Today’s lesson: We’re complete monsters.
“Some of them heard their children screaming for them in the next room. Not a single one of them had been allowed to say goodbye or explain to them what was happening.” — U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal
I have to commend the Trump administration. After 500+ days in office, it has finally crafted a policy so completely in concert with its goals that its efficacy cannot be doubted. A policy so horrifying and malevolent that it succeeds on every level desired by its creators. It does something I’ve never thought possible. It destroys the very appeal of America to foreigners.
Also to Americans, but let’s put that aside for the moment.
The Trump policy of seizing children from their mothers at the border— usually through duplicity like pretending to take the child for a bath—works on a game theory level. It’s brilliant, in the way dropping a second atomic bomb on Japan was brilliant. It suggests there is no limit to American cruelty, and no shortage of resources available to enact that cruelty. It is distinctly un-American, but Trump’s recent praise for Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin suggests that the definition of “American” is slipping south rapidly. But being barbarous and being effective are not irreconcilable. You just have to be willing to live with the monster you become after you do it.
The administration is using a “zero tolerance policy,” which I’ll dissect in theoretical terms. “Zero tolerance” is an artificial construct—it exists basically nowhere in legal scholarship—that means that law enforcement and courts have no ability to moderate punishment for any crime in a particular arena, no matter what the severity of the crime is.
The game theory of zero tolerance is this: the penalty for failure is at its maximum, so the deterrent effect is supposedly high. That’s what John Kelly thinks, anyway. Jeff Sessions thinks so too, and he’s got the Bible verse to justify it. (It’s the same one the Nazis used to justify killing dissenters.) The most monstrous of the Trump regime’s thought leaders, Stephen Miller, crowed how proud he was for thinking of it.
In the case of American border enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division is hamstrung by new rules declaring border crossers criminals. Prior to the current policy, ICE would detain suspected border crossers, determine whether they had done so, and then send them back across the appropriate border. The act of staying in the United States was prima facie illegal, but it wasn’t an imprisonable act. It did not have consequences beyond the remedy of the act.
But with a zero tolerance policy, ICE officials have no choice but to imprison the entrants—and when the entrant comes with a child, that child gets put… well, it’s complicated. Some of them go missing. Others are put in migrant detention facilities where they’re forcibly given injections of psychoactive drugs to control their behavior. If they’re babies and toddlers, they’re put in “tender age shelters”—you know, baby prisons. We’re imprisoning babies.
Unfortunately for the administration, by using a zero tolerance policy, it is committing the zero tolerance fallacy. When there is no variation in punishment, there is no limit to the severity of crime that will be committed. Any transgression brings punishment, so all who commit an offense might as well commit the worst offense, since punishment is unavoidable if caught. Don’t come alone. Come in droves. Come with families. Come with children.
The zero tolerance fallacy proves conclusively that increasing the severity of penalties has no impact on crime. If someone wants to commit a crime, they will regardless of the severity of the penalty, if a penalty exists at all. This is called the escalation of commitment, and it’s unshakable. Those committed to an action will continue regardless of whether the action will fail. So they continue to head to the border, with the intent of getting to the other side.
A migrant’s reward for success at crossing the border is potentially unlimited. The penalty for failure is fixed at its maximum, and therein lies the problem. Zero tolerance works only as long as you have unlimited resources. We don’t, of course. Our border courts are flooded. Our detention centers are overcrowded. Lord knows what’s happening at the “tender age shelters.” Because we’ve decided to treat everyone as criminals, we must build and staff concentration camp after concentration camp, till they choke the Rio Grande. They won’t stop coming as long as the America they envision is kind and just.
There is only one way to fix that. That is by being monsters. Separate children from their mothers. Lose children. Leave some wandering free to spread the story. Let them know America is a dark, evil place. Tell everyone you know. You don’t want to come here. You don’t want to live here.
We don’t want to live here.
Laura Bush doesn’t. Rosalynn Carter doesn’t. Michelle Obama doesn’t. Hillary Clinton doesn’t. Melania Trump doesn’t. All the living First Ladies don’t want this policy to exist, and four had a say in whether their husbands pursued it. Maybe Melania does too. It does look like Ivanka Trump does, though the supposed “champion for women” has cowered in darkness instead of speaking out. Donald Trump is a monster, but maybe he doesn’t like looking his wife and daughter in the eyes and saying, “I’m a monster.” Sure, he’ll falsely blame Democrats for his racist cruelty, but he’s weak in the face of criticism, and weakest in the face of criticism from women.
No one wants this except the administration and its most racist supporters. More than two-thirds of the American people want Trump to change direction. But there’s no guarantee he will. There’s no reason he should, as long as he’s committed to the destruction of America’s image abroad.
If Trump doesn’t abandon this unthinkably inhumane policy, we’ll know he’s committed to the reduction of foreign-born brown people entering the country, illegally or legally. He’ll be nothing if not consistent. After all, the only way racist white males maintain their tenuous grip on power is if there are fewer non-whites in the country. It’s simple self-preservation, KKK-style.
But if Trump follows through on his word and abandons this policy, he will surrender his signature accomplishment: convincing the world that America is the worst place on earth. At least until he thinks of something worse.
This is the eighteenth installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, and hope. These essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.