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'They Are So Well Taken Care Of': The Worst Moment Of The Debate Reminded Us Exactly Who Donald Trump Is

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the final presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. This is the last debate between the two candidates before the election on November 3. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the final presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. This is the last debate between the two candidates before the election on November 3. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“They are so well taken care of.”

That line from President Donald Trump during Thursday night’s debate — referring to 545 migrant children who haven’t seen their parents for more than two years — prompted an audible gasp in my household. The notion that a child who was pulled from his family at the U.S. border, who has been living with relatives or in foster homes for years as the pandemic slows down efforts to locate his parents, has been treated well by the government? Who says that?

The president of the United States.

That was the moment of truth in this final debate of the 2020 race, the reminder of where this all started, and how much of Trump’s political success was built around hard-core immigration policies, incendiary language, and a stunning lack of human empathy. It was the final debate of 2016 when Trump unleashed his famous line about “bad hombres” crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. A year earlier, declaring his candidacy, he had accused Mexico of mainly sending criminals and rapists across the border. In this debate, he played the same notes when he said that the only asylum seekers who would show up for court hearings are, “I hate to say this, but those with the lowest IQ.” (As Vox reported earlier this year, this is demonstrably untrue: 99% of asylum-seeking immigrants show up to their hearings.)

nothing symbolizes Trump’s attitude toward human suffering more than his administration’s “zero tolerance” child separation policy ...

We’ve been so consumed by the pandemic — and other aspects of the neverending chaos of the Trump years — that the immigration story has managed to sometimes fade into the background. But in truth, it has been a consistent theme of Trump’s administration. In the earliest weeks of his presidency, Trump issued a temporary ban on immigrants from countries that happened to be Muslim. In 2017, he tried to end DACA, the program that protects the undocumented “dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. as children. (The courts stopped him, but this past July, his administration announced that it would reject new DACA applications.) In 2018, several newspapers reported, Trump complained behind closed doors that the U.S. gets too many immigrants from “s***hole countries.”

But nothing symbolizes Trump’s attitude toward human suffering more than his administration’s “zero tolerance” child separation policy, a heartless attempt at deterrence that plucked children from their parents and held them in detention facilities for weeks, under conditions that observers said were unsafe and unsanitary.

A child takes part in a protest of migrants and human rights activists against U.S. and Mexican migration policies at the San Ysidro crossing port, in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on the border with the U.S., on October 21, 2020, amid the new coropnavirus pandemic. - With the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), asylum seekers were forced to remain in Mexico while their migration cases were processed. But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. authorities suspended most asylum procedures leaving thousands of migrants stranded along the border. (Photo by Guillermo Arias/ via Getty Images)
A child takes part in a protest of migrants and human rights activists against U.S. and Mexican migration policies at the San Ysidro crossing port, in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on the border with the U.S., on October 21, 2020, amid the new coropnavirus pandemic. - With the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), asylum seekers were forced to remain in Mexico while their migration cases were processed. But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. authorities suspended most asylum procedures leaving thousands of migrants stranded along the border. (Photo by Guillermo Arias/ via Getty Images)

Those 545 children, whose fate was revealed in a court filing this week, are a byproduct of that policy. When moderator Kristen Welker asked Trump about them in the debate, he deflected. He brought up a photograph of children inside chain-link enclosures on the Texas border, and noted, correctly, that those “cages” were built during the Obama Administration. (They were intended as a place where children would stay for up to 72 hours before they could be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services.)

Biden steered the conversation back to the present — but, more strikingly, he steered the conversation back to a human level. He took the perspective of the migrant parents, his voice rising in a way it seldom has in previous debates. “Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated, and now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents,” he said. “And those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”

But if Trump is aiming to sway suburban mothers ... then sounding immune to the trauma of children might not be the way to do it.

The exchange tied directly into Biden’s closing argument: That this is a campaign about values. It’s about the country’s tolerance for hateful language and policies built on a lack of empathy — for a coarseness that doesn’t match the rhetoric or values of previous Democratic or Republican administrations.

Some Americans appreciate that coarseness, whether they’re driven by fear, an appeal to law and order, or the idea of a president that — as Trump himself boasted at the debate — seldom talks like a politician. If his aim was to keep his base charged, Trump may have succeeded in this debate. He may have walked away some with attack ad fodder against Biden — most notably, when the former vice president said he wanted to eventually phase out the oil industry.

But if Trump is aiming to sway suburban mothers, at a time when polls show a growing gender gap in party affiliation, then sounding immune to the trauma of children might not be the way to do it. “They are so well taken care of.” This wasn’t the typical brash Trump insult, the all-caps hyperbole, the brazen lie. It was a casual, nonchalant, cavalier way of shrugging off human suffering, dismissing emotions, accepting cruelty. And it said everything.

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Joanna Weiss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is the editor of Experience Magazine, published by Northeastern University.

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