Trump administration proves to be 'relentlessly tone deaf'

3:04 pm on 23 June 2018

Opinion - Most governments care what the wider country thinks of their performance. They keep a close eye on the national mood to stay ahead on public approval, knowing that if they burn too much popularity on some issues it will make everything else harder.

US President Donald Trump greets supporters after speaking during a campaign rally  on June 20, 2018 in Minnesota.

US President Donald Trump greets supporters after speaking during a campaign rally on 20 June, 2018 in Minnesota. Photo: AFP

US President Donald Trump, not so much. He really cares about what Mr Trump thinks.

Though he also cares what his core supporters think, and works hard to keep them riled up, as he did in Duluth in Minnesota last week. If his base can provide enough narcissistic support, no-one else matters.

Yes, he does 'back down' in the face of overwhelming opposition, and if convinced it's in his own interest.

When he finally retreats (or advances backwards), a lot of damage (both human and political) is usually already done.

Just like it has been in the past week with the brutal forced separation of children and parents by US immigration agents.

It took four days of news coverage, devastating visuals, heart rending wails from terrified infants, and an overwhelmingly horrified response from the wider public, to force an about-face from Mr Trump.

Reportedly, 46 percent of registered Republicans supported the action. That's not as many Americans as you might think. Only 24 percent of voters are registered Republicans, so that's only 11 percent of voters. Surely a good indicator that it's time for a back-down.

This US Customs and Border Protection photo obtained June 18, 2018 shows intake of illegal border crossers by US Border Patrol agents at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas on 23 May, 2018.

This US Customs and Border Protection photo obtained June 18, 2018 shows intake of illegal border crossers by US Border Patrol agents at the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas on 23 May, 2018. Photo: AFP / US Customs and Boarder Protection

When it came, it wasn't even a carefully planned U-turn. Earlier in the day, when Mr Trump met with worried congressmen (who could see the electoral writing on the wall if they don't make this issue go away), he bragged and ranted but offered no exit.

The politicians couldn't even agree on what he'd suggested (if anything), regarding competing versions of punitive immigration legislation they were there to consider. One of his party reported being unsure what Mr Trump had said, describing him as "hard to follow… He's kind of like a bouncing ball".

When speaking to small business owners, he attacked immigrants as violent criminals, accused the media of actively aiding people smugglers, and literally hugged an American flag. He said that separations were compulsory, it wasn't his fault and there was nothing he could do. Several hours later he changed his policy.

The U-turn hasn't actually ended up with anyone facing a radically different direction. His Executive Order to end family separations was thick with provisos and failed to mention the thousands of children already separated and sleeping in warehouses.

Furthermore, the Flores Agreement only allows for 20 days in detention for minors, so that situation will hit the fan again soon. Probably in a courtroom.

The past week wasn't a blip, and no one should be surprised. It demonstrated how closely the president's policy aligns to what many thought was only inflammatory hyperbole on the campaign trail.

It also showed that the administration cares little for the optics of how it carries out or defends such actions.

On his very first day on the campaign trail, in June 2015, Mr Trump described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, rapists and criminals. This week he defended that assessment, saying: "I was 100 percent right. That's why I won".

This week, he said southern immigrants "pour in and infest" America. That choice of words led to his administration being compared with the very worst of human rights abusers.

To describe Trump's administration as relentlessly tone deaf is generous.

Describing people as an infestation is to call them vermin. An infestation suggests something people want eradicated. In the English language you can't pick verbs much more derogatory than "infest". It's dehumanising.

Earlier in the week, the Attorney General and the White House Press Secretary both defended the border agents' actions by quoting scripture, (which is seldom wise unless it's an exhortation to love one another). That they chose verses popular with Third Reich propagandists was either politically naive, or arrogantly self assured.

Stephen Miller, the senior presidential adviser responsible for the child separation policy, described it as "a simple decision". So, not even a fig leaf of conflicted emotions or empathy.

"You have to take the children away," Mr Trump said just a day before reversing his policy.

Ann Coulter, a long time Trump megaphone, accused the crying children of being "child actors". She later described them as trying to "wreck the country".

And then, Melania Trump, dispatched to a detention centre for a photo-op to provide an empathetic, caring face for the administration managed to utterly blow it. She wore a Zara overcoat emblazoned with the message "I really don't care do u?"

Tone deaf is not sufficient to describe it. I have no idea what she's trying to say, but, wow. How do you get it that wrong?

Sometimes it is hard to tell whether actions are tone deaf or stupid, or whether they demonstrate bigotry and intolerance.


* Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

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