Like so many Trump-era scandals, the horrid decision to separate families at the border was a scandal of Trump’s own making. Whereas “No Drama Obama’s” team sought to downplay controversy by affecting insouciance, Trump courts drama, cracking eggs as loudly and visibly and violently as possible, as if to say, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the country.”
Inhospitable treatment of asylum seekers, his team reasoned, might deter future immigrants from attempting the trek. In short, the mess is their message. But in the wake of Trump’s policy reversal, advocates for border security might be the ones who are deterred. So what did he really accomplish?
Imagine, for a second, what a meticulously competent and policy-focused Trump administration might have been able to do, not just on the border but across multiple fronts. As Jonah Goldberg has joked, Donald Trump isn’t Hitler—and one way you can tell is that Hitler would have been able to repeal Obamacare.
Trump’s preference for ostentatious display is generally applauded by the more nationalistic elements of Trump’s base. But in the long run, stealthy execution would be much scarier than this ham-fisted display of power.
A truly shrewd immigration restrictionist regime would let the seedy underbelly of border enforcement remain seedy and under the belly. Not Trump, who, like a professional wrestler, cares more about today’s show than he does about its outcome.
Ultimately, this is better for the resistance than the alternative. If you’ve ever seen the movie Road House, you’re familiar with Dalton’s (Patrick Swayze) advice for bouncers on handling an unwelcome patron: “If somebody gets in your face,” he instructs, “I want you to be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you. And you’ll both be nice.”
Swayze was trying to restore order at the Double Deuce bar, and that entailed ensuring that his employees acted professionally, even while rigorously enforcing his rules. In other words, be tough without making a scene. “Be nice,” Swayze says, “until it’s time to not be nice.”
A kinder, gentler restrictionist hand (think Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” idea) might unswervingly follow these Road House rules. That’s because the separation of kids, even when handled with kid gloves, is inherently fraught with danger. We are a nation of laws, and nations are allowed to have borders―but protecting them can be dicey. Walls can be breached. Even if the borders worked without fail, what do you do with people who are fleeing oppressive regimes and seeking asylum?
Consider a few of the options: If you institute a so-called “catch and release” policy, what happens when some illegal entrants simply fail to show up at the hearing to determine whether they warrant asylum status? If they fail to appear at the hearing, and you can find them, do you deport them? Separating children from parents is clearly inhumane, but is detaining entire families—possibly for months before we can properly vet or adjudicate them—any better? Furthermore, will the courts even allow that?
When handed a situation fraught with difficulty, Donald Trump orchestrated an unmitigated disaster. His instincts always lean toward the authoritarian and austere, and his team prefers a sledgehammer to a scalpel. The good news is that Trumpian incompetence drags his worst impulses (kicking and screaming) into the light. Technology and the media magnify this exposure. The proliferation of video, audio, and photographs are definite game changers.
Trump’s decision to back down is a sign that our institutions are holding him in check, but for those who are worried the fragility of liberal democracy, it’s important to be realistic about why this is the case: Trump’s incompetence is a big reason.