Members Only | April 9, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Everyone Loses with Sadism

Like fascism, it's a terrible theory of governance.

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Most people understand that campaigning isn’t governing. Much is said and done in the heat of presidential politics that cannot, and should not, be said and done in the process of governing a large and diverse country that includes citizens who didn’t vote but nonetheless are constitutionally protected. Most presidents have understood that, and did their relative best to temper red-hot rhetoric with stone-cold governance.

Donald Trump does not understand that. He refuses to.

You can see what I mean by looking closely at what the president says is working on the border. What he says is “working” is not working in any conventional sense of the word. What he says is “working” does not produce appreciable real-world outcomes. For him, what’s “working” is what’s punishing those “deserving” of punishment.

In reality, punishing immigrants who have traveled fifteen hundred miles to seek political asylum does not prevent other immigrants from walking fifteen hundred miles to seek political asylum. The more Trump insists that punishment is “working,” the worse the border crisis gets, which compels him to demand more, which doesn’t work. This is what happens when a country elects a TV demagogue for president.


This is what happens when a country elects a television demagogue for president.


Importantly, Trump does not care that punitive policies, vis-a-vis border security, do not work in the any conventional sense of the word. They do not produce the appreciable outcomes that he claims they produce, because their point isn’t to produce any appreciable outcomes. Their point is meting out punishment to those whom many Republicans believe should be punished. This is what “works,” according to the president. And this is why empirical reality always trips up people who believe power defines reality. This is why fascism might work on the campaign trail, (it got Trump elected president, after all), but fails categorically as a theory of governance.

All this can be seen in Jake Tapper’s report yesterday in which the CNN news anchor said that the president was “ranting and raving, saying the border was his issue” during a meeting in late March. Trump ordered that the port of entry in El Paso be shut down as a preamble to shutting down other ports of entry in order to stop the historic surge of immigrants leaving Central America. Kirstjen Nielsen, who quit her job Sunday, told the president that shutting El Paso down would stop legal trade and traffic but not immigrants. They’ll go to another port of entry, she said. That’s when the president tipped his hand. According to two people in the room, Trump said, “I don’t care.”

It doesn’t work.

He doesn’t care.

Tapper wrote that Donald Trump had pressured the former secretary of Homeland Security “to enforce a stricter and more widespread ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy … that called for the prosecution of individuals crossing the border illegally between ports of entry, resulting in the separation of parents from children.” Tapper wrote that Trump wanted kids taken away even if their parents came through ports of entry (which they are supposed to do) and even if they were asylum seekers. Tapper: Trump “thinks separation works to deter migrants from coming” (my italics).

It doesn’t work.

Unless “work” means punishment.

Taking children away from their parents is an violation of human rights as well as a political nightmare. But this is not Trump’s concern, according to Tapper. “Nielsen tried to explain they could not bring the [family separation] policy back because of court challenges, and White House staffers tried to explain it would be an unmitigated PR disaster.” None of that appears to have mattered. Trump want what “works.” According a senior administration official, “He just wants to separate families.”

Things would be different, and much more complicated, morally and politically, if a punitive border policy actually led to, or at least correlated with, measurable outcomes. If migrant inflows decreased at the same time the administration’s separation policy was enacted, you could make the case for it. It would be immoral and cold-blooded but still a case. We’re talking about the reverse, though. Inflows have surged in previous months, begging the question: why does the president insist on a policy that doesn’t work and that’s giving him a political headache. The answer, I think, is sadism.

Liberals often say “cruelty is the point” of Trump’s immigration policies, and I don’t disagree with that. But I don’t think “cruelty” captures fully the cost-benefit of what’s going on. The president’s family separation policy is immoral, yet he insists on it, because he’s willing to trade disapproval by a majority for approval by a minority. Why? His base gets a thrill from punishing people who “deserve it.” “Cruelty” doesn’t convey the pleasure of seeing others suffer. The right word for that is “sadism.”

Sadism, like fascism, is a terrible theory of governance. Trump believes he is doing “the right thing” by purging people from the US Department of Homeland Security who do not see the utility or the morality of sadist border policies. Yet the more people leave the agency, the weaker this president will become. Acting directors of any public agency have almost no power to compel compliance with a president’s wishes. And of course, the less they comply, the more Trump will feel the urge to purge, and the cycle continues. Everyone loses with sadism. Eventually, that includes the sadists, too.

—John Stoehr


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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