One of the sad realities of this country has always been the chasm between our image of who we were and the reality of what we condoned. It goes all the way back.
The image, which we will celebrate Thursday, is that of the beacon of freedom, the shining city on the hill. The reality was: yes, that; but slavery too, and then Jim Crow. Yes, freedom for new arrivals; but wholesale discrimination against them once they touched down on our soil. Yes, the point of light in the great ideological duel of the 20th century; but also, in a tragic paradox, the supporter and funder of dictators and death squads to enforce that freedom.
We’ve always lived with that contradiction, some of us more easily than others. But here’s the thing: Just having that contradiction was important. Having the higher goals, even when we abjectly failed to live up to them, gave us something to aspire to. Which, in fact, we occasionally did! We freed the slaves eventually. We passed non-discrimination laws with respect to immigrants, in time. In the Cold War, however lamentable the human rights record, we still won the basic question for Third World people—would you rather go to the Soviet Union or the United States?—by a comfortable margin.
And since the end of the Cold War, we have remained the place where millions of people want to go. Despite all of our errors, all of our crimes even, people around the world have believed in the image, in this American Dream. Because there remained enough truth to it for people to keep believing.
Now? This is maybe the key point about Trumpism. The image is extinguished. The shining city on a hill has become the dank Gomorrah in the sewer. Donald Trump has done it with intent, and Republicans have gleefully followed along, basically for the purpose of trolling the libs so hard.
If you haven’t read the report released Tuesday by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, read it. It’s short. It’ll take you 10 minutes. It’s disgusting. If you can’t even read it, just look at the pictures. Men standing in cells. Standing, because there’s no room to sit down, they’re so overcrowded. People holding up little signs against the glass, trying to communicate to inspectors their desperation. Children and families in cages.
Yes, we’ve done these things before. But the thing is this: We haven’t done them as policy. We haven’t done them in any of our lifetimes to thousands of human beings on purpose. And this is a great moral difference that is not to be overlooked.
Republicans try to say well, Obama separated families too. Yes, his administration did. But not as policy and not on this scale. And at the same time, Obama did try to hold out hope for some of them, the blameless children. And let’s not make this partisan. Both Bushes and Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, all tried to control the border crisis in a humane way, because rattling around in the backs of their minds, and in the backs of the minds of the people who implemented their policies, was the idea that the United States of America was a place that just didn’t do that.
Under Trump, the United States of America is a place that does that—and enjoys it. It’s a place where we crush weak people. That Customs and Border Patrol agents’ Facebook page? Yes, it was started in the flickering final months of the Obama administration, but most of the postings that ProPublica cited in its reporting, the racist and basically crypto-fascist postings, come from the Trump era. Some come from last week, including a posting theorizing that the father and daughter who drowned crossing the Rio Grande in that devastating image were photoshopped. It’s no secret why. Someone is tacitly giving them permission to behave like this.
I can hear Obama in my mind, if he chose to speak out about this. He’d say, many Democrats would say, this is not who we are. And it’s true, it is not who millions of us are.
But the truth is, it is exactly who other millions of us are. And always have been. Those millions have, through most of our history, been kept at the margins of society. Even the most right-wing Republican presidents and other politicians have accepted their votes with a nod and a wink, have even used their anger to win elections, but while governing have taken certain little symbolic steps to assure the rest of us that those millions and their rage at people not like them were outside the bounds of the acceptable, were not legitimate partners in debate.
But Trump… Trump says, these are my people. Their rage is my rage, and their rage is American. We make no distinction between the illegal and the refugee, and we will treat them all like animals, so the other animals get the message.
What’s happening at the border right now is the single most disgraceful episode in our recent history, both actually and symbolically. The reality is horrific enough. But the symbolism, in a historical sense, is perhaps even worse, because symbolically, Trump and the people who support him are destroying a 240-year-old idea of who we are. And if we no longer have that idea to aspire to, what are we?