Opinion

This is not America? Oh, yes, it is: Neil Macdonald

Trump has sensed that his voters want ruthlessness, and that they can easily be persuaded to see the separation of children from their border-crossing parents as patriotic.

Trump has sensed that his voters want ruthlessness, and he's delivering

Along the southern border, families with the will and the heart to flee misery and seek asylum are being torn apart — the parents charged, prosecuted and deported. (CBP/Reuters)

So here is America, Puritan John Winthrop's shining city on a hill, an example to the world and "a model of Christian charity," to cite the title of his sermon aboard the Arbella, as England's first settlers approached New England in 1630.

Centuries later, American presidents would return repeatedly to Winthrop's hilltop-city metaphor, the first invocation of American exceptionalism. JFK. Barack Obama. And Ronald Reagan, adding his own words: "a tall, proud city … teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here."

Go ahead, read that again. Then read today's news headlines.

Like most foundational myths, the shining city was always more aspirational than real. Its citizens would eventually hunt Indigenous people to near-extinction and import slaves and use military power to impose their self-interest on other nations, usually in the name of God.

But it was an ideal, and during most of my lifetime, at least, America inched closer to it. Its biggest cities became increasingly multiracial, then increasingly interracial. It showed the world what rule of law really meant. The nation elected a black president. And in the last century, America pushed successfully for rules-based trade, reasoning that nations with interlaced economies don't make war on one another.

Reagan's vision of free ports humming with commerce, surrounded by walls with doors open to courageous, exhausted new arrivals actually took form.

But it was never real. The changes were always grudging, and, it turns out, easily dismantled by a man never as elegantly articulate as JFK or Reagan or Obama, but who nonetheless better represents the true soul of America.

Along the southern border, families with the will and the heart to flee misery and seek asylum are being torn apart — the parents charged and prosecuted and deported, rather than welcomed through open doors. Their children, alone and terrified, sit numbly in tent cities erected by ICE, Donald Trump's freshly empowered immigration enforcers, who keep visiting do-gooders away, even papering over windows to hide what's going on within.

A woman sent back to Guatemala without her son tearfully wonders if she will ever see him again.

A former Republican first lady compares the detention centres to the Japanese-American internment camps of the Second World War.

A former military general, and former CIA and NSA director, noted that other governments have separated children from parents, tweeting a picture of Auschwitz-Birkenau's railroad spur.

Most of the criticism has invoked morality, or Christian values. But this president is clearly uninterested in either, despite his closeness to evangelical Christian leaders and his own avowal of faith.

He's sensed that his voters, which are really what count, want ruthlessness, and that they can easily be persuaded to see it as patriotic: a notion he eagerly promotes.

Any criticism he treats as just politics, the easiest course of action in a country where even Supreme Court decisions are regarded as partisan.

The stated purpose of his policy is to make it clear to the world that having the "will and the heart" to get to the shining city on the hilltop will leave you in prison and your children at least temporarily orphaned. Trump wants to build an actual wall around the hilltop city, one with no doors, topped with concertina wire. Judging from his successes so far, he likely will.

Government criticized for separating children from parents and placing minors in cage-like conditions 2:03

As for America's race issues, suffice it to say that white America has not had so bold a champion since George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. Take a moment and look at Virginia's new Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, Corey Stewart, backed and praised lavishly by the president.

Which brings us to the hilltop city's free ports, humming with commerce. Trump is single handedly putting an end to that, too, making something else clear to the world: rules-based trade and commerce is for chumps.

To him, America's allies are weak fools – he actually taunts them publicly – who need to understand that what counts is American power, against which they cannot prevail. Either they accept his terms, or he crushes them. Already, he's labelled their exports a threat to America's national security.

His protectionist tariffs are already sending shocks through the interconnected global economy, and have prominent economists disbelievingly calculating the costs.

There's some irony here, of course. The political left has denounced globalization and the lowering of trade barriers for years. Well, they're about to get what they wanted, from a most unlikely hero.

Rationally, you'd expect unimpeded information and serious analysis about the consequences of Trump's rampage through the hilltop city to fuel a backlash so immediate as to stop him in his tracks.

But, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in the year and a half since Trump's victory, facts don't matter anymore, and neither do the journalists and experts who struggle to put them forth.

The U.S. president said the Democrats are 'obstructing' an immigration bill that would be 'good for the children.' 0:39

As journalism professor Jay Rosen has persuasively argued, Trump is clearly winning his war against the media, an institution Trump has described as a great danger to America.

Fact-checking, the essence of journalism, no longer matters much, says Rosen, because it carries no consequence.

Politicians, caught lying, used to at least stop repeating the lie, even if they wouldn't admit having lied. Being a proven liar was just too uncomfortable. No longer. Trump lies easily and overwhelmingly; he couldn't give a toss about fact-checkers, and neither do his supporters. The brazen lie is now of no more consequence than serial philandering or consorting with foreign enemies who want to corrupt elections.

Donald Trump, who loves winning, is winning. He is beating America's allies, he is crushing America's media, he is demonizing and desiccating American law enforcement, and hinting that in the end, he might even use his pardon power to sweep away rule of law. He has in fact already done so.

In her op-ed for The Washington Post, Laura Bush asked for compassion, kindness and morality. This is not America, she argued

Well, yes it is. Trump is America, and America, it turns out, isn't so exceptional after all.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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