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Michael Gerson: Trump uses his power to attack the weak

How does President Trump act when he feels on top of the economic and diplomatic world? As his influence solidifies within the GOP? As his poll numbers tick upward?

If a recent Cabinet meeting tirade is any indication, political security has not translated into magnanimity. According to press reports, Trump spent 30 minutes dressing down his homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, for insufficient zeal in closing the southern border to illegal immigrants. One consistent source of tension between the two has been Trump’s desire to use family separation as a deterrent against illegal crossings.

Trump unbound is increasingly impatient with the excessive humanity of some of his own staff. This is not a problem he has, to be clear, with his chief of staff. Asked if family separation was cruel and heartless, John Kelly replied, “I wouldn’t put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States.” He described the family-separation policy as a “tough deterrent.”

No, pulling crying children from the arms of their parents is not heartless at all. They will be taken care of, “or whatever.” For Kelly and Trump, the defining characteristic of these migrants is their illegality, not their personhood or their dignity. This is the definition of dehumanization.

A few points. First, the debate over a border wall is a policy matter. The separation of children from their parents as a deterrent is a human rights abuse. And the Trump administration, at its highest levels, cannot tell the difference.

As usual, Trump and his team are operating in a complete vacuum of historical knowledge. Family separation is not new to America. It was essential to the practice of chattel slavery. If enslaved people were truly property, they could not also be husbands and wives, or constitute true families. If those emotional and moral bonds were conceded as valid, slavery’s whole structure of dehumanization would crumble. Which is exactly why abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe emphasized the cruel separation of families in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Inhuman immigration enforcement is not the moral or legal equivalent of slavery. But a nation with this history should take particular care when contemplating family separation as official policy. Few human beings would treat other human beings in this manner. Which is exactly why Trump and Kelly must present “illegals” as lesser beings defined by their criminality.

Second, if the deterrence of crime is the only standard we employ in immigration enforcement, what is the limiting principle? Why stop at the separation of families? Why not put able-bodied illegal immigrant children to work in salt mines? Why not plant landmines at the border? Why not strafe illegal immigrants from attack helicopters?

The answer, of course, is that America, by definition, has a higher standard than legality. Our country’s most basic commitment — and its limiting principle — is universal human rights and dignity. This does not prevent the government from enforcing reasonable immigration laws. It does forbid the government from inhumanity in the enforcement of immigration laws. And there is no definition of inhumanity that does not include the intentional separation of parents from their children.

The fragmentation of families can be a tragic byproduct of the criminal justice system. Many American children must visit a parent in prison. But if the breakup of families were proposed as a tough deterrent for crime — as a policy and a punishment — it would rightly be seen as a betrayal of American values. As it would be at our borders.

Third, Trump’s policy of family separation illustrates the swift downward spiral of demagoguery. In 2012, citizen Trump criticized Mitt Romney’s “crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal. It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote. ... He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.” By his candidacy announcement tour in 2015, Trump had discovered the visceral appeal of presenting Mexican migrants as rapists and murderers. Now he feels comfortable proposing the punishment of children and the purposeful destruction of migrant families as a deterrent. And he feels comfortable because the Republican Party has surrendered, step by step, to his agenda of dehumanization.

Other American presidents have used their accumulated political capital for humanitarian goals. Trump is a leader who, as he grows politically stronger, is using his power to attack and exploit the weak and vulnerable. America’s president is the bullier of children.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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