Amidst the ugliness and moral squalor of the Trump family separation policy, the current backlash provides an important window into the nature of Trumpism. US law gives the government discretion over how to prosecute certain actions at the border. If they are prosecuted criminally that leads to parents being separated from children. It is clear from lower court decisions in recent weeks that if the goal beyond family separation is deterrence or punishment the policy has serious legal and constitutional problems. The problem for the administration is that the highest ranking members of the executive branch (Trump, Sessions and others) have already stated explicitly that the aim is deterrence.
This is not just sloppiness or indiscipline. The essence of Trumpism is dominance and punishment of those outside the tribal fold. It is probably even wrong to call this a policy of deterrence. It’s a policy of punishment. At the most basic level folks like Miller, Sessions, Trump want to show they are kicking ass at the border, against lawless non-white people. They want to do it and they want to show they are doing it. For them doing it doesn’t matter unless you show it. It’s what a TPM Reader identified as the essence of Trumpism: ‘performative cruelty‘.
The problem, one of the problems, is that if you say that is the point, which they have repeatedly, you get in trouble in the courts. This amounts almost to an internal contradiction of Trumpism. You can commit all manner of evil with the federal government simply by making a series of discretionary decisions which lead inevitably to unconscionable, evil results. (There’s a strong parallel here to the administration’s Muslim ban.) But if you say the cruelty is awesome, that you’re doing it on purpose, a different scaffolding of law kicks into action.
There’s also the matter of channel conflict. Channel separation is a bedrock principle of marketing. You sell the same product to different people at different prices – price discrimination. You sell the same product to different people using different pitches. It all works so long as the channels remain largely separate. Since Trump is more than anything a marketing man the framework of channel conflict is an appropriate way to explain what is happening.
For base Trumpists: family separation for the bad people is simply awesome.
For other pro-Trump Republicans: evil against children may not be okay, but abusing Democrats works. So for them, no defense of family separation as such, but stick it on the Democrats. Blaming the opponents of your policy for policy is perverse, nasty and thus awesome.
For more Middle of the Road Voters: It’s simply not happening. There is no family separation policy. It’s literally not happening at all or if it is happening it’s being forced on us and families were separated under Obama too.
What we’ve seen this weekend is that evil practiced on children, by design, with quotes from senior administration officials floating around saying it’s great was just too much. This created a sort of 10 car pile of contradictory BS answers. It’s awesome. The Democrats made us do it. It’s not happening. And here we are. It is difficult to imagine this policy will survive the week in its current form, given this firestorm. But we should recognize how deeply embedded the need for these actions is in Trumpism. This isn’t a byproduct. Child separation as punishment, on display, was always a feature not a bug.