The events at the US/Mexican border of the last days have been marked by: a quintessential Trumpian mix of lies, obfuscation, an Administration in disarray and, above all, cruelty, with children and infants as its victim. There has been a ruthless manipulation of xenophobia and racism for domestic political purposes. A most fundamental ethical value: compassion has been traduced.
On world refugee day, last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that there are now 68.5 million refugees in the world, mostly caused by wars. A dreadful situation.
This context should serve to provide some perspective on another, smaller, but also dreadful situation: the separation by the United States of children from their parents who crossed the border, illegally, from Mexico into Texas to seek asylum, principally from violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
That perspective should caution us not to enlarge the US’ problem, relative to the wider global issues. But, it should also include acknowledging the deep significance of it, precisely because it is the US which is conducting itself in this way: the most powerful country, at least in material and military terms; and, so deeply given to religion, moral issues, at least in public and, in its political discourse.
In defending his so called “zero tolerance” immigration policy Trump enlarged on his earlier vocabulary of describing immigrants/refugees as: criminals, rapists, drug dealers, “animals”; “infesting” the US.
Reportedly some 2,300 children, in families which crossed the border, in recent days without permission, have been taken away, so far.
In response to widespread expressed outrage at these “separations”; Trump signed an Executive Order to reverse them.
It has not been made clear how it is intended this reunion will be achieved, not least because neither the children, some of whom are less than a year old, nor their parents, were given a document of identity, a “receipt”, as one observer pointed out, such as is given when a person is booked for some alleged civil infraction and, has to surrender the contents of their pockets.
In response to public demands to know how: these separations have been organized; the reversal of Trump’s Executive Order will be implemented, it has now been revealed that the children and the parents were given a registration number. But these were issued to children and parents by two different federal agencies and its not clear that they were cross referenced.
Many of the children were moved some distance away, some to States beyond Texas. Apparently ways are being worked out how to find them, identify them accurately and, reunite them to their parents.
As is his custom, Trump has lied repeatedly when attempting to defend these circumstances and the need for “zero tolerance” of what is deemed to be illegal migration, notwithstanding the terms of the international Convention on Refugees and, asylum. By the way, the US has refused to become a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Amongst Trump’s lies are: his assertion that the policy of separations was instituted by the Democrats; crime rates have increased as a result of and amongst illegal immigrants; “63,000 Americans have been killed by illegal immigrants since 9/11… this number is low because things aren’t reported.”
All of these assertions have been demonstrated to be false and on the 63,000 claim, it had its origin in a blog, posted in 2005, by a right wing Republican congressman with ties to the US white supremacist movement.
In an analysis of an hour- long speech Trump made to a rally of supporters in Minnesota, the day after he had signed his Executive Order, the Washington Post Fact Checker recorded 30 plain falsehoods he had asserted. The following day, in a similar rally in Nevada, he stated of migrants/refugees that, “they will come by the millions”, if there is not “zero tolerance”.
This current series of events has demonstrated, unequivocally, Trump’s assessment that racism and Xenophobia are essential to his political support. They are bedrock elements of his presidency. And, importantly, he clearly no longer feels any need to mask or deny this. This is plain demagoguery
These dark realities of Trump’s “base”, as he sees it, are not the sole rationale of his politics. The other is what he called in his inaugural address in January 2017, the “carnage” that is taking place in America. He made clear that he meant the economic carnage, the privation and distress, being suffered by ordinary Americans; which he pledged to halt and reverse.
What is the reality of poverty in the US?
In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the body from which the US withdrew last week, appointed Philip Alston, Professor of Law at NYU as Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.
Alston, an Australian, then conducted, a study of endemic poverty in American cities and the rural south. He reported that some 40 million Americans lived in conditions of extreme poverty. (Alston’s statement on his US findings, of December 15th, 2017, certainly bears reading. It is available on the web site of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights).
Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director published last week a plan he has been working on for the past year, to overhaul the federal government, by cutting back or restructuring social welfare programmes. It includes a review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (SNAP), a subsistence benefit that provides food aid to 42 million poor Americans (the order of magnitude in Alston’s report).
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is also considering a proposal to raise rents on some of the poorest residents of subsidized housing by as much as 42%.
Trump is widely reported to be deeply disinterested in the details of policy, so where are such ideas and initiatives coming from, if not at his direction? The unambiguous answer is: The Heritage Foundation, Washington’s premier Republican/conseravtive think tank.
It is reported that Heritage has placed some 60 people in senior policy advising positions in the White House and the Administration. Some Cabinet Secretary appointments were made on their recommendation, such as the Education Secretary, Betsy De Vos, whose family has been a major donor to Heritage and, Budget Director Mulvaney.
A stated central goal of Heritage policies is the dismantling of the American social welfare system “from the inside out”.
Incidentally, it was the Heritage Foundation and the associated Project for the New American Century, led by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al, which produced the rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When placed in office by George W Bush, they arranged for the fabrication of the so- called intelligence to justify that invasion.
In watching the disaster that unfolded on the US/Mexican border last week, the echoes could be heard of our Australian experience of the political manipulation of migration/refugee issues, initiated by John Howard: Tampa, Children Overboard, the sinking of SIEV X ( 353 dead). Today, we have Nauru and Manus and, indefinite detention, including of minors. Has Trump been channeling early Howard?
Those politics continue in Australia, within both major parties, but the blackest comedy in our relationship with the US is, of all things, on refugees; Turnbull’s deal with Trump for the US to take some of ours.
A few days ago, Trump asked the Pentagon to house some 20,000 undocumented immigrants on military bases. Perhaps our refugees could be given house-room with them.
The sheer cruelty, the glaring absence in Trump of that most fundamental of human and, dare I say it Christian values: compassion, is striking.
Compassion is not by any means a core Christian value exclusive to Christianity. It holds the same place in all major ethical/moral/systems and major religions. It much occupied Plato, Aristotle and after them, Augustine.
I make this point here because of the profound conflict that exists, within the US, between the attachment to personal, material success and proclaimed ethical beliefs. That conflict has now been enlarged, dramatically, by Trump’s behavior.
Another key ethical principle, repeatedly abused by Trump, is the constant need for truth, verity in public discourse.
The two dominant and gravest problems with which we are faced as the consequence of Trump in the Oval Office and his politics, are: his attack on the elemental need for truth in public discourse and; his elevation of selfishness as an abiding virtue and justification for any action; with the resultant banishment of compassion, the assigning to it, of the label of weakness.
In conventional political terms, both the fault for and the remedy to the disaster of Trump lies with the Republican Party. To date they have stuck with their Faustian bargain with Trump but, it’s looking increasingly likely that it will come to harm them greatly as it is already harming so many people, both within the US and elsewhere in the world.
Particularly as Alliance partners, we need to ask ourselves: are we compelled to accept as determinants of our policies: the spawn of Trump’s abiding narcissism and, the lines of conflict within the American polity; a fire on which he seems determined to pour fuel?
Richard Butler AC Former Ambassador to the United Nations, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.