Why are Republicans grasping for excuses on family separation? Because their voters support it

Trump and his supporters keep struggling to rationalize an indefensible policy — because their voters love it

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 19, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border. (Getty/John Moore)
A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border. (Getty/John Moore)

The number of excuses and outright lies coming out of the mouths of Donald Trump's administration and their supporters to justify tearing apart the families of people seeking political asylum has become dizzying. Children are being forcibly taken from parents who have a legal right to apply for asylum and put in detention centers that literally feature cages. There appears to be no plan for reuniting these children with their families. It's undeniably a bad look, and Trump and his apologists are coughing up a confusing and often contradictory set of lies and distortions in an effort to put some vaguely acceptable spin on the story.

So far, Trump has tried to blame family separation on the Democrats, even though it's his own policy. But then, he has also argued that the policy is justified to scare refugees away from applying for asylum, arguing that the "United States will not be a migrant camp," which he claims is "what’s happening in Europe." He has tweeted, "Crime in Germany is way up" and blamed that alleged fact on immigrants and refugees. (Crime is actually down in Germany.) Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried a biblical argument, using a verse from scripture that slave-owners also liked to quote, in an apparent claim that separating families at the border is God's will.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen tried flat-out lying, saying, "We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period." When confronted with a document from Sessions outlining the policy she said did not exist, as well as evidence of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defending it, Nielsen switched gears, claiming she had been misunderstood. Her new line: "We will not apologize for the job we do."

As often happens with these things, defenders of the policy started to cling to euphemisms and semantic arguments, with the Border Patrol saying it is "uncomfortable" with the word "cages." Right-wing pundits tried to paint the forcible separations as something like summer camp, with Laura Ingraham claiming that the stolen children get "four meals a day" and Breitbart editor Joel Pollak saying it's "better than what they had," citing a racist belief that the children's parents have denied them "knowledge of basic hygiene." (No, seriously: He said the kids wouldn't know what showers were if their Border Patrol captors hadn't shown them.)

Now the conspiracy theories are coming out, inevitably. Ann Coulter appeared on Fox News to claim that photos and videos of traumatized children are fake and that the kids are "child actors" being "given scripts to read by liberals." This is, of course, the same conspiracy theory used to discredit the survivors of the Parkland shooting earlier this year.

These conflicting excuses and narratives are hard to keep up with, for sure.

Why so many often conflicting lies and rationalizations? The answer is simple: Right-wing pundits and politicians are experimenting, in real time, generating a flood of excuses for Republican voters to latch onto. They know that eventually one story will gain traction and become the official go-to excuse that conservatives can use to justify their support for this vile policy.

Right now, there's a huge conflict going on in conservative circles. On one hand, it's really hard to justify stealing people's children from them for the non-crime of trying to escape violence and oppression in their home countries. On the other hand, Trump voters are eager to back this child-stealing policy. The majority of them had racist motivations for supporting Trump in the first place. One main reason he was able to beat 16 more "mainstream' opponents in the 2016 Republican primaries was because GOP voters found his upfront racism refreshing, compared to the more veiled forms traditionally found in Republican politics. Trump's popularity with Republican voters has only soared since he assumed office and has made it clear that kicking out as many people of color as he can is his administration's main priority.

This is why all the Democrats in the Senate have signed onto a bill that would bar the family separation practice -- and precisely no Republicans have. Republicans in Washington understand that their base is on board with Trump's racism, and whatever their personal misgivings may be, they're unwilling and perhaps even afraid to cross them.

Early polling data shows that while most Americans oppose taking children from parents as a way to scare them away from applying for asylum, Republican voters feel differently. Daily Beast polling finds that Republicans favor the policy by 46 percent to 32 percent. Quinnipiac University finds a spread of 55 to 35 percent among Republican voters while CNN found that 58 percent of Republicans approve.

Those are just preliminary results, recorded as this story has soared to national attention.  Trump could well entrench Republican support even further and clearly intends to do so.

What Trump needs, in order to get even stronger Republican support behind him, is a story -- a narrative that allows voters to support this inhumane policy while maintaining the claim that they aren't bad people for doing so. The story doesn't have to make much sense or have any basis in truth. It just needs to be something supporters can roll out to sound halfway rational if challenged by friends or relatives about their support for this policy.

That's why we are seeing this flood of contradictory, nonsensical lies and excuses. Conservative leaders and right-wing media are tossing stuff out to see what sticks. They're testing and refining talking points, waiting for something to coalesce that will allow conservative voters to argue that one can support this policy without being a hateful racist.

Basically, this is a giant Republican-voter focus group, being conducted in real time through the media. Trump and his mouthpieces are like advertising executives, field-testing what pitches work best on customers looking for ways to justify an expensive purchase. But instead of doing this in order to sell designer clothes, cutting-edge electronics or a new car, they're doing it to sell a government policy that involves kidnapping children.

The same thing happened after the Parkland shooting, when conservatives flailed around for excuses they could hang on to for dismissing the powerful response of Parkland students and their allies. Eventually, their main talking point became simply accusing the survivors of being shills, effectively punishing them for being too good at explaining their point of view. It's not an excuse likely to convince anyone else, but it gives conservatives a way to deflect attention from the real debate over gun control and tell themselves that they, not the kids, are the real heroes of the story.

Now the same thing is starting to happen with the family separation policy. Whatever excuse the right finally lands on doesn't need to make sense or convince anyone outside their own movement. It just needs to be effective enough to derail internal debate among conservatives and foster the deeply rooted right-wing sense of victimhood. Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time until they figure it out.

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By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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