The policy was the result of the complete immorality plaguing the Trump administration and the United States.
As immeasurable as the damage inflicted migrant children is — experts believe that the trauma will likely inflict decades of emotional damage — we are missing the root problem: This policy was the result of the complete immorality plaguing the Trump administration and, by extension, the United States.
Children have been separated from their parents when they enter the United States together through non-official points of entry and the parents are criminally charged. Not only was it a fiscally irresponsible decision — costing taxpayers $750 a day per child, nearly three times the cost of keeping the families together — it was morally wrong and revealed a stain on the soul of America.
Punishment for the sins of the parent were meted out on the child in a cruel and sanguinary fashion. Compounding the immorality of this is that the president who had the temerity to claim that the policy he put in place to tear families apart was actually the fault of Democrats. His Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, took the delirium to new lows by tweeting, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
And now, Trump has seen such blowback from his inhumanity that he did something he swore he never would do and his base despises: Surrender. In signing an executive order to “keep families together,” he has bowed to pressure from all corners (including many conservative members of the Republican Party like Ted Cruz and John Cornyn). However, it does not wash Trump’s hands of the responsibility he bears for implementing the policy in the first place.
For decades, America was a beacon of freedom, offering hope to the oppressed and, when evil reared its head, our presidents, both Republican and Democrat, would unflinchingly stand up to it and call a spade a spade. Under Donald Trump, the United States has surrendered its moral authority — its most vital asset — and moral equivalence and even praise of immorality are the order of the day.
This should come as no surprise to the nation.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump raised eyebrows by referring to China’s response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as a demonstration of their “strength.” Let that sink in: By his own admission, when Donald Trump looks at the famous picture of the Chinese protester, in support of freedom and democracy, staring down a column of tanks — a symbol of the massacre — he is rooting for the tank. We do not know the ultimate fate of that brave man with the fortitude to stand up to such oppression (though recently declassified U.K. documents estimate that 10,000 people were ultimately killed there) but he became a recognizable symbol of the oppressed who yearn to be free.
The rest of the campaign saw the president excoriate people and institutions alike. Most memorable was Trump’s egregious verbal assault on the Gold Star parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, an American soldier who gave his life protecting American values. The Khans’ only sin was to publicly disagree with Trump’s policies. There was no decency, no morality and no compassion in Trump’s response; he did not honor the sacrifice of Captain Khan, nor show sympathy for his loss. He only revealed an ugliness within himself.
Being in the White House has not changed Donald Trump: From the start he eschewed castigating evil in the world, choosing to draw false moral equivalencies. On his 16th day as president, Trump refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for murdering his rivals, as well as journalists. “You think our country’s so innocent?” he countered to then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who had asked Trump if he would speak out against these actions.
In other instances, Trump went unthinkably further. At the end of April 2017, he praised the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, for his handling of his country’s drug problem. “I just I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” The “unbelievable job” Duterte was doing included extrajudicial killings that had been criticized by human rights groups across the globe.
Earlier that same month, Trump said that Egyptian President al-Sisi, who had seized power and stifled democracy in his country, had “done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.” He congratulated Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s leader, for winning a referendum vote — one that election monitors noted could have seen up to 2.4 million votes “illegally manipulated” — that essentially made him a dictator for life. Just last week, Trump even praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, calling him “smart” and saying that his people love him, though they would be imprisoned or executed if they did not.
And of course, in August 2017, when the alt-right and neo-Nazis converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, causing riots that resulted in the death of the counter-protester Heather Heyer, Trump stubbornly refused to denounce the hateful words and actions of white supremacists. Days later, the President had the audacity and gall to say that some of the white nationalists were “very fine people” and that “the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.” (The people to whom Trump was referring had carried tiki torches and chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”)
Prior presidents, be they Republican or Democrat, would routinely denounce human rights violations and call out immorality across the globe. It showed leadership and made the United States a beacon of freedom that was the envy of the world. Oppressed people would hold us up as the paragon and apotheosis of virtue. Trump has surrendered that, even as countries like China have been making the case to our allies that our moral authority was hypocritical and self-serving.
The crying children torn from their parents weren’t just another item on an ever-increasing list of moral transgressions by Trump and his administration, they are a distinctly different action. These children are innocents — innocents who are being subjected to the naked cruelty of a policy lacking the morality and compassion that makes America great. They became the face of everything that is morally wrong with the Trump presidency.
Almost a year-and-a-half into his administration, Americans are now routinely asking their president the question, “Have you no decency, sir?” But now it’s clear: That is a rhetorical question.
This column was originally published in NBC News Think on June 20, 2018.