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.