“The cruelty is the point” is a phrase created by The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer in an October 2018 essay (it was later expanded into a book). It describes the supposed rejoicing that occurred over Donald Trump’s cruel policies, such as the no-tolerance family separations of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers at the Mexican border.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit in 2019, seeking damages for the toll the separations took on migrant families. Other attorneys stepped in to file similar claims on behalf of their clients.
In late October 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration was in talks to settle the lawsuits with a whopping figure of $450,000 as a possible high point. President Biden later disputed that number but was all in on the compensation. During a press conference to celebrate the House’s passage of the infrastructure bill, a reporter asked about the payments.
Biden’s response started blandly. Still, his supposed anger at the “outrageous behavior of the last administration” came through when he seethed about families losing their children, forcefully pointing as his voice rose. To those families, he said, “you deserve some kind of compensation, no matter what the circumstance.”
Naturally, the statement received sloppy-kiss praise from Democratic partisans and allies in the press. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain’s favorite Biden booster, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, tweeted, “Biden shows righteous anger in acknowledging people who lost their child in border debacle under Trump deserve compensation. YES.”
It hearkened back to the 2020 campaign, when there was a deluge of commentary about how Biden supposedly displayed empathy while Trump couldn’t or didn’t want to. For many, Biden’s projection of “righteous anger” was more the point than anything else. He was standing up for people in the wake of Trump’s “outrageous behavior.”
However, as the saying goes, “talk is cheap.”
In December, the Biden administration exited talks over compensation for separated families. The plaintiffs smelled a rat, but the Justice Department put on a happy face with a statement that said, “While the parties have been unable to reach a global settlement agreement at this time, we remain committed to engaging with the plaintiffs and to bringing justice to the victims of this abhorrent policy.”
As expected, this news didn’t cause much of an uproar in the press, and Jennifer Rubin was nowhere to be found. I imagine whatever negative feelings they might have had were soothed by the calming words of the Justice Department and their “commitment” to the victims of Trump’s cruelty.
Well, here we are a month later, and the Justice Department’s message to the families to which they claimed a commitment is: “nah.” They’ve gone to court to say the families are not entitled to compensation, seeking dismissal of the cases.
Attorneys for the Justice Department argued that the federal government has wide latitude when implementing immigration policy and is immune from these types of lawsuits. In its brief, filed on January 7, the department said, “At issue in this case is whether adults who entered the country without authorization can challenge the federal government’s enforcement of federal immigration laws. They cannot.”
The DOJ did insist, however, that they didn’t condone Trump’s border policy. How empathetic of them.
This episode provides particular insight into the fallacy of relying on the expression of emotion when it comes to governing. Yes, we want elected officials to maintain some sense of decorum and show respect for the offices they hold, particularly at the federal level. We also don’t elect robots, so we expect them to behave accordingly. However, the ease with which so many in the press react to how a politician makes them feel does a disservice to their readers, listeners, and viewers. It removes the skepticism those journalists should have, whether they agree or disagree with a politician.
In the case of compensation for separated families, when push came to shove, the Biden administration shoved and said, “Get out of here, and don’t come back.” That should serve as a wake-up call to the press to stop concerning themselves with Biden’s displays of emotion and focus instead on what he and his administration do.