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Donald Trump, the family separation crisis, and the triumph of cruelty

Trump's immigration crackdown is an exercise in government cruelty.

Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border
 two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

When the history of the Trump years is finally written, one of the president’s signature policies, one of his lasting achievements and legacies, will be the deliberate use of armed force to separate immigrant mothers and fathers from their children.

Audio from detention centers documents children wailing uncontrollably at the loss of their parents, as Customs and Border Protection agents joke with each other about the racket the “orchestra” is making. In some cases, officers told parents they were just taking the kids away for baths, whereupon it “dawned on the mothers the kids were not coming back.” One Honduran man, after being separated from his family, died by suicide. A staffer at a Texas facility housing separated children reported seeing kids attempt suicide too.

The last time the Trump administration did something this wantonly cruel, when Trump and his team instituted their first “travel ban” and barred refugee admissions in January 2017, I found myself turning to the writing of another migrant, who, fleeing violence just like the Central American families at the southern border, made her way to America some seven decades ago. Judith Shklar was born to a Jewish family in Riga, Latvia, in 1928. In 1939, with the twin threats of Nazi and Soviet invasion mounting, the family made its way to Sweden. After the Nazi occupation of Norway raised fears that Sweden could meet the same fate, they fled again to the Soviet Union, trekked from Moscow to Vladivostok, and eventually arrived in Seattle.

Upon arrival in America, they were "immediately arrested and detained as illegal aliens," Shklar's biographer Andreas Hess writes. A rabbi happened to find them in a detainment camp, along with mostly Chinese immigrants, and was able to convince authorities that these "decent" Jews did not belong with the likes of the Chinese. The family was released, ultimately settling in Montreal.

Shklar would return to America as an adult, as a professor at Harvard and one of the most influential political theorists of the late 20th century. Some political philosophers like to theorize about what goods governments should try to promote, the things that are best in life like freedom and happiness and dignity that should be maximized. Shklar devoted her life to considering the bads government should avoid and fight. She sought to identify a summum malum, an ultimate evil, "which all of us know and would avoid if only we could." And she identified that ultimate evil as cruelty.

That, I think, is what is uniquely repulsive about Trump’s crackdown on immigrant children. It’s not just that the policy is dumb, or wrongheaded, or unjustified. It’s cruel.

Family separation is America at its cruelest

Cruelty, to Shklar, was “the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group by stronger ones in order to achieve some end, tangible or intangible, of the latter.”

Cruelty, she was careful to note, is not the same as sadism. Public cruelty, the cruelty of governments and the men and women who run them, has an end; it is meant to achieve something, whether that be racial purity and national rebirth, or a classless industrialized society, or more modest goals — like satisfying nativist urges to preserve the racial and religious character of the nation, or at least not let it change too much. And this kind of goal-oriented cruelty is enabled by the unique and vast ability of governments to instill fear in those over whom they wield power.

It is easier to be cruel as a public official, because it is easier to see one’s victims as an abstraction. “When one begins with cruelty, an enormous gap between private and public life seems to open up,” Shklar wrote in her essay “Putting Cruelty First.” “It begins with the exposure of the feebleness and pettiness of the reasons offered for public enormities, and goes on to a sense that governments are unreal and remote from the actualities about which they appear to talk.”

The reasons for Trump’s family separation policy could not be more feeble, and could not be more petty. It serves no actual border security purpose; the Trump administration claims a pilot of the policy in El Paso reduced border crossings by 64 percent, when they actually increased by 64 percent after the policy was enacted. Lately, Trump officials have stopped even bothering to defend the policy in terms of deterrence, instead lying and claiming the law requires them to separate families (it does not).

Maybe Trump, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and senior advisor Stephen Miller, all really believe this policy is needed as a deterrent to illegal border crossings. Or maybe they are motivated by simple bigotry against Latino/a immigrants.

But the seductive quality of public cruelty is that it needn’t matter. You don’t need to be motivated by sadism or bigotry or some other base, inhuman impulse. The sheer distance from your victims makes it possible to inflict horrors you never would have imagined yourself capable of committing face to face.

Family separation tears at the best principle we have to defend against immense cruelty: equality

Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border
Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images

The potential of public cruelty is deeply disturbing, and creates real fear about what governments are capable of. But Shklar was no anarchist. She was a liberal, in the sense of thinking that individuals need protection both from the state and by the state. And the latter is possible because liberal democracies can enact safeguards that prevent, or at least minimize, the expression of cruelty by public officials.

The most crucial of these safeguards, she wrote, was the guarantee of equality, of equal treatment. In unequal societies, where one group or set of individuals is privileged in power above others, that power differential creates the social distance necessary for the powerful to treat the less powerful with cruelty.

