The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are justifying the unjustifiable

Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig takes issue with the way Attorney General Jeff Sessions is using scripture to justify separating families at the border. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Squeamish Republicans defensive about their votes for President Trump — or worse, their continued support for him — will tell you when presented with a long list of Trump’s moral and policy debacles that it’s all worth it for some policy “win.”

The “but the Supreme Court” defense in essence presumes that anything and everything are wiped away by a single Supreme Court justice on a court that is never permanently skewed in one party’s favor. An alternative is “but tax cuts” — as if a single piece of tax legislation of questionable effectiveness would standing alone make the Trump presidency worthwhile. Such reasoning was always going to provide justification for monstrous actions. And now it has — babies in cages, toddlers taken from their mothers, children separated with no plan for reuniting them with their parents.

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Let’s take this hypothetical: If, at the time of the election, Republican apologists knew that Trump would put Justice Neil Gorsuch on the court and get a tax cut but that the United States would engage in its worst human rights violation in years, would they have still voted for him? If the answer is yes, no morally intelligent conversation can be had. (And by the way, this is the exact position many, if not most, elected Republicans take — a strong argument for the idea that the GOP cannot be saved.) That is the logic of all human rights abusers: Yes, he threw opponents in jail, but look at the new highways! Yes, he slaughtered a religious minority, but gas prices are down!

If, however, the answer is that of course some discrete policy objective cannot justify the human suffering Trump has unleashed and the moral stain it will leave on the country, then it is time for Republicans to admit that they made a tragic mistake and that their continued defense of him is morally unsustainable.

The episode is as horrifying as it is clarifying. The consequences when ordinary people do horrible things are front and center for all Americans:

  • What happens when those in power dehumanize (“animals,” “rapists,” “infestation”) a group of people? It prevents others from empathizing and creates a sense of panic that justifies what normally would not be justified.
  • How do good people remain in office and keep the wheels of bureaucracy going? They become prisoners of groupthink or go along with the crowd for fear of losing power and acceptance.
  • Why are those in power unable to stand up to those engaged in evil actions? Courageous people are the exception, not the rule.
  • How does language (“detention facility”) obscure an emotionally horrifying reality (children taken from their parents)? If we said, “Trump has put crying babies in a jail without their parents,” people might get upset!
  • How can propaganda that repeats falsehoods again and again (immigrants are criminals, there is no policy) numb and confuse the population? Look no further than Trump and the state TV hosts at Fox News.

We should by now have known the answers to these questions — which are present in nearly every human rights abomination in modern history. That’s the whole meaning of the human rights mantra “Never Again.” And yet just as in every human rights horror, there is a failure now to recognize, “Oh yes, this is what a human right catastrophe looks like.”

Perhaps abject fear of losing their seats will force Congress — which did not cause this problem — to resolve it quickly before more children are traumatized. But going forward, I will not regard the people who passed the buck, who justified the unjustifiable or who made ludicrous arguments instead of acting in the same light. They are not merely people with whom I have a policy dispute. They were participants in a horrendous episode in American history and deserve to be ostracized from public life.

A Honduran family tried to seek asylum in the U.S. through a port of entry. They were turned away and detained by Mexican authorities. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)