Under the leadership of Donald Trump, the Republican Party has graduated from pursuing Ronald Reagan’s politics of selfishness to pursuing the politics of cruelty.
How else to explain this week’s decision by the administration to cancel English classes, recreational programs and legal aid for unaccompanied minors staying in federal migrant shelters?
The excuse for not educating or providing recreation to these innocent victims of violence and environmental upheaval—to which the United States had made a major contribution—is that the influx of immigrants at our southern border has created critical budget pressures. According to U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) PR flack Mark Weber, to save money the Office of Refugee Resettlement has stopped funding programs “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety, including education services, legal services, and recreation.” Sounds as if Trump is using these innocent victims as a bargaining chip with Congress. I wonder if he ever thought of torturing his own children as part of a negotiation?
So what are these kids going to do all day except hang around being hungry and bored? A recipe for getting into trouble, to be sure. And how can they ever hope to navigate our complicated immigration laws and system and reunite with their parents without any legal help?
Nothing short of an audit by Bernie Sanders supporters would convince me that the HHS is so broke that it has to deprive children of recreation, education and hope. I think it’s not a bargaining chip, just an excuse for ratcheting up the meanness. Those of us who have followed the revelation about Trump’s personal finances understand that he and his cronies are masters of changing what budget numbers say. Remember Trump’s the guy who told the IRS that his assets were worth little to avoid paying taxes at the same time he was pumping up their value to get bank loans.
There are no doubt other places in the border budget that Trump could save money; for example, spending no more than the amount that most experts recommend is appropriate for walls or wall prototypes. That number, BTW, happens to be zero, since most immigration and security professionals have concluded the wall is a stupid idea.
Based on an analysis of other moves that the Trump Administration and the GOP have made recently, I think we can safely assume that the prime motivating factor in ending soccer and school for refugee children is cruelty. It is purposely cruel, as if Trump and his crew want not just to win, but to make it hurt the “enemy” so badly that everyone knows who is boss. They haven’t stopped to think that 12- and 15-year olds are never the enemy and never deserve purposely cruel treatment.
Separating children from their families is an act of cruelty. Criminalizing abortion and making a woman carry a rapist’s baby to full term is cruel. Putting the “Dreamers” into a legal limbo is cruel. Ending special programs to protect refugees from Haiti and El Salvador is cruel. Cutting humanitarian aid to Central American countries is cruel. Proposing cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security is cruel. Then there’s the especially twisted notion of assessing tariffs on Mexican and Chinese products, which will end up hurting the poor and middle class, as prices for virtually everything will go up when companies pass the cost of the tariffs to consumers. The twist of course is that the tariff money collected will make up some of the enormous deficit the GOP created by giving the ultra-wealthy one of the largest tax breaks in history at a time when their taxes were already historically low.
It’s easy to say that when Trump is frustrated, the first thing he does is look for someone to take it out on, and that the more pain he manages to cause, the happier this sick pup becomes.
But blaming the character of Trump alone would ignore the long U.S. history of cruel treatment of people whom white males considered to be inferior to Europeans and of those they encountered at their ever west-moving frontier. British army commander Jeffrey Amherst knowingly gave smallpox-infected blankets to Native American tribes during the Seven Years War, hoping an epidemic of the disease would wipe out whole communities. Cruelty to blacks characterizes the entire history of slavery and post-Reconstruction in the United States. Whether dealing with Native Americans or with supporters of democracy in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, American soldiers (and pioneers) employed rape, pillage, mass murder and displacement as their main tactics. It was if Europeans could only demonstrate their inherent superiority to other ethnic groups by treating these lesser beings as animals.
Historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth provides an easy-to-read if hard-to-stomach spectacle of U.S. official and unofficial cruelty to non-Europeans at America’s borders over the past 250 years. Grandin’s two premises are shaky: He avers that the U.S. is the only nation defined by its relationship to its frontier, which ignores the histories of China and Russia (and if one studies the medieval Ottonian dynasty, Germany, too). He also asserts that Trump was able to emerge because of societal anxiety now that the frontier is gone and our borders are closed, which fails to take into account Grandin’s own discussion of Andrew Johnson, the prototype of Trumpism; the strain of Jacksonian racism that still infects U.S. foreign policy; or Grandin’s mini-history of border vigilantism. No matter, the book’s detail makes it worth reading. Two other great books on American frontier cruelty—but heavy reading slogs—are Richard Slotkin’s seminal Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (1973) and The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization (1985).
The important takeaway from these books for this conversation is the detailed accounts of how, when faced with both humanistic and cruel ways to deal with the peoples encountered on its frontiers, the American way was virtually always to select cruelty. Blaming victims, of course, is always easier and less expensive than trying to help them. For example, the contemporary GOP program—from Reagan onwards—uses victim blaming as a justification for cutting programs that help our poor, elderly and disadvantaged. A supposed inferiority justified the cruel treatment of slaves. It justified Bush II’s creation of our torture program. And it’s instrumental in justifying the inhumane and illegal treatment of refugees and other immigrants at our borders.
Trump’s views resonate with the 20-25% of the population that is white and feels threatened by the demographic shifts in this country that favor groups they deem inferior. We don’t know, but we can assume that many ICE employees and government officials agree with Trump’s cruel approach, something that Grandin suggests. Trump’s administration is not the first time America has pursued an overtly racist program—Andrew Jackson and most of the presidents between him and Lincoln pursued racist domestic and foreign policies; Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the federal government and let the Klu Klux Klan run wild.
No, Trump does not represent an inflection point. Yes, Trump is a monster, but not an especially original one. He continues a long American tradition of racism and racial cruelty, especially to non-European immigrants, refugees and combatants.