To bolster flagging support for shutting down the government over border wall funding, Trump gave his first prime time speech from the Oval Office… but it backfired. Americans blame him for the shutdown 2-to-1 over congressional Democrats. And as support for the wall slides south, so too does his approval ratings.
This speech backfired so badly because it was his worse speech since his speech apologizing for calling white supremacist at Charlottesville “very good people” and in many ways repeats the main issue of that apology speech. It created a set of contradictory, irreconcilable meanings.
Trump’s Charlottesville apology
Americans were pretty astonished that the President of the United States would refer to the group of Neo-Nazis and white supremacists at Charlottesville as “very good people.” After all, one of them, James Alex Fields, did murder an innocent woman by plowing his car into a group of bystanders. So no, they were not very good people.
Feeling the weight of public pressure, Trump’s aides pressured him to apologize. And he did.
But he immediately reversed himself, saying instead that there was “blame on both sides.” Saying that apologizing was, “the biggest f—ing mistake I’ve made” because it made him look weak and uncertain. That he shouldn’t have apologized because, “I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place.”
Apologizing not only made him look weak (like his aides could bully him into doing things he didn’t want to) but the bigger problem was that he also created for himself a set of contradictory, mutually exclusive conditions. He couldn’t be both for and against the white nationalists at the same time. He had to be one thing or the other.
Searching for a border wall rationale
With Democrats in control of the House and knowing that his presidency will shortly be mired in a flood of investigations, Trump knew that this is his last chance to fulfill his pledge of building a southern border wall. But so far most people weren’t buying his arguments.
He tried to argue that it was needed for… national security… to stop terrorists… except his own law enforcement agencies said this wasn’t true. The State Department’s official investigation found that there was ‘no credible evidence’ terrorists were entering through the southern border.
So if it’s not stopping terrorists then maybe it’s to stop drugs… except law enforcement was quick to point out that drugs come through at entry points not in the middle of no-man’s-land where he wants a wall.
Ok, maybe it’s needed to stop the increasing flood of undocumented immigrants… except the number of undocumented immigrants has been declining already not increasing.
When all these justifications failed, he turned to the least logical rational possible… humanitarianism.
It’s the least believable because not because I don’t personally believe him (or not believe him) but because it contradicts the image that he has so carefully built for himself in word and deed. It recreates the same contradictory set of meanings as his Charlottesville apology speech did.
Trump can’t be a humanitarian while inflicting great sorrow
Don’t get me wrong, the border is a humanitarian crisis. Just not the one he talked about in his speech.
People dying in the desert just because they want to live the American dream of a better life is a humanitarian crisis that we definitely should do something about.
But Trump didn’t extend his humanitarian heart to these dying immigrants and their children. He reserved humanity only for American citizens and what hard might cause.
Trump has worked very to craft the image of a tough guy by creating policies that were very hard and inhumane towards immigrants in the name of a great national good.
He nearly stopped the flow of legal immigration, making asylum seekers wait outside almost indefinitely without processing their claims or giving them any help as they waited. And if they ran out of food and money and sought other ways in, he tried them as criminals which ruled out asylum claims.
The most inhumane is his policy of separating families. He separated thousands of migrant children from their mothers and locked them up alone in detention centers. Infants and toddlers.
Not only is this having a terrible effect on the children, but any parent will tell you that having your babies taken away is perhaps the most heart-wrenching cruelties a mother can endure.
I’m certain that in a few decades, in hindsight, we’ll be asking ourselves how we could stand by and allow the government to inflict such cruelty in the same way that we ask today how we could have allowed the government to imprison citizens of Japanese descent during the World War II.
But Trump argued that taking babies from their mothers had to be done. And he was the man to do it because he is tough enough to take tough action.
By making humanitarianism the central rationale for wall funding, Trump only highlighted his own lack of humanity. Instead of spotlighting the plight of Americans, he highlighted the plight of migrants for most of the public. And in doing so showed his argument was insincere, contradictory, and illogical. He can’t raise the specter of humanitarianism while reserving humanity for some but denying it to others. He can’t both be a great humanitarian while also inflicting great sorrow.