Paterfamilias—Trump and the perils of paternalism

No one likes to be scolded or told what to do by an authority figure, even if it is for the person’s own good. Men don’t like it. The poor and the wealthy don’t like it. Blacks don’t like it. Women don’t like it. And neither Democrats nor Republicans like the often-brusque rebukes issued by the man in the Oval Office.

President Donald Trump, though, does not seem to care about the consequences of rumpled feelings he leaves in his wake. He seems to view himself as the nation’s glowering parent, someone who does not care about offending you as long as he is actually protecting you. In his mind, as he has often stated, “I alone” can fix the problems that ail us.

I actually believe the president is well-meaning on most of the issues—whether on North Korea, Europe, immigration, taxes, trade and tariffs and the economy. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that to be effective in his role, he needs to learn to play well with others.

The political left in particular finds itself roiled up over what they see as Trump’s authoritarian bent. They fear it could easily tip over to full-scale despotism. In both his manner and policy choices, Trump has certainly demonstrated an unvarnished directness in going about the business of the country. Take for example Trump’s inelegant immigration policies. To a person such as Trump, the best way to curb illegal immigration is to stop immigrants illegally crossing the border and detain them until they can be deported. If they cannot get in, after all, and the people already here illegally are found and deported, over time that leads to lower net immigration. It is a simple mathematical equation. Three minus one plus zero equals two, and two is less than three.

However, in practice intercepting people at the border and holding them in detention until they can be deported is anything but a simple proposition, as events have proved. Once you detain immigrants, you have to care for them, especially the detained children. Many of them are coming with a whole host of physical and mental health problems—pre-existing traumas that you, their new captor, now own. It also goes against the maternal instinct of kindness and justice that many Americans feel to see children detained, separated from their parents and suffering alone in camps. There is something oddly dystopic —dare I say even fascist?—about the notion of camps full of defenseless women and children on American soil. Prior administrations sought to avoid both the administrative and public relations nightmares this scenario poses by detaining only adult men, and releasing the women and children pending adjudication.

Trump feels no such compunction. He is not, after all, the world’s father. He’s concerned only about protecting Americans. If non-citizens are trying to infiltrate our country and take our benefits through population dilution, he sees it as his duty to prevent that from happening by almost any means necessary. Some of those means have proved to be neither wise nor legal nor in fact necessary. They might even be counterproductive. Courts have rejected Trump’s ad hoc policies because of the harm they have caused to children in particular. The administration’s unwillingness or inability to comply with the court orders to reunite separated children with their parents is on the verge of creating a constitutional crisis.