The American conversation about civility and Trump’s reversal on migrant families
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Traditionally, racist governments have been careful to couch their legal repressions in the language of hygiene, civility or cohesion. Not so the United States when it targets Mexicans. In the past, two pieces of American immigration restriction were openly named after slurs – the Greaser Act (1855) and Operation Wetback (1954). The MEMORANDUM FOR FEDERAL PROSECUTORS ALONG THE SOUTHWEST BORDER breaks tradition with its nomenclature, but not its nature. This was the unremarkable title President Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, chose for a “zero-tolerance” approach to unlawful entries from Mexico. Migrants crossing the aforementioned south-west border were to be treated criminally rather than civilly (the act is itself a misdemeanour). The memo was released on April 6, 2018, and started causing trouble straightaway.
Thanks to Sessions, the punishment for first-time border crossers, previously usually a fine, instead became imprisonment. Incarcerated adults and detained children were held separately, sometimes in different states. Public outcry quickly forced Trump to alter the situation, but many of the hundreds of families treated this way have not been reunited. Some may never be. The Obama administration also had a policy of detaining children, but it largely applied to unaccompanied child migrants. Only occasionally, in exceptional and criminal circumstances, were migrating parents separated from their children. This is part of the reason that the rapidity and scale of Sessions’ change overwhelmed America’s immigration structure so quickly.
Even when the new “zero-tolerance policy” was in effect, the true tolerance was not zero. The Department of Homeland Security referred only around 60% of illegal entries to be prosecuted, in part to avoid flooding detention centres more quickly still. Whatever replaces the old system – and something will – it won’t be benignly designed. Signing an executive order to end the policy, Trump signalled his desire to remove migrants extra-judicially, and frequently changed his mind about what this would mean. The current state of US migration policy is unclear, with the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security not in concert.
Often, when a writer compiles an assemblage of information like this, they will add a grace note – maybe “these facts are already well known” – to help a reader through the boring bits. There’s an assumption that it might, in part, be familiar. But these facts are neither well known nor familiar. Ask an American on the street, even a news junkie, and very few could outline current events like this with any confidence. “What happened?” is a much harder question to answer than it used to be. The ratio of opinion to information is changing, with the opinion side becoming dangerously heavy. The news cycle is dominated both by chronic, interminable, complicated stories and brief, flaring, complicated stories. An unfamiliar concern has started to spread among professional journalists: they find themselves unable to keep up with the news, and wonder how their audiences can cope. Social media is a hindrance more often than an aid to clarity, and involves partial immersion in a hostile river of disinformation, some of it emanating from the White House.
Faced with a story of this complexity, America has instead opted for a morality play. The first act was anticipated and justified: protest and moral outrage at children being treated this way. The second was less expected: the national conversation was dominated for days by a curtailed dining experience. At a restaurant called the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, sat down with her family for a meal. They were served, finished their cheese plates, and then the Red Hen’s owner asked Sanders to leave. Later, the owner explained that some of her employees were gay. She believed the administration was “inhumane and unethical”, she said, and did not want Sanders’ business. Sanders complied, and the cheese plates were on the house.
Sanders is not the first Trump administration official targeted this way – two others were heckled out of different Mexican restaurants. There was a hint that the repugnant senior adviser for policy, Stephen Miller, the man said to be pleased with the photos of Mexican children crying, might have courted protest deliberately. Compared to the past treatment of controversial political figures – in 1972, the Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara was almost thrown off the side of a moving ferry – it is milquetoast. But the Red Hen’s act of considered inhospitality (in a service environment, of all places) seemed to strike a chord, or at least ring a dinner bell, for Trump’s trolls. It also gave the right wing an opportunity to counterattack.
Soon, not just the Red Hen (Lexington), but unaffiliated restaurants with the same name were subjected to florid abuse. A Red Hen (no relation) in Washington DC was egged. “Shame on you, Bigots and hypocrites!” wrote a woman called Connie Szczepanik in an online review for the Olde Red Hen, an eatery in Ontario, Canada. Trump tweeted an online review of his own: “The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!” The president targeting a private business is a breach of White House ethical guidelines, but these fell by the wayside some time ago.
