The fourth Republican presidential debate was, by most accounts, a bit of a snoozer. But in a good way. There was less interpersonal conflict, more substantive discussion of economic policy. Donald Trump, in particular, was judged “subdued” and “surprisingly subdued” and “uncharacteristically subdued.” Trump himself pronounced it “a very elegant evening.”
All very forgettable, civil and elegant. Except the part where the Republican front-runner proposed the forced expulsion of 11 million people and endorsed the historical precedent of “Operation Wetback,” an Eisenhower-era mass-deportation program that was as ugly and offensive as its name.
Trump did not actually say that name, presumably because it would have sounded racist. (I apologize for the necessity of using it in order to make my argument.) But shouldn’t it set off moral and ethical alarm bells when a candidate embraces a policy with a historical label too loathsome to mention in public?
Instead, Trump said: “Dwight Eisenhower. You don’t get nicer. You don’t get friendlier. They moved 1.5 million people out. We have no choice.”
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The operation in question, energetically led by Army Gen. Joseph Swing, probably did move more than a million undocumented Mexican immigrants back to Mexico (though the figure may be exaggerated). People were taken with few possessions, in stroke-inducing heat, deep into the Mexican interior and dropped off, at first by bus, then on cargo boats in conditions a congressional investigation later compared to 18th-century slave ships. Eventually there was a mutiny aboard the Mercurio after seven passengers drowned jumping from the ship. Dozens of others died after being left in sweltering, remote locations. This had been an embarrassing and largely forgotten historical footnote.
Until Trump. People have gotten accustomed and inured to the proposal at the heart of Trump’s appeal. But it is a policy that gets uglier with specificity. He wants to deport all undocumented immigrants, along with children who are American citizens with undocumented parents. Trump would require that all be detained until they are deported. “I think it’s a process,” says Trump, “that can take 18 months to two years if properly handled.”
So, a dramatically expanded Immigration and Customs Enforcement “deportation force” (Trump’s words) would take people from their homes – where some have lived, worked and worshipped for decades – using a massive fleet of buses to transport millions of frightened men, women and children to hundreds (thousands?) of mass detention centers surrounded by fences and (inevitably) barbed wire. “We are rounding them up in a very humane way, in a very nice way,” Trump explains, “and they’re going to be happy because they want to be legalized.”
This happy roundup would be recorded on countless cellphones and uploaded into a crescendo of Internet outrage. Would cities with large Latino populations cooperate with ICE? Would churches revive the Underground Railroad? Would there be mass protests and civil disobedience? Would encouraged vigilantes take matters into their own hands? Would informers use the dragnet to conduct vendettas?
This is how Trump would “make America great again.”
To their everlasting credit, Jeb Bush and John Kasich disputed Trump on immigration during the debate. Mass deportation, according to Bush, would “tear communities apart” and “send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is.”
Kasich was right to point out that Trump’s proposal is not only cruel but “silly.” Trump wants some unspecified vetting mechanism to let “the good ones” come quickly back. The vast majority, after being rounded up, put in detention facilities, sent to their country of origin by bus, plane and ship, would go back to start.
Here is an idea. Why not vet them in place? Make sure they have no felony convictions, are working and paying taxes, speak English, and wait their turn for a decade before being allowed to apply for a green card? Which is what the Senate-passed immigration bill mandated.
Yet more than immigration policy is at stake here. The consistent Republican front-runner admires Vladimir Putin, calls for strong-arm personal leadership on nearly every issue and wants to conduct a massive national roundup of people he considers undesirables, rapists and criminals. It takes a certain kind of leader to look at the mess of American politics and conclude that what we really need is more detention camps.
Republicans cannot get inured to this without sacrificing the future of their party. As well as its soul.
Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.