The Big Man’s Small Hostages
Posted June 19, 2018 7:59 p.m. EDT
Why don’t we call the terrified children whose incarceration is riveting the country what they are at this point?
Not migrants. Not detainees. Not pawns, although that comes closest to the mark.
President Donald Trump is using them as flesh-and-blood bargaining chips, hoping that their ordeal and reasonable Americans’ disgust with it will get him what he wants. This isn’t some theory that I’m basing on the whisperings of unnamed administration officials whose candor the president can dismiss as fake news put out by a maleficent media.
It’s the only conclusion reachable from his and his lieutenants’ own words. Falsely claiming that they are bound by law to separate families who cross the border illegally, they say that they could and would gladly abandon the approach — if only Democrats joined them in supporting a package of new immigration legislation.
At a miserable White House news conference on Monday, Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, slithered around and away from reporters’ questions about the children’s suffering by saying, “What the president is trying to do is find a long-term fix.”
Translation: He can live, in the meantime, with this short-term horror. Can everybody else?
On Twitter, Trump himself expectorated that all of this is “the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with Boarder Security and Crime.” He equates random capital letters with virility. They’re typographical Viagra. In another spasm of super-potency, he tweeted, “CHANGE THE LAWS!”
Translation: Give him his border wall and he’ll give the country relief from the sight of caged children and the sound of their sobs. Deny him and his government will stay its heartless course, no matter how much trauma is inflicted on these kids, no matter how much shame is heaped on America, no matter how profound the betrayal of its promise, no matter how deep the interment of its soul. He’ll blame the nightmare on his opponents and he’ll be persuasive, because he’s a better liar. He has had more practice at it.
When I say that we have a hostage crisis, I’m being provocative with my language, but I’m not being loose with it.
I’m mindful that there’s supposed to be a limit to how many weeks — about three — that most kids can be detained before they’re placed elsewhere. But there’s no cap on how long the Trump administration can continue to isolate children from their parents by cleaving families in two.
That’s the president’s leverage, and leverage, along with his crude take on muscular leadership, is his motivation for doing this. This is the art of the deal with human collateral. And in one sense it’s familiar. Politicians commonly gum up important nominations, tie up precious funds or let bad situations fester to get what they want. There’s a parlance for this. We say that they are holding something or someone hostage.
But the expression is figurative, and the practice tends not to include chain link fences, makeshift blankets and cries in the night. That’s Trump’s new spin on it.
It could be a big political mistake. Sure, his most fervent supporters and the most stubborn tribunes of his fugitive greatness — Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter — are rallying behind him. Yes, 58 percent of Republicans in a CNN poll said that they supported his current “zero tolerance” treatment of migrant families.
But that disquieting number is nonetheless well below his usual approval ratings from members of his party. And Senate Republicans, showing more independence and defiance than they typically do, signaled on Tuesday afternoon that they wanted to pass legislation to end quickly the separation of families who cross illegally into the country. They’re no doubt worried about the prospects of Republican senators, like Ted Cruz, who are up for re-election in November. Cruz had already denounced what the Trump administration was doing.
What these Republicans perhaps also understand is that how we approach immigration, legal and illegal, is about more than the economy, though that’s an important part of the equation, and more than security, though that’s vital.
In a country of immigrants that has proudly held itself up as an exemplar, it’s about morality. It’s about values. Few aspects of American policy define us in the eyes of the world as sharply as our treatment of immigrants does. Few define us as sharply, period.
We can be tough, yes. But cruel? That’s not in our interests, not if we care to maintain the global sway that we have. Not if we want to hold on to who we are or mean to be: people of generosity and mercy. Not if we’re invested in that “shining city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan so poetically evoked.
He and other presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, saw America as a beacon. They trafficked in inspiration. Trump traffics in fear. That’s where the hostages come in. If they’re young and innocent, so be it. That only ratchets up their utility.
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