One difficult part of navigating The Trump Era is deciphering which national embarrassments or atrocities are truly novel, and which our dear president has merely elaborated upon. These days, we're treated to some occasional outrage about the humanitarian disaster we're tied up with in Yemen, but that was an Obama Special. It's partly an extension of our longstanding buddy-buddy thing with Saudi Arabia, a country people are beginning to realize is not that great on the human-rights front. Another feature of the Obama years was the expansion of extrajudicial execution via drone strike, including of American citizens, something that's still going down but that you scarcely hear about.
Yet another thing that's not wholly novel—as we have constantly tried to make clear while covering the migrant detention centers at the border and whether they constitute a concentration-camp system—is our strategy on immigration.
There's little doubt that Trump has jacked up the inhumanity of things, not least when he tore children from their parents as part of the "zero-tolerance" policy, which members of his administration explicitly called part of a strategy of deterrence. But the Obama administration also put unaccompanied children in cages amid a huge surge of arrivals in 2014—although again, despite Trump's repeated lies, Obama did not create new "unaccompanied" children by taking them from their parents. Obama's administration also used "metering," wherein migrants are kept on the Mexican side of the border in often perilous conditions while they await asylum processing. But Trump has put that policy on steroids, too, causing many more to instead cross illegally between border checkpoints as he tries to hamstring the asylum process as much as possible.
The truth is that both administrations have struggled to adapt the U.S. camp system, first built out by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton to deal with the arrival of single adult males, to make it suitable for children and families. But it seems even House Democrats have fallen into the Trump Atrocity Trap. According to USA Today, the House Oversight Committee used a photo in a tweet Wednesday that was actually taken during the Obama era to promote an upcoming hearing on Trump's border policies.
House Democrats are promoting their "civil rights" hearing on "kids in cages" and "inhumane treatment" with a photo from 2014, when Joe Biden was Vice President. So dishonest! pic.twitter.com/Exuj1eudrr— Trump War Room (@TrumpWarRoom) July 9, 2019
The since-deleted tweet was predictably seized on by the president, who, again, has made things worse on purpose with a campaign of outright cruelty:
Democrats had to quickly take down a tweet called “Kids In Cages, Inhumane Treatment at the Border,” because the horrible picture used was from the Obama years. Very embarrassing! @foxandfriends— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2019
But the strategy of deterrence has been a bipartisan initiative at the border for decades. It also clearly has not worked. The popular story is that Obama turned to harsh immigration policies in order to find firmer ground to make a grand compromise on the issue with congressional Republicans. (Whether anyone should do anything with an eye on earning Mitch McConnell's cooperation is an issue for another day.) But the end result was that Obama was called the "Deporter-in-Chief" by some immigrant rights' advocates, and with good reason: He deported more people than any other president.
All of this is not to say, again, that Trump hasn't made things significantly worse, on purpose. The reports of treatment in these facilities coming out now are a whole new level of horror. No children died in the 10 years before Trump. Seven kids have died in the last year. It's only to say that not every horrible thing the United States is doing right now is entirely novel. We The Media could stand to learn this lesson as much as anyone. If the Trump Era helps expose longstanding horrors—like, say, the enduring power of virulent racism as a political tool, which must be confronted head on and discussed in the open—then there might be some use for it in the end. Or, you know, it's a long way down.