Is This Who We Have Become?

Is this what we have become: A nation in which a two-year-old Honduran girl cries as her mother is searched at the southern border, as depicted in Thursday’s New York Times? A country in which border officials snatch a breast-feeding infant from her mother at a detention center, as a mother alleges? Or, a people who look the other way as immigration officials deceive new arrivals, telling them their children are being taken away to bathe only never to return, according to public defenders in McAllen, Texas? The all-too-obvious historical comparison of the last example with the horrors of the middle of the last century are too odious to contemplate.

Is this who we are, a nation that unconscionably divides families for the crime of seeking a better life? To paraphrase Martin Niemöller, a German pastor who spent seven years in a Nazi concentration camp, “First they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out — Because I was not an immigrant…. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” Well, some are beginning to speak out, and not just the usual critics of President Donald Trump and his racist policies. Evangelist Franklin Graham, up-to-now a fervent Trump supporter who has been willing to ignore the president’s boorish behavior, including allegations of an affair with a porn star and bragging of grabbing women’s genitals, now says, “It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit.” And, a leading Catholic bishop — Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — called the Trump administration’s immigration policies “immoral.”

Representative Mark Sanford

Yet, the vast majority of leading Republican politicians remain silent, condoning evil. They are silent because they are scared for their political lives. Republicans in Congress see what happened to South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford, a fellow Republican, and vote out of cowardice to keep their jobs or to stay on the good side of the president. Sanford, who is a rock-ribbed conservative, had the temerity to criticize Trump for fanning “the flames of intolerance,” though Sanford supported Trump faithfully in Congress. For the sin of telling the truth about the autocrat, Trump retaliated with a tweet endorsing Sanford’s opponent, Katie Arrington, shortly before the polls closed in Tuesday’s primary. “Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA…. I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!” Trump tweeted.

RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel

Trump made sure no one missed the point, tweeting the next day, “My political representatives didn’t want me to get involved in the Mark Sanford primary thinking that Sanford would easily win – but with a few hours left I felt that Katie was such a good candidate, and Sanford was so bad, I had to give it a shot. Congrats to Katie Arrington!” Trump used Twitter to announce that the Republican Party is now the party of Trump, a point reinforced by Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. “Complacency is our enemy. Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake,” tweeted McDaniel, a day after the election. (McDaniel is a niece of Mitt Romney, and she no longer uses “Romney” in most official communications at the request of the president.) As former House Speaker John Boehner observed last month, “There is no Republican Party. There is a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”

Any sentient human being with a moral compass knows separating families is heinous. But, most Republicans, at least those seeking reelection, know that breaking with the president will rile Trump’s base. The vast majority of rank-and-file Republicans — more than 85 percent in some polls — support Trump, and they vote in the primaries. Republican officeholders who wish to stay in office have to decide between bucking the president — and risk losing a primary election — or putting their consciences in a blind trust. Most opt for the latter.

House Speaker Paul Ryan

Some are venturing tepid criticism. House Speaker Paul Ryan — who is NOT running for reelection in his Wisconsin district — says, “We don’t want kids to be separated from their parents.” Ryan, however, refused to blame Trump for the current policy, putting the onus instead on the courts and calling for legislation to stop a policy that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly calls a “tough deterrent.” GOP leaders are considering adding a family protection provision to an immigration bill that may come to the floor next week, though most analysts say any proposed legislation on immigration has little chance of becoming law. After all, look who would have to sign such a bill if it ever made it out of Congress.

Trump is not much of a conservative. He has upended traditional Republican dogma on limited government, trade policy, and foreign relations. Most Republicans do not care. They march in lock step with the putative strongman, a phenomena reminiscent of the Stalinist “cult of personality.” (It was Soviet party leader, and Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev — in his famous “secret speech” at the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956 — who popularized the term.) Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker — who is NOT running for reelection but has voted with Trump 86 percent of the time — said of Republican devotion to Trump, “It’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it?” 

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump shook hands this week, but there are exchanges were not always so friendly.

Stalin’s personality cult led to adoration of the dictator and unswerving support by Soviet citizens who cheered loudly when Pravda — the Soviet Communist Party newspaper — praised a policy or a party official, and cheered even louder when the policy or official was condemned. The burgeoning Trumpian cult of personality explains why the president’s supporters agree when he calls North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” and promises to punish North Korea with “fire and fury,” then accept Trump referring to Kim as “a very talented man [who] loves his country very much.” If the agreement, such as it is, between the two leaders breaks down, Trumpistas will, no doubt, applaud whatever barb Trump hurls at Kim.

A Trumpian cult of personality is upon us, but it is not who we are, or, at least, not who we should be. We are, as is often said, a nation of laws, not men or women. (Despite what White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders says, separating families is not the law.) We have adored leaders in the past — Washington, Lincoln, FDR come to mind — but that adoration has never meant uncritical support. Until now, that is. Trump’s supporters — devotees of the cult — will follow him anywhere — even endorsing a dehumanizing immigration policy that separates families.

Is this who we have become? Hopefully not yet, but if more do not say stop, it is who we will be.

Posted June 15, 2018

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