Two young mothers from Honduras and their respective children — a 12-year-old (not seen) and 1 year old — are detained by U.S. Border Patrol in June 2018. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Columnist

As the shambolic Trump presidency caroms and lurches into Year Three, a shameful governing philosophy has emerged: cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

Let us take stock:

Roughly one-quarter of the federal government has been closed for a month, in the longest shutdown in U.S. history. An estimated 800,000 employees are either furloughed or being forced to work without pay, as well as untold contract workers who also are idled. Prospects for a near-term solution to the impasse between President Trump and Congress range all the way from dim to dimmer.

Imagine going a month without a paycheck. Imagine lining up the bills and deciding which get paid and which don’t — mortgage or rent, electricity, heating. Imagine having to commute to work at an “essential” government job and trying to scrape together enough money for gas or bus fare.

All of these hardships, and many more, are being inflicted on hardworking public servants for no earthly reason. From the beginning, Democrats have taken a reasonable position: Keep the government open, and let’s have a debate and a negotiation about border security. Trump agreed — until far-right pundits accused him of abandoning his border wall, which everyone knows will never be built.

So Trump made federal workers — and other citizens who depend on government services — into sacrificial lambs whose blood is an offering to the Trumpist base. Negotiations about a solution are at a standstill because Trump’s self-proclaimed negotiation prowess comes down to taunts and tweets. The next time you take a flight, hope that the agents who inspect passengers’ luggage and the traffic controllers who guide pilots through the sky are thinking about their work, not worrying how to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, we learned last week that the sadistic policy of separating would-be immigrants from their children has been far more extensive, and more shocking, than anyone suspected.

There was bipartisan uproar last year when it was disclosed that more than 2,000 children had been effectively kidnapped by our government in a mean and cynical attempt to deter undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers. Now, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services reports that the family separations began in 2017 and that “thousands” more children were taken from their parents.

So haphazard and uncaring was this outrageous policy that there exists no full accounting of who these children are, where they are or whether they were ever reunited with their families. There is not even enough solid information for the inspector general to be more specific than “thousands” about the number.

Trump claims his imaginary wall is needed to address a “humanitarian crisis” at the border. The crisis is real, but it is of Trump’s own deliberate creation. Given the administration’s combination of malice and incompetence, it is safe to assume that some of the children whom we snatched away will never see their parents again. They are mere props that let Trump demonstrate how far he will go to punish Latinos for daring to seek safer, better lives.

Trump cruelly gives the cold shoulder to those around the world who advocate respect for human rights. Perhaps Trump thinks this is how his base wants him to act. Perhaps his own myriad insecurities lead him to falsely equate callous indifference with strength.

Whatever the reason, he does not even pay lip service to the struggle for freedom, dignity and due process in countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Philippines. Public pressure from a U.S. president — which costs nothing, in terms of domestic political support — can save the lives of activists and journalists who heroically labor to hold autocratic governments accountable. Cold silence from a U.S. president can be fatal.

Such gratuitous cruelty is really this administration’s only consistent policy. Trump tried his best, for example, to destroy the Affordable Care Act, not because he had a better idea about how to provide health care but apparently because he can’t abide anything with President Barack Obama’s name on it. He failed but, in the process, weakened Obamacare enough to make it less effective and more expensive.

Why would Trump injure innocent consumers? Why hurt stockholders of companies led by chief executives he does not like? Why seek to deny desperately needed help to Puerto Rico, where some politicians have been critical of Trump?

Why? Because he can.

Above all else, Trump is a bully. Like all schoolyard tyrants, he tries to project great strength to mask internal weakness. But remember the one universal truth about bullies: The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

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