"If such social distances create the climate for cruelty, then a greater equality might be a remedy," she wrote. "Even Machiavelli had known that one cannot rule one’s equals with cruelty, but only one’s inferior subjects." Her egalitarianism stemmed from "a fear of the consequences of inequality and especially of the dazzling effect of power. It is an obvious result of putting cruelty first."

You don’t need to imagine absolute monarchs or the totalitarians of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to see what this means. As University of Michigan political scientist Robert Mickey has written, a whole region of the United States — the former Confederacy — was under authoritarian rule from the 1890s until the slow collapse of Jim Crow in the 1940s-’80s. And just as in any other authoritarian regime, the American authoritarian states fostered inequalities that enabled mass cruelty. Today we look back in naive horror and ask how lynchings could’ve been announced in advance in newspapers as though they were parades, how law enforcement could’ve looked the other way or even participated, how witnesses could keep body parts of murdered black men as souvenirs from the festivities. This is how. Social inequality, social distance, breeds cruelty.

And we should not shy away from the role of President Trump and this order in particular in fostering and promoting that kind of social inequality. When a presidential candidate announces his campaign by declaring Mexican immigrants to be rapists and murderers, and then proceeds as president to rip immigrants from their children, he has already made it very clear he does not view his victims are his moral equals, as deserving of protection and safety as himself, his family, his race.

Cruelty can be resisted. America has done it before.

Vietnamese refugees in 1975.
Crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small craft, April 1975.
Naval Photographic Center

The shocking nature of Trump’s actions, and their violation of American ideals of equality and equal treatment, can tempt one into comforting patriotic denunciations: that this is un-American, goes against our history, goes against everything our country stands for.

The truth is that this is very American, very in keeping with the worst that America has to offer. We are the country that passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, as whites in California decided they were sick of competing with the Chinese laborers who merely years earlier had connected the nation by rail. We are the country that passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which fully banned Arab and Asian immigration and all but banned that of Africans, Italians, and Jews. We are the country that turned away the St. Louis in 1939, sending a boat of nearly 1,000 people, almost all German Jews, back to Europe, where 254 of the passengers died in the Holocaust. We are the country that detained Judith Shklar’s family until ultimately deciding that Jews were somewhat better than Chinese people and letting them go.

The fact of the matter is that immigration, and waves of refugees especially, always sparks a nativist backlash in the United States. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has noted, Cuban Americans arriving on the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and Haitians fleeing chaos in the 1990s were met with fear too.

But we needn’t give into fear, and in those two cases, we did not. We were improving on our worst impulses. We let many Cubans and Haitians in nonetheless — not enough as we should have, but many. In 1999, we didn’t just bomb Serbia to help besieged Kosovars — we airlifted thousands of them to America too.

The largest, most admirable action the US has taken in this regard came in the 1970s, after the failure of the American war in Vietnam. The US had killed hundreds of thousands of people, an estimated 150,000 to 500,000 in Cambodian airstrikes alone. It was one of the most horrifying and indefensible incidents in the history of American foreign policy. And the Ford and Carter administrations, to their considerable credit, wound up letting more than 800,000 Southeast Asians come to America, including many Vietnamese fleeing the communist government and thousands more Cambodians fleeing all-out genocide by the Khmer Rouge.

This was a controversial action. Even many American liberals opposed letting in so many. "Senator George McGovern, a prominent critic of US participation in the war, believed the refugees represented some of the most corrupt and even bloodthirsty officials of the discredited South Vietnamese government," historian Robert Schulzinger writes. "Democratic Representatives Jack Brooks, John Conyers, and Barbara Jordan objected to the open-ended admission of Asian refugees who might take work away from the black working class. … Most Americans wanted nothing so much as to forget the Vietnam War, and Vietnamese refugees were a constant reminder."

But Ford and Carter let them come anyway, not just because it was the decent thing that any moral human would do, but because it was a particular obligation of the United States government after it unleashed war and chaos upon the region. We broke these people’s homes. The least we could do is give them a new one.

In ending refugee admissions 13 years after the US invaded Iraq and plunged the entire region into chaos and bloodshed, after ISIS grew out of that anarchy to menace the people of Iraq and Syria, after American efforts to prevent the disintegration of Syria failed, President Trump apparently felt no similar sense of obligation. For all his false insistence that he opposed the war in Iraq, he sees no American duty to help its victims pick up the pieces more than a decade later.

And as children and their families flee Central American gang violence, violence which is often perpetrated by gangs like MS-13 (which originated in the US and gained power in US prisons) and is rooted in the instability and bloodshed that the US encouraged in the region in the 1980s, Trump feels no similar duty of reconciliation or reparation.

Gerald Ford — hardly a great man, but a decent one — looked at a region America had destroyed and offered mercy. Donald Trump looks upon another region we ravaged and offers nothing. Nothing, that is, but cruelty.