The Factual and Rhetorical Silliness of Family Separation Whataboutism
People who supported Trump's policy justified it by falsely claiming that today's critics never cared about Obama's detention facilities.
"OBAMA KEPT THEM IN CAGES," screams the headline at The Drudge Report. "WRAPPED THEM IN FOIL." Which seems like an odd way to advertise the virtues of President Donald Trump's freshly discontinued policy of separating children from parents caught entering the country without permission, although perhaps I'm not the target audience.
The story Drudge links to is even odder. "HERE ARE THE PHOTOS OF OBAMA'S ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT DETENTION FACILITIES THE MEDIA WON'T SHOW YOU," The Daily Caller proclaims. "Photos of border detention facilities from the Obama-era, taken during 2014, look nearly identical to the ones taken during the Trump era," reporter Benny Johnson writes. "You never see them, however. Here they are, taken in 2014 during a media tour of Obama-era detention facilities in Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, Arizona." It's like a Möbius strip of sophomoric right-wing media criticism. THE MSM NEVER SHOWS YOU THESE PHOTOS THAT WERE TAKEN BY THE MSM!
More in that vein from professional Trump booster Ryan Fournier:
The media won't show you this, but these are photos taken during President Obama's term of detention facilities in 2014. Why was there no outrage when he was doing it? What is so different now? pic.twitter.com/elyzNtUVV6
— Ryan Fournier (@RyanAFournier) June 20, 2018
To say that there was "no outrage" about Obama's detention facilities is to tacitly admit that looking up news articles published in 2014 is just too heavy a lift. The opportunistic-outrage charge gets levied at Reason every time we write about the Trump administration's immigration enforcement policies. "Children in cages in 2014 was okay because Obama," one self-described "Classical Liberal" recently tweeted at us.
"Obama Is No BFF of Latino Immigrants or Civil Liberties," says another Reason headline from the time. "How Obama's War on Drugs Destroys Legal Immigrant Families," goes another. The search engine is your friend.
To the extent that a through line can be detected within family-separation whataboutism, it's something like TRUMP GOOD, MEDIA/DEMOCRATS BAD. Fair enough. But today's most dexterous whataboutists are depriving themselves of a key insight today that may cushion the blow of tomorrow's disappointments. Yes, yes, it's true—you can even find it on my Twitter feed and Reason archive!—that some of the politicians criticizing Trump's policies this past week spent other periods in their lives echoing some of the president's immigration rhetoric and policy recommendations. Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, John McCain, Bill Clinton; the list is long.
But what do we learn when examining how pols—very much including Donald Trump—have changed their minds or emphases on a given hot-button issue? One perennial lesson is that most politicians are full of dukey and hold their fingers to the winds of public opinion. But if you hate John McCain and Bill Clinton as much as the average Trump enthusiast does, shouldn't it make you feel less comfortable, not more, that they sounded like immigration hawks precisely when they felt that their re-election chances were threatened (Clinton in 1995-96, McCain in 2010)?
It's easy to notice when politicians you despise make insincere, absolutist promises they cannot possibly fulfill on issues you care deeply about. But what if the new guy you do like, who only truly came to this issue in the course of trying to win a highly competitive Republican primary, was also pandering? What if it turns out you cannot "seal the border," can't get Mexico to pay for a wall, and can't even build the sucker yourself without bulldozing the whole notion of private property? What if, in the course of pursuing these impossible zero-tolerance dreams, you employ police-state tactics that overwhelming majorities of Americans find abhorrent?
When all that happens (it's really not an if), it may be time to examine your own assumptions about what is possible, let alone desirable, in immigration policy. Until then, though, TRUMP GOOD, MEDIA/DEMOCRATS BAD.
From the archives: