The innocence of children is, in large measure, defined by their shock when confronted by the cruelty of the adult world. When you see a child being smacked across the face by an adult three or four times her size, the child’s expression is often one less of pain than of confusion. In “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin described, in 1963, how black children were innocent of a “basic” American reality—that “white people hold the power”—and only slowly began to sense the anxiety of parents fearful that their son or daughter might challenge the world’s assumptions. It is a small mercy, Baldwin suggests, that full understanding comes only with time: “A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other.”
On the Texas side of the Mexican border today, thousands of children, by order of the Trump Administration, are learning what it is to be objects of deliberate state-sponsored cruelty. In a heartless act designed to arouse the furies of his electoral base, the President has ordered children to be separated from their parentsand stowed in tent cities and cages and a hollowed-out former Walmart.
The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, justifies this act of “zero tolerance” by quoting from Scripture: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” This is the political leadership of the United States—at once cruel and sanctimonious. And it is on this platform of division, fear, and cruelty that the President has chosen to lead his party into the 2018 midterm elections.
Some pundits have suggested that what is happening now in Texas will be “Trump’s Katrina.” But, without excusing the racism and the indifference shown by the authorities in that horrific episode, it ought to be pointed out that at least the federal government did not order the flooding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. What is happening now is purely gratuitous, a deliberate act of cruelty intended as leverage to build a “beautiful wall.” And it is a wall intended not only to block Mexicans and Central Americans from making their way into the United States but to divide the United States itself, in order to retain power.
On the level of character, no one can be much surprised by the latest cruelty in Donald Trump. How much reminding is necessary? Mexicans are “rapists.” John McCain is no war hero. Maxine Waters is a “very low I.Q. individual.” Trump imitates the tremors of a disabled journalist. He insults the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then, in the midst of that island’s devastation, stops by to toss rolls of paper towels to the needy. He revels in insulting Chris Christie, who was briefly the chairman of his transition team (“No more Oreos!”); he finds ever-more disgusting and misogynist ways to humiliate Megyn Kelly, Mika Brzezinski, Carly Fiorina, and, above all, Hillary Clinton. With a smirk, he tosses a clump of mud at a Gold Star family.
Trump’s biographers make it plain that he is a man incapable of empathy, charity, compassion, or generosity. Ask yourself when you last saw Donald Trump commit an act of genuine kindness. When did he last make a joke that wasn’t at someone else’s expense? He has not only proved ruthless to his enemies, real and perceived, he has also turned on employees, mentors, family members, and loyal aides. Cruelty is the content of his character and the foundation of his politics.
Trump has now decided that maximal aggression, relentless deception, and racialized hostility are the way to solidify the conservative base of the Republican Party. Some G.O.P. stalwarts are nervous that, despite the President’s high poll numbers in the Party, the images of children stripped of their parents will alienate voters, particularly suburbanites, in November. As Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist, tells the Times, this approach is “not a winning issue.” At some point, Trump may find it necessary to dial back this particular act of heedless cruelty.
It can’t be entirely lost on Trump that five First Ladies, including, to a very measured degree, his own wife, find the situation intolerable. But don’t count on it. Trump has reached a point where his self-adoring faith in his own instincts has only intensified. He has cast out of his circle nearly everyone who dared to disagree with him, and there are very few figures of substance in the Republican Party or the conservative media who have the spine or the decency to stand up to him with any consistency. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants only to preserve the Republican majority in Congress—that is his only evident value—and Fox propagandists like Laura Ingraham will go on insisting that the facilities in Texas are “essentially summer camps.”
The President refuses to hear the children, the cries of the children. Whether the American electorate can hear them will help decide not only an election but also who we are and what kind of country we want to be.
David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992.