang of murderous thugs. That tactic is thoughtlessly cynical. Though it is surely common parlance to refer to violent criminals as “animals” and “not human” as the president did, it is also not language we should countenance in a responsible statesman.
There is enough scholarly literature and social science on the effect of dehumanizing rhetoric from political leaders on their respective societies for any conservative with a proper fear of the state to find Trump’s remarks disturbing. Throughout history and across wildly distinct cultures, such language from public officials has prepared the way for social unrest and, ultimately, statist oppression. This is hardly the first time Trump has described criminal immigrants as beasts and implied that individual immigrants were incapable of any independent thought that contradicts their ethnicity’s hive mind. And we have reason to fear the extent to which this kind of rhetoric has greased the skids for inhumane policies that are happening right before our eyes.
The New York Times reported in late April that the Department of Health and Human Services has lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children who were separated from their parents or were apprehended alone after they crossed the border illegally. They have simply fallen off the radar, prompting concerns that these children could end up in the custody of abusers or human traffickers. Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents at the border, which is a practice that is often legitimate and predates the Trump administration. What is new is that the Trump administration has openly floated the idea of breaking up families as a means of deterring future illegal immigration. The process would be entirely humane, said White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, because HHS does “a very, very good job of putting them in foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States.” Clearly, that is not the case.
What’s more, the process to which illegal migrant parents are subjected is disturbing. No human being could fail to be moved by the all-too-common story of a young mother, forced to wear a yellow bracelet that identifies her as an illegal immigrant parent, weeping in an American courtroom as she is separated from her children. This is not “ordered liberty” or the dispassionate conduct of the affairs of a state. It’s capricious and vengeful, and it is corrupting of the soul. Donald Trump isn’t responsible for a mentality on the right that views this kind of treatment as a necessary evil to which any self-respecting country must appeal; he’s a product of it.
The idea shared by some on the right that even modest comforts for border-crossers are an unacceptable indulgence was evident as early as 2014. That sentiment surfaced in response to broadcaster Glenn Beck who, amid a surge crossing the border in the summer of 2014, sent meals and toys to the border. Some on the right reacted to this act of charity as if he had personally vaulted migrant children over the border fence.
“[H]e is helping the illegals out, how is that different than giving their parents jobs here?” asked Ohio Rep. Andrew Brenner. He added that there is a reason why anyone who “feeds, gives shelter, water and food to illegals” is violating the law: “basic economics.” Breitbart’s John Nolte insisted that Beck’s charity would be exploited by “drug smugglers and human traffickers” to “recruit more” parents of small children to make the hazardous trip north. He added that the affairs of these migrants, their deportation, and whatever relief they are provisioned, should be the exclusive province of the state. But not all on the right were comfortable with even government-provided relief efforts. In a speech at the height of the crisis, former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin attacked the “incentives and invitations” that have transformed America into an “unfunded charity” for illegal immigrants, forcing the “forgotten man” to compete for lower wages and fewer opportunities.
Most of the right’s influential voices recognized this humanitarian tragedy and demanded a compassionate response, but that sentiment was not universal. For some, even the smallest kindness represented a display of weakness that would only be exploited. For the sake of the country, they told themselves, the instinct toward human compassion must be subdued. Two years later, the Republican Party’s primary process became a competition to establish who could prove they were the most uncompromising when it came to illegal migrants. With unconstitutional citizen watch lists, amendments to the founding charter designed to end birthright citizenship, mass deportation squads, and a plan to seize bank records to prevent the transmission of cash overseas, Trump won that contest with ease. To Trump’s supporters, these were mere positioning statements, unworkable as policy but valuable as an expression of his commitment to enforcing immigration law. But Trump’s actions as president—from the pardoning of the scofflaw Joe Arpaio to warrantless immigration raids—suggest that this isn’t about the law at all.
Surely, most Americans do not see what’s wrong with Donald Trump’s expressions of populist fervor. They might agree that violent criminal migrants deserve to be called animals and that those NFL players, mostly African Americans, who refuse to stand for the flag should self-deport. But civic propriety is often in conflict with the kind of bombast that would be at home in a bar or on talk radio. The ideal head of government in a republic of laws cools passions and tempers prejudices. Donald Trump has done just the opposite, and that is a tragedy of which we all must take stock. History will remember those who looked away.