Point Austin: Who We Are

Treatment of desperate immigrants a stark test of the American idea

Point Austin: Who We Are

Amid the public distress and outrage at the latest iteration of Trumpian tyranny – the imposition of "zero tolerance" against refugee immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border, including indefinitely separating parents and children – it's been gratifying to see the widespread public backlash, which may have had substantive effect. Reportedly, as of Wednesday morning, the same president who had insisted he was only enforcing "Democrat laws" was considering reversing the policy that he and his unspeakable attorney general instigated only weeks ago. Initially, the administration had defied all opposition, and Trump himself appeared ready to hold the children hostage for an even stronger crackdown on immigrants and funding for his ludicrously imperial border wall.

Nevertheless, one common refrain within the opposition to the official kidnappings – now including interning "tender age" children in devastating confinement – has been a naive appeal to patriotic disbelief, and to the sentimental conviction that "zero tolerance" is somehow an anomaly in U.S. politics and history. "This is not who we are," goes the refrain. "These actions are un-American."

If only that were true. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, author of a bill intended to reverse the policy (languishing, despite 49 Democratic and independent sponsors), tweeted the commonplace refrain: "This isn't who we are." But she followed that declaration with a contradictory acknowledgement: "Separating children from their parents reminds us of the worst chapters in American history."

And that's the rub. A nation founded in genocide against the native population, made wealthy through centuries of slave labor (that is, when parents and children were freely sold, abused, and disposed of as chattel possessions), and quite familiar with internment camps as recently as World War II – cannot really claim historical innocence for its contemporary actions. Kidnapping children to enforce a fundamentally racist, anti-immigrant crusade might not be all of who we are, but it is undeniably part of who we are.

The Evidence Against Us

I say this not to join an anti-American chorus, but simply to remind ourselves of the historical demons unleashed by Trump and his supporters. They were evident from the moment Trump described Mexican immigrants as "rapists and murderers," and continuing through his description of more recent immigrants as not people, but "animals." (Indeed, his campaign was consistent with his long record of outright racism, highlighted by his persistent lie that Barack Obama was not an American.)

On years of evidence, it's not really disputable that Trump himself is forthrightly racist. What too many Americans are reluctant to admit is that Trump's racism struck a deep chord among many voters, and accounts for much of the continuing support from his "base." For the most imminent example, while recent polls show large overall majorities opposed to "family separation," a solid majority of self-identified Republicans say they support the policy, which they consider as simply "enforcing the law" – that is, responding to either legal asylum claims or misdemeanor border-crossing with imprisonment, family destruction, and deportation.

In other words, 30 to 40% of the U.S. voting population does not consider refugees – even child refugees – fleeing violence and destitution sufficiently human to be treated with decency or empathy by our laws and law enforcement officials. Instead, they are to be corralled in cages, subjected to arbitrary "legal" procedures, perhaps permanently separated from each other, and returned to violence and destitution as quickly and remorselessly as possible – all in the service of "America First."

Who Are We?

So I applaud my neighbors and fellow citizens for the intense national outrage and at least partly successful action against this latest exercise in outright tyranny. We're hardly out of the woods – in a grudging concession to the now-international backlash, the administration is apparently about to replace indefinite child incarceration with indefinite family incarceration – but at least we can take comfort in knowing that a majority of Americans remain repulsed by the increasingly autocratic Trump regime.

Nevertheless, since January of 2017, we have been ruled by a minority government, elected by a minority electorate reinforced by a combination of racial demagoguery and suppression of voting rights. That minority has continued to respond largely with enthusiasm to Trump's virulent racism and reflexive dishonesty, popularized by a Pravda-style propaganda media network anchored by Fox News. Millions of our fellow citizens – including a majority of white voters – have sustained Trump's regime and supported his increasingly irrational policies.

When we find ourselves declaring, "This is not who we are," we had better be fully aware of the considerable evidence to the contrary. Come November, the electorate will have another opportunity to take a hard look in the mirror and decide what kind of a country we have become, and whether our reflexive belief in American "exceptionalism" of humane purpose and values is at all grounded in reality. Expect a defining moment.

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