Images of the Border Crises Speak Louder Than ‘Womp Womp’
Posted June 20, 2018 4:29 p.m. EDT
We now know the sound it makes when human decency dies on live cable news:
That was the sound that the former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski made Tuesday night during a Fox News segment on the Trump administration policy of separating immigrant parents from their children at the border. He made it when a Democratic strategist, Zac Petkanas, told the story of a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome who was taken from her mother in Texas.
Womp womp. You may know the noise by the name “sad trombone” — a horn sound you use to mock a sob story. It’s a kind of trolling. And trolling is what Lewandowski gets booked on TV to do, this time by Fox, in the past by CNN. He’s the guy you can count on to taunt and revile the president’s enemies or perceived enemies.
This time, the enemy was a disabled girl. And this time, Lewandowski seemed aware enough of how bad it looked that by Wednesday morning, he — well, of course he didn’t apologize (he made a point of not doing so), but he reframed his remarks, on Fox and on social media:
“Lots of Fake News today. I mocked a liberal who attempted to politicize children as opposed to discussing the real issue which is fixing a broken immigration system. It’s offenseive that the MSM doesn’t want to talk about the fact these policies were started under Obama.”
There is no particular reason to take Lewandowski’s self-serving explanation over the video evidence. But let’s do it for argument’s sake. OK: He wasn’t mocking a girl being taken from her mother. He was “mocking a liberal” — for empathizing with a girl being taken from her mother.
Actually, Lewandowski’s term was “politicizing.” Of course a separation created by White House policy is already political, especially when that White House sees electoral benefit in it. The “politicizing,” apparently, comes when you ask the audience to feel bad about it.
Lewandowski may have been egregious, but he hasn’t been alone on Fox. Laura Ingraham tried the Count Olafian sales pitch that the holding centers where children are kept in cages were “essentially summer camps.” Ann Coulter argued that the children detained at the border were “child actors,” and we shouldn’t fall for their heartstring-pulling wiles. (She pointedly aimed this at President Donald Trump, saying, “I get very nervous about the president getting his news from TV.”)
That kind of argument — delegitimizing emotion — is a troll’s favorite tool, and it’s especially beloved on the Trumpian right. Opponents who feel badly about things are “snowflakes.” They’re “virtue signaling.” Their emotion is weak, you suggest, or it’s feigned, or it’s unhinged.
It’s been a strategy of Trump, who tweet-raged against “Fake Tears Chuck Schumer” for crying over the travel ban targeting Muslim countries (and who has his own history of mocking someone with a disability). The strategy is a particular favorite of Fox opinion hosts. Tucker Carlson has pretty much built a show on it.
But the sights and sounds of the past few days have been too ghastly to sneer away. The Trump administration’s border policy has been in place for weeks. But only in the past week or so have we gotten the images, video and horrifying audio that push a story to the front of the news and keep it there.
There was the wailing 2-year-old in the dark, barely higher than the knees of the border agent patting down her mother. The children behind chain-link fences and huddled under foil blankets. The cartoon Trump looming at a children’s detention center (one of several illustrations of presidents), next to a quote about a real-estate battle from “The Art of the Deal.”
Most horrific were the pictures we could only imagine, hearing the audio from a detention center obtained by ProPublica: 10 Central American children pleading, bargaining, howling inconsolably for their parents.
There was a sense, by Tuesday, of both anger and anguish coming to a head. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was captured on social media video while protesters chanted “Shame!” at her as she tried to dine out. (She was at a Mexican restaurant, the sort of real-life detail a TV producer would reject from a screenwriter as too on-the-nose.)
And that night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow channeled the emotion of much of her audience, breaking down in tears as she tried to get through a news bulletin: that babies and toddlers were being warehoused in “tender age” facilities after being taken from their parents.
Maybe Lewandowski would womp-womp her reaction. Likely, he’d say that Maddow was politicizing the news. And look: Maddow does not exactly hide that she’s political. Certainly, many of the critics of Trump’s detentions want to advance their own agendas.
But that doesn’t make her tears less genuine. I know mine were real. There is an instinctual response to hearing children wailing for their parents. You want to protect, defend, comfort, make the problem go away. The feeling is human. And yes, it is potentially politically powerful. But it’s not biased, except that it’s what biases us toward the perpetuation of the species.
“Womp womp” is the sound of someone telling you that this basic decency is questionable, weak, a trick, something to be mastered for the sake of the team. It’s the music of someone trying to give you permission to harden your heart to strangers while still thinking of yourself as a good person.
It’s the hit tune of our weary time, and even after this week, I don’t imagine it will disappear from cable-news and online debates. But maybe the next time we hear that trombone, it will sound a little less sad, and a little more pathetic.