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Why is the party of Trump comfortable with televised sadism?

The President isn’t Hitler. But the banality of his populist nationalism is eerily familiar

June 19, 2018

8:36 AM

19 June 2018

8:36 AM

Nationalist populism is always an angry journey, but images of Nuremberg rallies, of rage-filled speeches by Maximum Leaders, and of revolutions in the streets, colour the broad conception of how autocratic and despotic regimes rise. The cinematic versions are full of smoke, noise, and the short, sharp shocks of the Revolutionary Guard seizing the radio station, the airfield, the Central Bank.

The reality is often more prosaic, more bureaucratic, and begins not with the Grand Guignol of nights filled with broken glass, long knives, or roundups of groups on the wrong side of power. Banal, bureaucratic, and a slow escalation from drudgery to horror is more the tale. 

The current immigration brouhaha is a complex, fraught issue, the classic Rashomon political problem; Trump supporters see the Brown Wave, checked only by the Donald. Immigration supporters see those fleeing danger, violence, and oppression cast into a situation that tears their children out of their arms. Democrats see an outrageous, inhuman scandal. Base Republicans see Donald Trump keeping his campaign promises. The garbage barge of rogues, edge-case whackjobs, political opportunists and alt-right-adjacent scum in the White House are popping corks.

The vast majority of America is watching, horrified, saddened, and angry, imagining their sons or daughters pulled from their arms with icy, bureaucratic efficiency. Former First Lady Laura Bush’s Washington Post opinion piece struck such a nerve because it directly addressed the moral dimensions of this crisis, and those are dimensions the Trump movement, and Trump himself doesn’t examine. 

Public surveys, across several polling outlets, and controlling for sample size, composition, and question-wording are turning in remarkably similar results, and those results are scaring the hell out of Donald Trump; roughly 26 per cent support the policy and between 56-66 per cent oppose it. He’s already got his base, but almost two-thirds of the nation is still opposed to the strategy he has imposed. 

For a moment, forget about whether Trump can see right and wrong. Forget that he is a moral vacuum surrounded by the worst kinds of toadies operating from the worst kind of motivations. Trump knows he can’t answer several fundamental questions, and that’s why his public comments seem increasingly strained. 

Two obvious questions:

If this is a terrible, horrible, no-good, wicked Democratic policy from the cruel and heartless hands of the evil Obama Administration, why doesn’t the Republican majority in the House and Senate pass a one-subject, one-paragraph bill that ends family separations? Why isn’t the President demanding that bill right this minute, as he requires in so many other feats of legislative strength?

Next, if Congress won’t act, why isn’t the President doing what he does best and sending out a blizzard of executive orders, policy changes to DHS, and command guidance down to the lowest-level ICE employee? This President and his Presidency’s entire métier is executive orders. The Trump brand is that of the decisive executive, the take-no-prisoners commander, the human bulldozer crushing the old tripartite governmental balance under the treads of his pen-and-a-phone governance style. Why not on this subject? Why the sudden, narrow view of the President’s executive powers in this one area?

What we’re seeing play out is a President caught between the certain knowledge that the politics and media coverage has gotten away from him on the issue of family separations at the border. For all his rude, animal cunning about the needs of his atavistic base, Trump senses that the policy he’s engaged in has run into a wall of terrible, heartrending images. 

The pictures and stories matter more than the law, the facts, and the narrow slice of media coverage he commands, but he’s flailing like an animal with a leg in a trap of its own making; he knows this policy is a political disaster, and can’t blame anyone else for it. He knows if he changes it, he’s betraying his base on immigration, their core issue. He ran as the hardest of immigration hardliners, the candidate of “Mexican rapists,” “They’ve got to go back” and “Build the Wall.”

While his counterparts in Congress have whispered their worry and unhappiness over this policy, he knows nothing will be done there to either constrain or save him. In fact, they’re a little relieved that Trump owns this policy, from its rotting top to its foul bottom, even though they know it’s coming back to haunt them, not just now, but for a generation. Hispanic voters who see the way Trump has branded them with detention centers, forced separations, Puerto Rico’s staggering death count and lurid MS-13 fear-mongering will hold this in their memories for a long, long time. 

