Cruel and Usual Trump

President Trump and Melania Trump signing a 'Be Best' initiative the day after Sen. Senator Jeff Merkley was barred from examining a children's detention center in Brownsville, Texas. (White House)

Cruel and Usual Trump

The zero-tolerance policy at the border doesn’t enslave children but it achieves the same ends: it dehumanizes parents and children and treats both as surplus merchandise warehoused in prisons, without a say, without rights.

I don't read the Marquis de Sade to beef up on hope for mankind. I know what I'm in for if I pick up "The 120 Days of Sodom." For the same reason I know what I'm in for when I pick up the daily papers: I can't be expecting Eckhart Tolle when I've been living the American translation of, so far, the 513 Days of Sodom. In that sense, it'd be futile to criticize President Trump for being the Marquis de Trump.

There are differences in the sadism derby though. Sade didn't dare publish many of his works, or was imprisoned when he did. Trump advertised his sadism in full-page ads in the New York press when, before their trial, he called for the murder of five teenagers accused of raping a Central Park jogger 30 years ago. I say "murder" because that's what it would have been: they were innocent and were proven so, though only after serving 13 years in prison.

Trump, an admirer of extra-judicial mass killers like the Pilippines' Rodrigo Duerte, had exercised his First Amendment right to pretend to be judge and executioner for a day. But despite the five men's exoneration and another man's confession, Trump called the multi-million dollar settlement a "disgrace" and still judged the five guilty. Evidence means nothing to him.

Nor does limiting his impeccable credentials for sadism to adults. (George W. Bush and Barack Obama did their share of unpardonable crimes against adult undocumented immigrants. They exempted children.) Using that great Alabama humanitarian Jeff Sessions as his conduit, he's been ordering children of undocumented immigrants separated from their parents at the border, whether the parents are committing illegal acts or not. In one reported case, a child was taken from her mother as she breastfed. In another, a mother and son, 18 months old, escaped Honduras seeking asylum in the United States. Mother and son were separated and detained. That's how we're dealing with "huddled masses yearning to be free" now, with what Sessions-Trump call a "zero-tolerance" policy at the border, due process be damned.

Asylum seekers are not criminals. The children of undocumented migrants, no matter their parents' record or intentions, are by definition innocent. But they're being separated from their parents and imprisoned in gulag-like detention centers along the border in practices unheard of in the civilized world. As always when children are the victims of an unaccountable police state, brutality and sexual abuse shadow the victims where they go, as the ACLU is documenting in a lawsuit, though we don't have to go that far to define the mere premise of children's arbitrary detention as torture. Dress up the jail as a spotless former Walmart with Pokemon posters on the wall and Moana playing on a movie screen. It's still a prison.

Reporters were herded through one such converted Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, on June 14, one of 100 such "shelters" in 17 states imprisoning 11,000 children. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon tried visiting the Walmart prison 10 days earlier. He was barred from going in. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE-America's acronymized homage to Kafka-suddenly had a public relations nightmare to add to the more literal nightmares it was inflicting on imprisoned children. Real nightmares it can deal with: that's ICE's specialty. PR nightmares are a different story. ICE got to work prepping the Brownsville prison for prime time, cleaning it up, warning its inmates not to interact with visitors, and invited the media. It briefly reminded me of the way George Pullman would herd reporters though his company town for his workers near a manufacturing plant in Illinois, a Potemkin village of luxury that couldn't keep up the illusion of brutal repression within. Or you could compare the Walmart-type prisons to the detention camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, though in both the Pullman and Japanese cases children were never separated from their parents. That special reinvention of an American specialty had to await the Trump era.

Separating children from their parents was a slave-broker specialty, justified then on the assumption that parents and children were property, not human beings. Sessions had as first-hand knowledge as is possible to have these days, when he worked as Alabama's attorney general in Montgomery and had lunch in restaurants along Commerce Street where just a few generations earlier brokers with names like W.A. Grant, F.H. Bock and Cameron & Benson had lined the way, their signs advertising "Slave Investor/Auctioneer," their sales pitches boasting of the children's potential as workers, breeders, and more subtly, concubines.

The zero-tolerance policy at the border doesn't enslave children but it achieves the same ends: it dehumanizes parents and children and treats both as surplus merchandise warehoused in prisons, without a say, without rights. To which Sessions the Montgomery street-walker had this rejoinder: "If you're smuggling a child, we're going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don't want your child separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally." That was before he doubled down on rhetorical derangement by quoting the Apostle Paul as legal precedent.

None of it is justified by public safety concerns: neither children nor parents are a national security threat. None of it is legal under international law. But if Trump can ban Muslims from the country on fabricated pretenses, nothing is stopping him from doing the same to migrant children with the wrong skin color. Again, maybe we should not be surprised. Trump is only exercising his cruel and usual inhumanity.

But Congress and the courts are letting him get away with what used to be only a fantasy. We're days away from the Supreme Court confirming it with its endorsement of the Muslim ban. He now is, in fact, judge and executioner, with the other two branches' complicity. That's Trump's America, where the lamp beside the golden door shows the way to the dungeon for all those who don't put up or shut up. And we have at least 938 days of Sodom to go.

© 2023 Pierre Tristam