The stories are filed, the pictures are posted, and the media verdict is almost unanimous: separating children from their parents is wrong, it is unAmerican, and President Donald Trump is going to suffer for it. His administration is baby-snatching. The ‘optics’ are terrible, say the hyperventilating PR men and Washington know-alls.
But if everyone stopped to breathe for a moment, they might recognise that, on this issue, as on so much else, Donald Trump is winning the politics.
Call it vice-signalling. The President and Kirstjen Nielsen are making clear that, even if it means being seen to be inhuman, they are taking voter concerns about massive immigration seriously. There is a clear political upside to this, despite – or because of – the negative headlines. ‘Zero tolerance’ on illegal immigration is popular, even if some of the unpleasant consequences are not.
Time and again, we see that the media consensus on the rights and wrongs of immigration is way out of step with what the public thinks. Look at what happened in Britain, with the Windrush scandal. There it emerged that the government, in its attempts to create an inhospitable climate for illegals, had treated some longstanding Caribbean residents as unlawful. The story sucked up enormous amounts of media oxygen – more so, arguably, than it deserved, given how few Windrush residents were targeted. Everyone who was anyone agreed that the government policy was a national disgrace, unBritish, and deeply damaging to the Prime Minister. The Home Secretary had to resign.
Then a funny thing happened. In the wake of the scandal, the government outperformed expectations in local elections, and in fact ever since Theresa May has been pulling away in the polls. Well-informed British political analysts now say that her party benefitted from Windrush, since voters appreciated the toughness on immigration even to the point of being cruel. Some even suggested the government had deliberately created the fuss to vice-signal to the electorate. Vice-signalling is the opposite of virtue-signalling, which is what a lot of the commentators now shouting about the injustice of separating families are doing. Vice-signalling involves saying or doing something that others call mean in order to show how resolute you are; how unfazed you are by public and social media denunciations. It’s becoming quite the thing.
No doubt Americans are kinder and more open-hearted than the British. But American voters can tell when the media is working itself into a self-righteous lather, and they don’t like it. They loathe journalists as much as they despise politicians, and they abhor the media’s blindness to immigration concerns.
Donald Trump is president largely because he realised that, and he hasn’t unlearnt the lesson. Why do you think Melania Trump is expressing her hope that ‘both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform’? Is she really going rogue against her husband? Fat chance.
Team Trump knows it can use the child separation issue to push their case for the wall, or just to make the President look tough-to-the-point-of-cruel. Or he can triangulate his way towards a compromise through the caring agency of that mother who happens to be his wife. Either way he wins.