The short-and medium-term politics of this crisis are cautionary. There is a darker set of possibilities than the hostage-drama we’re seeing play out on cable news right now. Conservatives are missing the real, deeper problems of this fight, and since so much of their mental bandwidth is today dedicated to the reflexive praise of Trump, this reminder might sting a bit. 

First, the Republican Party, now led by a man given to cruelties both grand and trivial. It is a party increasingly comfortable with not only watching but emulating televised sadism. Next, they’ve utterly abdicated their responsibility to contain Trump, so what happens next will be weighed on their account on the scales of history. 

Christopher Browning’s 1992 book “Ordinary Men” told the story of a German reserve police battalion in World War II. This Ordnungspolizei unit were middle-aged men, not cinematic Nazis filled with the doctrinal anti-Semitism from the top. They were line cops, bureaucrats, family men, mostly from Hamburg. Deployed to Poland after the German invasion, they enforced the Nazi regime’s plans for the extermination of the Jews, and others deemed undesirable in the wake of the Wannsee Conference. 

This precedent isn’t unique, and it’s why conservatives should fear the power of Trump’s administrative games on this issue, and the weaponisation of family cruelty at the hands of Stephen Miller and his minions. We’re watching a live experiment in the exercise of state power unmoored from any moral foundation, something conservatives once abhorred, but statists embraced. The jackboot is apparently on the other foot now, since the targets are Undesirables.

The tools of nearly unlimited government power are in the hands of the Trump Administration. Men who operate those tools can give in to humanity’s worst impulses, and the more powerful the state is, the faster things can go off the rails, particularly when the person leading that state is temperamental, vengeful, insecure – and isn’t exactly a poster boy for Burkean conservative values. 

These are old routines, familiar patterns, and ancient evils that humanity never seems to internalise. “Never Again” seems to become “Oh, that old story.” An honest look in history’s mirror would tell you that the actions of this government are steps in a dangerous pattern that needs to be checked, hard, before it accelerates. 

Watch what you hear on the Trumpcentric media, and you’ll get it. 

When Frau Coulter is on television saying that these are “child actors” we hear all the old songs from the propaganda Wurlitzer, all the echoes of dehumanised minorities from a dozen conflicts. When Stephen Miller can barely contain his simpering, giggling delight at the “deterrent” effect of ripping away children from their parents, he’s like a malevolent reboot of a dozen aides-de-camp of a dozen bad actors. We’ve seen the type; more education than muscle, a cold, venomous man destined for a JDAM if he’s lucky, or a war crimes tribunal if he’s not.

Steve Bannon, the polo-shirted Julius Streicher of the Trump world plays his part to the hilt on the Sunday shows, chewing the scenery, and bellowing about how central this immigration fight is to turn out the Trump base. There’s the secret; the families are being split so Bannon can campaign against the Brown Tide of job-stealing, raping, criminal Mexican drug gangs. His schtick doesn’t even bother to hide how central racial politics are to his version of the GOP.

No, the men and women of ICE, the Border Patrol, and Department of Homeland Security aren’t Nazis, and Donald Trump isn’t Hitler. No, the enforcement of laws and the security of our border isn’t the Holocaust. 

We’re nowhere near a Godwin violation in this article, but we’ve seen time and again that what begins as outrage settles in to challenge, and challenge becomes mere work. Work becomes routine, and routine becomes rote. We have always done it this way, and this way is the only way. 

“They’re immigrants” becomes “They’re part of the conspiracy against the oppressed, white-working class.” The golden door and America’s immigrant heritage becomes “They’re just Jews or Tutsis or Kazakhs or Timorese or Cambodians or Yazidis, or women fleeing Guatemala or Honduras or Nicaragua or Mexico with their children in their arms. “They’re not Americans” becomes “They aren’t even really human.” 

It ends as it always ends. After all, we were only following orders.

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