Perhaps no single theme animated Donald Trump’s run for president as much as “winning.” But in reality, success is only an occasional byproduct of President Trump’s primary inspiration, which is cruelty.
Trumpism is a zero-sum worldview — someone has to lose for someone else to win — and winning isn’t worth the effort unless your opponent isn’t merely defeated but also crushed. Trump would not deny this assessment. He was raised by his father to be a “killer” in business and has noted in a number of his books how much satisfaction he derives from doling out punishment, whether it’s on his ex-wives, ungrateful beauty pageant contestants, or politicians who refuse to provide his real estate projects with sufficiently generous tax breaks.
On the campaign trail, Trump lamented that America doesn’t win anymore and that only a winner like him — so successful in business, in television ratings, in romancing and marrying models, in remaining relevant in popular culture for over three decades — could successfully address the concerns of “real Americans.” Whether the problem ailing his base was criminals ravaging their cities, illegal immigrants raping their women and stealing their jobs, or refugees from war-torn countries coming to impose sharia law on the Bible Belt, Trump promised that he alone could fix it, because he is a winner.
On Tuesday, when the Trump administration announced the president’s intention to kill DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival), he gave his base a win. But he also brutishly reneged on a promise made by the Obama administration to uniquely vulnerable people — undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children — to trust the government, come out of the shadows, and embrace a path to citizenship. This betrayal is red meat for Trump’s nativist base that irrationally considers all immigration to be a threat to both working-class employment and Western civilization.
Yet because of its wanton cruelty, the move has rankled even a number of high-ranking congressional Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the pro-Trump immigration hawk Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — both of whom vigorously opposed President Obama’s executive order creating DACA, but both of whom feel it is Congress’ place to address the issue through legislation, rather than uprooting the lives of 800,000 young immigrants, many of whom know no other country than America.
The fact that among these 800,000 “DREAMers” (named for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) are valedictorians, military veterans, and doctors makes no difference to Trump or his nationalist allies. Nor does it matter to them that entire families are put at risk for deportation by this action. To hardcore Trumpists, DREAMers are just budding rapists or murderers, and ours is a country of secure borders and the rule of law, so they must all pay.
Winning and cruelty go hand in hand with Trump, and a policy doesn’t even have to be successful to be considered a win, it just has to be needlessly vicious. In authorizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reboot the failed and bipartisanly despised war on drugs, Trump ignores the fact that punitive prohibition has contributed to the bloating of prison populations, ravaged inner cities, and turned local police agencies into militarized occupying armies. To Trump, the only reason armies don’t win is because their hands are tied, and Trump supports Sessions’ quixotic determination to win the drug war through vigorous enforcement and punishment.
The sudden and shocking moment in January when Trump suspended the U.S. refugee admissions program and halted visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries — including U.S. green card holders and people already on planes — was cruel, impractical, and sowed chaos. Though it interfered with businesses and educational institutions, it was a Trumpist’s win, because the president demonstrated to his base that he’s the type of guy who will wield the blunt force of presidential power without so much as thinking it through.
When Trump announced his ban on transgender troops in the military, and the removal of the approximately 1,000 already serving, the evangelicals who swallowed their sense of morality and voted for the philandering vulgarian with the penchant for sexual harassment were rewarded with a pointlessly cruel policy that the U.S. military neither asked for nor wanted. But still, winning.
Upon pardoning Sheriff Joe Arpaio — who abused his state-granted power to violate constitutional rights as a matter of policy — the president praised the disgraced sheriff’s toughness. Though Arpaio’s sadism included (but was not limited to) placing women and children in chain gangs, feeding detainees barely subsistence-level amounts of food, and housing them outdoors in what he called “concentration camps” under scorching Arizona heat (157 people would die while in custody on Arpaio’s watch), Trump admires a man who knows how to punish people. As does Trump’s base, and because it so outraged “the media” and “liberals,” the presidential pardon of an unrepentant convicted criminal can be sold as more of that promised winning.
The deportation of the DREAMers — should it come to pass — would be a national stain on the honor of the United States for all time. Even Republican congressional leaders who opposed President Obama’s creation of DACA recognize that simply repealing it is savagely inhumane, and while they can attempt to distance themselves from Trump’s cruelty to their hearts’ content, it won’t matter to Team #MAGA. The more the president inflicts pain, the more they’ll be convinced they are winning.