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Fintan O’Toole: Trump’s test-marketing of barbarism entering new phase

Last year’s trial run for fascism was a success. Now the policy is being refined

Euphemism is integral to every level of atrocity, from collateral damage to legitimate target to final solution. A new one is marinating right now in the White House kitchen: binary choice.

It has absorbed all the necessary essences of modern evil. It has just the right self-cancelling contrariness of flavour: “binary” as the seasoning of technological rigour and moral neutrality, “choice” with the humane hint of sweetness and light. But it tastes of evil.

What it means in this context is a sadistic assault on extremely vulnerable families, a policy of gleeful callousness. What it means is the next step in pre-fascism. It is what lies behind Donald Trump's dismissal this week of his secretary for homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen.

Binary choice is the brainchild Trump's most serious and effective far-right adviser Steve Miller. It is one of the most exultant refinements on pure cruelty ever thought up by a government in a democracy.


What it seeks to refine is the policy of separating children from their families on the border between the US and Mexico, and then essentially disappearing those children, some of them just toddlers, into a deliberately opaque system of confinement. The binary choice is a way to stop courts interfering with this vicious policy.

Brutally ingenious

It is brutally ingenious. A family seeking asylum is to be offered a choice of evils. The parents can “voluntarily” agree that their kids are to be dragged away from them, not knowing if or when they will see them again.

Or they can “choose” to sign a waiver of all those children’s legal rights. This will in turn allow the children to be imprisoned alongside the parents while they await a ruling on their application for asylum – in other words indefinitely.

This is an exquisite form of mental torture, a Sophie’s Choice for our times: imprison your child or kiss her goodbye. It adds a very specific and deliberate psychological violence to the physical violence from which so many of these families are fleeing: whatever trauma is inflicted on your children, you and you alone have chosen it.

Last year, when there was widespread outrage at the Trump administration’s policy of dragging children away from their families, the consensus was that the policy was a mistake, a miscalculation, a step too far.

Trump's nexus is not fascist but it is pre-fascist – it is market-testing savagery

I suggested then that, on the contrary, it needs to be understood as test-marketing, a practice Trump knows very well from his careers in property hyping and in TV. You throw out something outrageous, see how it flies, pull it back, refine it and relaunch it. In this case the product being tested is barbarism.

Trump’s nexus is not fascist but it is pre-fascist – it is market-testing savagery. And babies in cages are the materials for the experiment: let’s see how far we can go.

Entirely embraced

I suggested at the time that, contrary to the general opinion, the test results were very pleasing. The policy was entirely embraced by Trump’s base: most significantly for him the Christian “family values” constituency was not at all repelled by assaults on the wrong sorts of families.

And it was also a hit with his crucial media constituency, especially Fox News. Wherever Rupert Murdoch and his stable of propagandists were going to draw the line, it was not here: Trump's surrogate Corey Lewandowski made animal noises live on TV in response to a report of a 10-year-old Down syndrome girl traumatised by being taken away from her mother. Fox host Laura Ingraham said the child detention centres were "essentially summer camps". Also on Fox, Ann Coulter urged people not to be fooled by "child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7".

If this stuff is not familiar to anyone with the slightest knowledge of mid-20th- century history, it damn well ought to be.

Trump's administration has not, in spite of court orders, returned all the separated kids to their families

What I suggested last June was that the success of this process of trying out barbarism meant that the policy would not be abandoned, even when the courts outlawed it: “the tests will be refined, the results analysed, the methods perfected, the messages sharpened.” This has turned out to be all too obviously true.

Court orders

First, Trump’s administration has not, in spite of court orders, returned all the separated kids to their families. Under court orders, the government accounted for and returned 2,737 snatched children. But a report issued in January by the inspector general of the US department of health and human services finds “thousands of children may have been separated” before the accounting required by the courts began and that the number and whereabouts of these children remains “unknown”.

This is a deliberate policy: the breach in basic moral standards is kept open by keeping thousands of children in limbo. Last week, Trump’s administration said it would take up to two more years to even identify these kids.

Second, there is the otherwise strange business of Kirstjen Nielsen. Why has she been sacked? She fully implemented her master’s successful testing of the most basic human boundaries. She is a moral wretch, which surely qualifies her to hold her job.

But she seems to have misunderstood the whole point of the exercise. She did what an old-fashioned practitioner of political mendacity does when confronted with an outrage – she denied it. Last June, she tweeted, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.” She repeated this line before Congress last month.

Dragging kids away from their families and disappearing them is not something to be ashamed of

It is what such abysmal people do, but it showed that she does not get it. The point is not that we are not doing this atrocious thing but that we are doing it and, go on admit it to yourself, you kind of like it, don’t you?

Signature policy

The denial has to go, and Nielsen has to go with it. The results of last year’s tests have been fully assessed and what the assessment says is: go for it. Dragging kids away from their families and disappearing them is not something to be ashamed of. It is to be the signature policy of the Trump administration. The base has now been blooded and it likes the taste.

But there is now an extra ingredient cooked up in the fetid kitchen of pre-fascism: binary choice. If the kids are in cages, it is because their parents chose to keep them there. If they are dragged away, it is because their parents chose to be rid of them. See? Not like us these people, not really human. These monsters don’t deserve any sympathy and while the liberal idiots fall for the tears of the child actors, our great leader knows better.

And so there is a binary choice indeed and it faces all of us who still live in democracies.

We collude in barbarism. Or we fight it while we still can.