Sitting in the Cabinet Room on Wednesday, surrounded by a largely white, male group of Republican lawmakers and administration officials, President Trump attempted to defuse a bomb of his own making. “We have compassion, we want to keep families together,” he said as he signed an executive order ending the family separations that commenced at his own administration’s directive. “It’s very important.”
The fit of compassion did not last long—not even through the end of the president’s remarks. A few moments later, Trump added, “But we still have to maintain toughness or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don’t stand for—and that we don’t want.”
Much as the unrepentant issue an apology before backsliding into retribution, Trump knew, politically, that he had to signal concern for the plight of these families, but could not, emotionally, make the sale. By that evening, at a rally in Minnesota, the president’s vitriol was back at full throttle. “They’re not sending their finest,” he said of the asylum seekers. “We’re sending them the hell back. That’s what we’re doing.”
The plight of these migrant families is wrenching, but it is also instructive—revealing a fundamental shift in the priorities of the Republican Party. “Family values” once defined the GOP, informing its embrace of the pro-life platform (protecting unborn children) and its resistance to marriage equality (the union between a husband and wife was sacrosanct). Conservative lawyers led the campaign to censor rap lyrics, and evangelicals condemned extramarital affairs—conservative foot soldiers, for a time, marched under the banner of protecting children and preserving the institution of the family.
But in the Trump era, it is clear that these values no longer define the movement. Family values would never have permitted the separation of babies from their mothers and fathers, the incarceration of toddlers, the placement of grade schoolers in shelters with histories of sexual and physical abuse. Nor would family values have allowed the disregard of families already separated: There is no plan in place to reunite the 2,342 children who have been taken from their parents. A former director of Immigration and Customs enforcement, John Sandweg, told my colleague Priscilla Alvarez that it is entirely possible these children and their parents will remain permanently separated. But to hear it in conservative news outlets, such concern—what will happen to these children now?—is a tedium of leftist whining.
Family values, further, would not permit policies likely to ensure that families will be kept apart: In early May, the administration announced its intention to begin screening sponsor families for their citizenship status—this includes extended family seeking to take in immigrant children who have been separated from their mothers and fathers (such screening would include biometric data, like fingerprinting). To place the specter of deportation over an immigrant family is to practically guarantee that its members will remain in the shadows, leaving unaccompanied children to find a home elsewhere—likely in foster care, with strangers. It is to ensure that the family unit, once broken, remains broken.
Trump has instead redefined his party around white nationalism, which deems brown-skinned men, women, and children of degraded humanity—and therefore absent any inherent value and unworthy of protection. You could see that as the president compared immigrant men, women, and children to vermin (they want to “infest our country,” he tweeted). You could see it when his deputy Stephen Miller painted migrants as menaces—not candidates for asylum, but rather incarceration:
Reading from a list of arrests in Philadelphia in May 2017, Mr. Miller recounted the crimes committed by illegal immigrants: murder, child neglect, negligent manslaughter, car theft, prostitution, racketeering, rape. “It is impossible to take moral lectures from people like the mayor of Philadelphia, who dance in jubilant celebration over ‘sanctuary cities,’ when you had innocent Americans, U.S.-born and foreign, who are victimized on a daily basis because of illegal immigration,” Mr. Miller said.
You could see it when Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, responded to the proposition of a 10-year-old migrant child with Down Syndrome being separated from her mother and kept in a cage. “Womp womp,” said Lewandowski—half-cheer, half-IDGAF. How could a human not care about a child in such dire straits? Deny the child’s humanity. Lewandowski would not apologize.
You could see it among Trump’s supporters, who seem to have rationalized the spectacularly cruel treatment of Central American migrant families by calculating that they somehow need—and deserve—less:
“I don’t think we’re mistreating them,” Ms. Lagleder said. “It’d be different if they were put in a doghouse or something like that.”
You could even see it in the condemnation. Evangelicals and Methodist leaders broke with the president to condemn his zero-tolerance policy; members of Congress, usually wary of running afoul of the White House, spoke out against it; roughly a third of self-identified Republicans told pollsters from Quinnipiac and CNN that they opposed the practice. Yet despite all of this—despite the photos of the 5-year-olds in cages and the stories about stolen children, despite the inescapable and bipartisan emotional anguish—a majority of Republicans still stood by the president and his policy. Here, finally, was the measure of how thoroughly Trump has redefined his party—and how far he has inverted its commitment to family values. No one else matters, no other thing matters. This is his party now.
There have been many indications that this—a white-nationalist takeover of Republicanism—was coming. In Puerto Rico, when a natural disaster ripped through homes and destroyed the lives of countless families—Hispanic ones—Trump’s response was, effectively, You brought this on yourselves:
Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
Racial animus has been at the heart of policy prescriptions including mass incarceration and partisan gerrymandering and voter-ID laws, all of which disadvantage Americans of color. It informs the White House responses to Muslim hate crimes and police brutality, or a lack thereof. It remains, consistently, at the core of the worst moments of this presidency—from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Colin Kaepernick—which, coincidentally, are also some of its most defining moments, for detractors and supporters alike.
The migrant crisis signals an official end to one chapter of conservatism and the beginning of a terrifying new one. After all, a party cannot applaud the wailing screams of innocents as a matter of course and hope to ever reclaim the moral high ground. Trump seemed to know that, perhaps, sitting in the Cabinet Room this week, surrounded by a table of white officials. The compassion that he spoke of wasn’t really for the children torn from their parents—it was for his own party and its struggle to contain them.