Sometimes, we forget where we are. Momentary amnesia is the most charitable explanation for Donald Trump saluting North Korea’s uniformed defense chief. In an uneasy moment of bonhomie during Trump’s Singapore summit last week, General No Kwang-chol saluted the president, then extended his hand for a shake right as Trump raised his right hand to his brow. In the footage played on repeat by North Korean state media, Trump didn’t look like a leader on the verge of one of the more fraught foreign-policy negotiations in decades. In this moment, he looked like a nervous fan.
The shoe fits. While Kim sought legitimacy on the world stage, Trump evidently sought an invitation to the league of strongmen. “He’s the head of a country, and I mean he’s the strong head,” the president told Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy, continuing the submission he began in Singapore. “Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” Does he mean that? Who knows. We can see that he is indulging in the same kind of ruthlessness that a despot enjoys.
Race and American culture provide a specific context for Trump’s brand of authoritarianism. His ugliest promises to his base involve the literal whitening of the United States population: Mass incarceration, state barbarism and encouragement of white extremist terrorism to handle the black and brown people whom Trump voters dislike. (Not to mention stiff-arming immigrants of color from “shithole countries.”) This was the animating principle of Trump’s entire campaign. While a common suspicion is that the president’s sycophancy to Russia’s Vladimir Putin is about personal blackmail, we should consider what we can plainly see: the two share a central political interest in their opposition to The Other.
Facts are no impediment. Crime in Germany is at its lowest level in 30 years even as the country has welcomed a record number of migrants. Yet German chancellor Angela Merkel, now the closest thing we have to a Leader of the Free World, faces a turning point. Trump sent a tweet Monday morning that evidently hopes to push her over the edge.
The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2018
In that we hear echoes of dictators past and present, prologues to some of the world’s most haunting atrocities.
We should consider Trump’s wicked practice of family separation within this context. He may not yet have gulags and execution squads, but the president’s work in the service of white supremacy goes hand in hand with his authoritarian impulses.
This is a crisis of Trump’s own making, and one that he could stop with a phone call. The United States, for no other reason than politics, is breaking families apart and putting children in cages, a situation that resembles incarceration. If you question that terminology, consider where – outside of juvenile hall – kids are kept indoors for 22 hours a day and limited to two 10-minute phone calls per week. Some of these inmates are, quite literally, babies.
Beyond the existing facilities, the Trump administration announced plans for outdoor prison camps called “tent cities” to keep up with the increasing demand created by his abhorrent policy. The first is going up in Tornillo, Texas, near El Paso – where temperatures these days are exceeding 100 degrees. The heat is just part of the short-term trauma. Child health experts project that the toxic stress of family separation will cause “irreparable harm to lifelong development by disrupting a child’s brain architecture.” Late Monday afternoon, ProPublica released an audio recording of young children inside a detention center crying out for their parents:
On Friday, a Department of Homeland Security official revealed that from April 19th through May 31st, the Trump administration separated nearly 2,000 immigrant children from family members who crossed the southern border of the United States, an average of 46 per day. Border Patrol documents revealed that 91 percent of parents who were referred for prosecution after having their children forcibly taken from them were only being charged with a misdemeanor: First-time illegal entry.
To make things worse, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also ordered immigration judges to stop granting asylum to most victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, all but ensuring that the United States will be sending even more women, in particular, back to alleged abusers and killers. To ease the consciousness of white evangelicals troubled by family separation, Sessions later defended the policy with a Bible verse, Romans 13, the same verse that was commonly used to justify slavery and apartheid. Naturally, the White House backed him up.
Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen offered another cretinous defense for the policy on Monday, saying “Don’t believe the press” and that “We provide food, medical, education and all the needs that a child requests.” Yes, except for their parents. The president and his advisers, Stephen Miller aside, do not want to own this. Trump has taken to blaming Democrats for it, later appearing to reveal that he really wants to use the children to extract funding for his border wall. But it is a course of action that they decided upon, apparently reacting hastily to a sudden increase in border crossings. The nation’s antipathy towards this policy has risen even more sharply, I’d argue, despite the majority of polled Republican voters supporting this abomination.
So many Americans – too many, in fact – are either so horrified or numbed by all this that they say phrases like “America is better than this” or “This cannot be us.” Of course, nearly 63 million of “us,” ostensibly, voted in the last presidential election for this. Family separation is bigoted policy, fulfilling the bigoted promises of Trump’s campaign. There are legions of our American neighbors who thirst to see these parents and children degraded and dehumanized. Trump understands what he must do with government power, and to our norms, in order to accomplish that.
As political scientist Jason Johnson said on MSNBC Sunday morning, “People need to understand that white nationalism is not, ‘I don’t want you in this neighborhood and I don’t want you in Starbucks.’ You cannot accomplish white nationalism without, basically, turning the government into a terrorist organization.” How better to describe the American despotism Trump has wrought?
This isn’t North Korea, of course, and that is a hindrance for this president. Trump has been able to capitalize upon America’s specific racial divisions to ignore lead poisoning in urban centers and neglect Puerto Rico while it rots. Voter chants and Republican silence enable him to ban Middle Eastern travelers at a whim and to excuse white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville. However, because he has chosen to target children, his administration is currently committing an evil that everyday white families can comprehend. People who may not care about NFL players kneeling to end police brutality because that issue never touches their lives are up in arms about this. We didn’t see Laura Bush emerging to speak out about Flint, about food deserts or even about her husband’s role in the Katrina debacle. But a government stealing kids away from their parents with no real hope of reunification is a scene from all of our nightmares.
The Trump administration is practicing an un-legislated policy that is deliberately creating fear, pain and discord. Trump and his underlings aren’t even bothering to ensure the restoration of these families, deporting some parents without their children. The president’s acolytes also deny that he can stop this, and many Republicans in Congress refuse to do the same. If they wanted to pass and sign some laws offering real solutions for the immigration issue, they would do it. Trump and his party are content, instead, to destroy lives to pass the time – and to allow said destruction to become profitable for government contractors. America is what we make of it, or more precisely, what we allow our leaders to make of it.
Sometimes, we forget where we are. Folks who fail or refuse to grasp that we live in an America that is capable of shedding our democratic norms and embracing policies of pure hatred are treading water in a tsunami. Trump is now capitalizing upon that false exceptionalism, that belief that it cannot happen here, to execute the white-supremacist agenda that got him elected. His despotic urges pair well with a complicit Congress and a devout following. Whether or not Trump actually wants to rule the United States for life, he is acting like it.