It’s the news story that been almost impossible to escape this week - the separation of children from their parents at the American border. The justification is that their parents have committed a criminal act in crossing the border, even if it’s to seek asylum, and by taking the children away they are being spared the jail conditions the parents are facing.
It’s not hard to see the flaws in this logic. If it wasn’t for Trump’s new “zero-tolerance” policy, which calls for prosecution of all those crossing the border without authorisation, then most of the parents involved wouldn’t be heading for jail. Whether the American court and prison systems are equipped for such a big spike in convictions is unclear but the circular argument of making people criminals in order to justify removing their children is deeply cruel and unpleasant. And the lack of strategy to reunite the families once the parents are freed is creating a mess that will take generations to unpick.
But why are we surprised that Trump is driving this change? Why are we surprised that he seemingly has little in the way of conscience at these scenes of children being dragged away from their parents? Why are we even shocked that he, in the words of Melania’s jacket, “really don’t care”? He has always been cruel. From the mocking of the disabled journalist to the persistent and racist “birther” campign against Obama, he has consistently shown a cruelty of character that makes the treatment of immigrants as animals entirely unsurprising.
And people voted for this! After two terms of a President who wore compassion as openly as a tan suit, there was an appetite for someone who would be harsher on immigrants. Trump campaigned on building a wall, mass deportation and a ban on foreign Muslims entering the country. He praised leaders like Putin and Saddam Hussein and said that the Tianamen Square massacre “shows you the power of strength”. In every way, he always has equated strength with cruelty. Even his TV show was a celebration of power over co-operation, calling a candidate stupid for being truthful and making repeated sexualised remarks which the candidates could do nothing but awkwardly giggle about.
So appealing to Trump’s compassionate side is never going to convince him that removing children was a bad idea. The one thing that works is appealing to his ego and that’s how he’s been convinced to sign an order stopping the practice. He has noted the outrage and has seen the opportunity to step in and play the hero and that is a classic Trump move. Don’t be fooled - he cares not one jot about the suffering of these babies or their parents. He just craves attention and this is how he’s getting it right now.
How should we react then? We should be angry, we should be distressed and we should be taking whatever action we can - if you’re in the UK, that might include joining the masses next month to protest Trump’s visit. But don’t be surprised. Don’t be shocked. And be expectant for whatever act of cruelty Number 45 decides to pull next.