On Tuesday, millions of Americans marked Juneteenth, a celebration of emancipation from chattel slavery in the United States. That same day, President Trump made vicious attacks on immigrants and asylum-seekers at the southern border, blaming them for “death and destruction,” blasting them as potential “thieves and murders,” and likening them to an infestation—vermin that must be removed.
America exists, and has always existed, in the tension between the values of Juneteenth and those of our current president—of freedom and equality versus hierarchy and caste, of inclusion versus white supremacy, of democratic optimism versus the tyranny of fear. You can almost look at the past several years as a national debate over the boundaries of American identity and the reach of our compassion and concern—a dialectic with Barack Obama on one side and Donald Trump on the other. And while millions of Americans have responded to Trump’s election by rallying on behalf of women, refugees, and now immigrants, embodying our most expansive values, there are also many Americans—far more than we tend to acknowledge—who share the president’s circumscribed view of our national promise.
“It’s the parents that bring them up, and they already know they’re going to take them away, so to me there’s no issue there,” said Ron Carroll, a 69-year-old retiree and Trump supporter who spoke to CNN about the president’s family-separation policy. “I blame it on the parents for letting it happen because they bring them up and know they can’t get across there legally.” Another Trump voter, 84-year-old Carl Bier, echoed this view. “Here’s how I feel about it: When I was a kid, 16 years old, I got fined for swimming in a lake ’cause I didn’t follow the rules,” he said. “These people that we have coming across the border illegally are breaking the rules. I have no feelings for them at all.”
These are just ordinary people. But it’s that ordinariness that makes their view noteworthy. They express a common indifference that is justified through an appeal to authority. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same attitude has marked four years of arguments over violence against black Americans, from Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, to Renisha McBride’s at the hands of Theodore Wafer, to Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling—who were each killed by police officers.
After each of these deaths, outrage from activists and community members was met by incredulity and hostility from those who believed the killings were justifiable. Some of this came from pundits, like former NYPD detective Harry Houck, who argued on CNN that police “didn’t have a choice” but to shoot Rice on arrival. Or Bob McManus, an opinion writer for the New York Post who blamed both Garner and Brown for their own deaths: “Each broke the law—petty offenses, to be sure, but sufficient to attract the attention of the police. And then—tragically, stupidly, fatally, inexplicably—each fought the law.” Garner, he concluded, “was a victim of himself. It’s just that simple.”
But in social media posts, letters to the editor, and occasional interviews, ordinary Americans also expressed similar views, sympathizing with police and sometimes blaming victims. “Why is the press all over the police for just doing their jobs?” read one such letter to the Chicago Tribune, citing the potential danger to officers if they reacted too cautiously. “If you hesitate or make the wrong choice, you are dead.” Some of the rebuttals became common refrains: “He shouldn’t have resisted” or “He should have followed orders,” reflecting the same belief in obedience and authority we see now with the defense of family separation.
In terms of policy, police violence against black Americans and child separation against migrants and asylum-seekers are very different issues. But they share a thematic connection. Both reflect racial hierarchies that place some people beyond the reach of decency and humanity. Both reflect, in striking clarity, the actual origins of this country in racism, violence, and expropriation, and both raise a fundamental question of national identity: Who is this country for?
This question has always been at the center of our politics, and we’ve almost always fallen short of its most inclusive answer, as articulated by Thomas Jefferson. But there are long periods when we fall especially short, when we abandon the aspiration of universal equality in favor of old notions of blood and soil. Jim Crow was one of them; the nativist 1920s were another. And it appears we’re now living through yet another era of democratic retrenchment, personified by our current president but driven by larger forces of culture, society, and economics.
“On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in an 1855 letter to a fellow lawyer and Kentuckian. “When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that ‘all men are created equal’ a self evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim ‘a self evident lie.’ ”
Lincoln was writing of chattel slavery and its presence in an ostensibly democratic republic. But you could say the same now, in the wake of child detentions, as our government prepares tent cities and internment camps for people desperate to find freedom and safety. On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been.