One of the most unsettling things for an outsider in the United States is its vestigial puritanism. Many Americans seem to be more viscerally offended by bad manners than by child concentration camps, just as they are more angered by rude teenagers than by school shootings. “Do the kids speak to their parents and teachers with the same level of disrespect?”, the Fox News Radio host Todd Starnes tweeted, when Stoneman Douglas High School students asked Senator Marco Rubio some pointed questions. They had just been in the middle of a gun massacre, but Starnes seemed to think they should be wearing pencil ties. “Parents, what would you do if your child lectured and ridiculed a U.S. Senator on national television?” he continued.
Many of the parents he addressed objected, but in right-wing talking points, the rudeness and incivility of those touched by violence are often noted. This is especially true in the South, but other areas are almost equally invested in this region’s strange layer of pseudo-etiquette. As late as 2011, The New York Times ran a piece called “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South, Sees Manners Decline”. It goes without saying that these “manners” are not in contrast to exploitation and racism, but often attendant to them. They are remnants of something that has almost disappeared elsewhere in the developed world: an honour code enforced by violence.
Huge hypocrisy is required for Trump supporters to lecture others about incivility, but it is somehow a frictionless hypocrisy. It is no longer shocking that the Republican Senate frontrunner in Nevada is the brothel owner, pimp and accused rapist Dennis Hof, a reality TV show host and author of The Art of the Pimp. Nor is it surprising that he has garnered the support of religious conservatives, including clergy. “People want to know how an evangelical can support a self-proclaimed pimp,” a pastor called Victor Fuentes told Reuters. “We have politicians, they might speak good words, not sleep with prostitutes, be a good neighbor. But by their decisions, they have evil in their heart. Dennis Hof is not like that.” Perhaps it is still eerie just how seamlessly this transition, really an about-face, has been made. The phrase “not sleep with prostitutes” would not have been in that sentence even a year ago, but the pastors have made their peace, untroubled by conscience.
“He is the Christopher Columbus of honest politics,” Hof said of Trump, but the new world he has opened up equates this so-called honesty with a special kind of lying. Trump’s own voters don’t believe he is honest, but they do believe in him. They have appointed the president as a kind of proxy, one with a genius for deals and access to the best people, so if he lies, it must be for a good reason. Better to have a liar on your side than face a liar on the other. Exactly how this can operate when laws and orders and policies are made of statements and words, we are still finding out. Trump often seems to believe his own falsehoods, or wants them to be true. There is an ongoing debate about whether the press should even say that he has lied, the ethics partly confounded by the mistruths being cross-contaminated with arrogance and ignorance. In the course of just a few short days, the president claimed the child separations were out of his control, that his people would love them, that they were terrible, and that he was responsible for ending them. As his cult-like supporters aped his changing mind, Trump even became partly right.
“It’s not that I disagree about policy with Trump supporters. It’s that I know they don’t give a shit about policy,” the conservative commentator and Naval War College professor Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, wrote recently. He had given up reasoning with the president’s fan club. “There’s no way to have a policy argument with people whose eyes are always looking up to the television for a cue from Dear Leader about what to say next.” In Duluth, Minnesota, a woman at a Trump rally broke down in tears when asked about the detained children. “He just tries so hard and so many people are down on him,” she blubbered. Her tears were for Trump.
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Traditionally, racist governments have been careful to couch their legal repressions in the language of hygiene, civility or cohesion. Not so the United States when it targets Mexicans. In the past, two pieces of American immigration restriction were openly named after slurs – the Greaser Act (1855) and Operation Wetback (1954). The MEMORANDUM FOR FEDERAL PROSECUTORS ALONG THE SOUTHWEST BORDER breaks tradition with its nomenclature, but not its nature. This was the unremarkable title President Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions,...