There was a time when conservatives supported limited government, balanced budgets and less debt. Not so long ago, conservatives also championed free trade, lower tariffs and the spread of democratic institutions across Europe and the world. And yes, conservatives spent the past generation championing an American exceptionalism with values casting our great country as a city shining brightly on a hill for all the world to see.
Onetime Fox News president Roger Ailes was fond of saying, “America has fed and freed more people than any country in the history of the world.” Ronald Reagan launched his historic 1980 presidential campaign with the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop . He framed America’s relationship with immigration in 1981 this way: “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”
Reagan took a position on immigration that most Republicans today would consider heresy, yet voters rewarded him with a decisive victory and a landslide reelection a few years later. Far less popular has been President Trump’s politically toxic policy of ripping children from their mothers’ arms. That depraved stance, adopted as a bargaining chip to use against Democrats, garnered support from only 17 percent of Americans . But it did earn him the antipathy of our closest allies, Pope Francis and every living former first lady .
Rosalynn Carter said in a statement, “The practice and policy today of removing children from their parents’ care is disgraceful and a shame to our country.”
Laura Bush wrote in The Post, “Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children. . . . These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent . . . now considered to be one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.” Michelle Obama seconded Bush’s sentiments, saying that “sometimes truth transcends party.”
When asked about the United States’ simmering border crisis, Pope Francis told Reuters, “Creating psychosis is not the cure. . . . Populism does not resolve things. What resolves things is acceptance, study, prudence.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament, “The pictures of children being held in what appears to be cages are deeply disturbing. This is wrong.”
With the incarceration of more than 2,300 infants, toddlers and children unresolved, Trump’s policy of breaking up families remains an open wound on America’s character and a political crisis for the few Republicans who still believe they can salvage November’s midterm elections.
A conservative former intelligence operative grimly recounted to me on Thursday how much the handling of these displaced children reminded him of the CIA facilities where terrorists were secretly held and interrogated after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “This reminds me of our black sites, except we were holding 100 or so adult terrorists for the killing of American citizens. Now 2,300 kids are held in unknown locations with unknown individuals inside and absolutely no outside observation.”
Trump’s obsession with wall-building and zero-tolerance has led Americans to this grim political spectacle. His personal cruelty and political ignorance have created a crisis that will kill conservative immigration reform and lead to future Democratic majorities. More troubling is the harsh reality now staring Americans in the face: Their president is a brutish political boss who has cheapened conservatism, sullied the office of the presidency and called into question the very character of a country once seen as the envy of the world. That so many Republicans still support this depraved man and his malignant movement could be the most damning element of this tragic American tale.