Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
We are well versed in the practice of political shocks erupting on a daily basis by now. Some barely last a day’s news cycle, whereas others stick, and cause the administration a lasting headache that risks reputational damage amongst voters. The imprisonment of children in cages on America’s southern border will remain at the forefront of the political agenda for some time to come.
This is not an accident, but an image created by design
In an era of fake news and of feelings usurping facts, it is important to begin by stating the truth. Contrary to the claims of those inside and closest to the White House, this policy is not a legacy of the previous administration. Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in April as part of a move to prosecute adults who illegally cross the border with the full force of the law.
Donald Trump has made his feelings on border force and immigration crystal clear, saying in a speech yesterday: “The United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility.” Like any Republican president, he is seeking to project an image of strength on national security; being tough on crime has rarely done a Republican damage in an election. The working theory goes that separating children from their parents will be enough to disincentivise migration flows on the Mexican border. In the long-term, that remains to be seen. In the short-term, it has prompted outrage on humanitarian grounds.
The scenes playing out on America’s southern border with Mexico risk becoming the most damaging indictment of the Trump presidency so far – depending on your political inclination. The Republican base which is so staunchly loyal to their president shows no sign of wavering over an issue that candidate Trump was persistently vocal about. Once again, should we really be surprised that Trump has shown consistency between his candidacy and presidency?
The President and his allies have re-adopted the same inflammatory language they deployed in the campaign to describe immigrants and violent gangs such as MS-13, despite extremely limited proven links between the two. On Tuesday, the President tweeted that immigrants would “pour into and infest” the United States, a day after Kirstjen Nielsen, the Secretary of Homeland Security, referred to a “flood” of immigrants facing the US at its Southern border. Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host and one of the president’s principal cheerleaders, mocked the child detention centres as little more than summer camps. Footage from inside the centres prove her mockery was entirely unfit for a nationwide audience.
How the world reacted
Global condemnation has unsurprisingly been forthcoming, with the likes of Angela Merkel of Germany forgetting that international opposition is exactly what this President thrives on. Creating a siege mentality helps prove his commitment to his domestic audience. A sharp reminder of “America First”.
At home, Theresa May has come under fresh pressure to distance herself from the President. Tom Tugendhat has spoken from the Conservative back benches, arguing that “the US is better than this”. For Downing Street, a direct rebuke is effectively impossible with Trump’s visit to the UK due to take place in only three weeks’ time. Jeremy Corbyn will scarcely be able to believe his luck.
On the global stage, the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed “deep concern” that the zero-tolerance policy put in place along the US-Mexico border has led to people caught entering the country irregularly being subjected to “criminal prosecution and having their children – including extremely young children -taken away from them as a result.” The Trump administration responded by officially withdrawing the US from the Human Rights Council.
Congress reacts by ramping up pressure on the White House
There is absolutely no sign whatsoever of regret from the White House, with little expectation that the administration will soften its policy any time soon. This explains why Ivanka Trump has sought to distance herself from the latest scenes at the border, with her team telling CNN she would “talk to any member of Congress to help find a legislative solution to the issue”. The first daughter must need reminding that a legislative solution is not required to reverse a proposal implemented solely by the Executive, and which the Executive has the power to reverse.
The trade-off for the White House is simple – stop the family separation policy in exchange for a Bill that fully funds the border wall. More than a dozen Republican senators are pressuring the administration to reverse course while Congress considers legislation, with every single Democrat opposed to the zero-tolerance policy. Even on an issue as emotive as this, there is little sign that a bipartisan bill could receive 60 votes in the senate.
An insight into the 2018 and 2020 Republican playbook
The rhetoric deployed by the president and his allies gives the clearest insight yet on what is in the Republican playbook for the crucial November midterms and the presidential election in 2020 – and it has nothing to do with Paul Ryan’s tax cuts, the traditional campaign favourite of a fiscally-focussed Republican Party that now seems entirely replaced by President Trump’s firebrand racial politics. That Trump’s comments yesterday about immigration “endangering all of our children” were made in a speech to the National Federation of Independent Businesses is proof of the new Republican priorities.