After days of deploying continually changing narratives (Washington Post) to try to fend off rising public anger over its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that separated the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents and siblings, the Trump Administration capitulated. The collapse of its policy revealed that its central excuse for its cruel practice lacked veracity. The Administration had asserted that the law required such separations and that only Congress could remedy the situation.
On Wednesday, June 20, President Trump signed an executive order ending the practice. No act of Congress was needed. No changes in statute took place. Evading the risk of political catastrophe provided more than sufficient incentive for the Administration to abandon its key argument and risk offending its hardline base.
The policy served no purpose for which better alternatives were unavailable. It was a clear-cut example of a proposition that could only lead to failure. Now, the Trump Administration is in a politically worse position than it was when it first announced (justice.gov) the policy on April 11, 2018.
Why then did the Trump Administration embrace a policy that proved so potentially damaging to its political standing? Why would any Administration adopt a policy that was legally unnecessary but harmful to the well being of the defenseless children? Why would it mount a desperate defense of a policy that was condemned by religious figures, world leaders, (NBC News) and American CEOs (Washington Post)
The answer lies in the populist roots of the Trump Administration’s base. Its populist base is illiberal in its thinking and pessimistic in its worldview. America’s populists feel rootless in an increasingly interconnected world. They reminisce about dwindling employment opportunities in an industrial sector when the most rapid growth is taking place in knowledge-intensive information-based industries. They crave a homogeneous population of familiar faces and reject new peoples to whom they feel no connection. They cling to a present that is seemingly vanishing before their eyes. Thus, they seek walls–physical, economic, and spiritual–to insolate themselves, not bridges that link the nation financially, economically, militarily, and politically to the world at large.
The bitterly resent the secular changes that are taking place. They hold the “established” political structure–both traditional Republicans and Democrats–responsible for circumstances they detest. They crave revolutionary leadership, a “strong man” if you will, that will smash the political establishment, erase policies built on principles such as free markets and free trade, and rewind the clock to some imagined golden era that now lies in the past.
British Political theorist Margaret Canovan wrote about the populist phenomenon in a Sage Journal Publication.
Populism’s fundamental structural characteristic, popular mobilization against the political and intellectual elites, implies not only a direct, simple, style but also a characteristic mood. Populist politics is not ordinary routine politics. It has the revivalist flavor of a movement powered by the enthusiasm that draws normally unpolitical people into the political arena. This extra emotional ingredient can turn politics into a campaign to save the country or to bring about a great renewal. Associated with this mood is the tendency for heightened emotions to be focused on a charismatic leader. Personalized leadership is a natural corollary of the reaction against politics-as-usual. Rejecting ossified institutional structures, including bureaucratic layers of organization, populists celebrate both spontaneous action at the grassroots and a close personal tie between leader and followers.
When campaigning for office, Donald Trump pledged to “make America great again.” To do so, he promised to roll back trade and slash immigration–legal and illegal. He questioned the nation’s world role and its alliances, including NATO.
Since taking office, he has abandoned a growing number of international agreements. He has assailed a free press, the nation’s Intelligence community, the Department of Justice, and the FBI. He has embraced “Deep State” and “Silent Coup” conspiracy theories. He has attacked longstanding American allies while embracing hostile rivals. His governance has been both impulsive and chaotic.
President Trump’s populism is a reactionary one. It is part of a larger global trend that has seen populist parties or movements pursue or attain power in Austria, France, Italy, and the United States. It is ethno-nationalistic in nature. It has made immigration policy among its most fiercely contested battlegrounds. University of Stockholm Professor of Sociology Jens Jens Rydgren explains in his book, Movements Of Exclusion: Radical Right-wing Populism In The Western World, about the reactionary populist parties.
These parties have in common that they are movements of exclusion: their conception of ‘the people’ is narrower than for other parties within [the] respective party system. Immigration should be stopped or radically reduced…
The so-called welfare chauvinist frame has become increasingly important lately: the real or allegedly costs of immigration is seen as a threat to the generous welfare programs of Western societies. Immigrants are commonly depicted as ‘economic refugees’ or ‘social welfare tourists’ that have come in order to live good parasite lives on state subsidies. In a similar vein, immigration is played out against real or perceived defects in public health care and education, etc. With the same logic, that is, to present immigrants as illegitimate competitors over scarce resources, radical right-wing populist parties often claim that immigrants take jobs for natives, and that immigration is a major cause of unemployment. Finally, immigration is presented as a cause of insecurity and unrest…
President Trump has repeatedly expressed such a perspective over Twitter. He has equated undocumented immigrants with disease, crime, and welfare system abuse. He has described them in dehumanizing terms of bringing about an ‘infestation.’
On August 5, 2014 when he was perhaps contemplating his Presidential run, Trump tweeted, “Our government now imports illegal immigrants and deadly diseases.” On July 18, 2015, he grumbled, “It’s a national embarrassment that an illegal immigrant can walk across the border and receive free health care…” On February 28, 2016, he slammed Senator Marco Rubio, charging, “Little Marco Rubio gave amnesty to criminal aliens guilty of ‘sex offenses.'” On March 13, 2018, he claimed, “Thousands of dangerous & violent criminal aliens are released as a result of sanctuary policies, set free to prey on innocent Americans.” On June 19, 2018, a day before he abandoned his family separation policy, Trump claimed, “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country…”
A movement that dehumanizes people is one that disrespects human rights. It is a elevated risk of engaging in acts of cruelty. In Human Rights Watch’s 2017 World Report, the organization’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth described populism’s rising threat to human rights.
Human rights exist to protect people from government abuse and neglect. Rights limit what a state can do and impose obligations for how a state must act. Yet today a new generation of populists is turning this protection on its head. Claiming to speak for “the people,” they treat rights as an impediment to their conception of the majority will, a needless obstacle to defending the nation from perceived threats and evils. Instead of accepting rights as protecting everyone, they privilege the declared interests of the majority, encouraging people to adopt the dangerous belief that they will never themselves need to assert rights against an overreaching government claiming to act in their name.
The appeal of the populists has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo…
In this cauldron of discontent, certain politicians are flourishing and even gaining power by portraying rights as protecting only the terrorist suspect or the asylum seeker at the expense of the safety, economic welfare, and cultural preferences of the presumed majority. They scapegoat refugees, immigrant communities, and minorities. Truth is a frequent casualty. Nativism, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are on the rise.
In the end, President Trump gambled on a harsh policy, because his Presidency is a product of ethno-nationalist populism. For days, he stood firm under withering criticism. Finally, he recoiled. He turned back, not out of some newfound concern about children’s welfare, but far more likely from election-driven political necessity. Should his backers retain control of the Congress and should he be elected to a second term in office, such necessity would cease to exist. Then, the risk of even more abusive policies than his failed family separation initiative could darken the nation’s policy horizon.