Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump and the New Cruelty

From The Weekly Standard:

n the movie L.A. Story, the character played by Chevy Chase goes to a hyper-fashionable restaurant named, appropriately enough, L’Idiot.

He is greeted by the maitre d’, played by Patrick Stewart, who asks, ‘Your usual table?”

“No,” Chase’s character responds, “I’d like a good one this time.”

“I’m sorry, that is impossible,” Stewart’s character replies.

“Part of the new cruelty?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Although L.A. Story was released in 1991, it has supplied us with an apt rubric for our own times; the New Cruelty is the Trumpian successor to the New Deal and Great Society.

I was reminded of it watching the viral video of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, defend the policy of separating children from their mothers and fathers at the border. (Less than 24 hours later, Trump would reverse course and issue an executive order he said would stop the practice, although it’s unclear how that will work.)

Appearing on Fox News, Lewandowski mocked a story about a 10-yearold with Down syndrome being separated from her parents. “Wahh, wahh,” Lewandowski cracked, making “a dismissive trombone-like sound effect,” as the Washington Post described it.

The reaction to Lewandowski’s crassness was justifiably outraged. “There is no low to which this coward Corey Lewandowski won’t sink,” tweeted Megyn Kelly, “This man should not be afforded a national platform to spew his hate.”

And, indeed, Lewandowski seems especially vile in an era in which vileness increasingly appears to be a career path. But was his insensitive gibe off-message? Or was it simply a cruder version of the New Cruelty that has displaced whatever was left of “compassionate conservativism.”

In Trump’s world, there was nothing inconsistent about a policy that stripped children away from illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers. Trump rode to the presidency by embracing broad, crudely designed policies—from the proposed ban on all Muslims, to mass deportations of all illegals—that ineluctably lead to a zero-tolerance policy that demands the arrest of all illegal border-crossers, even those with infants or children.

Trump ran on this sort of thing, and his supporters enthusiastically cheered polices that treat large populations as an undifferentiated mass, regardless of individual circumstances. These policies do not treat individuals based on the “content of their character,” or their merit, or the exigencies of their circumstances, but on their religion, nationality, and immigration status.

At the same time, the president has cultivated a studied insensitivity, treating empathy as a sign of weakness or fecklessness. The distinctive rhetoric of Trumpism isn’t merely the use of insult and invective against political opponents; it is also the brutal willingness to degrade and demonize others as “animals” and “rapists,” while unsubtly comparing them to the sort of vermin who will “infest” the country.

The embrace of swaggering callousness became a hallmark of Trumpism, with harshness masquerading as toughness and cruelty as a sign of strength. All the better if it triggers the libs. This is how we get the on-air mockery of a story about a child with Down syndrome being separated from her mother.

Ironically, conservatives used to lead the charge against zero-tolerance policies, because they produce foolish, knee-jerk, bureaucratic responses that lack common sense and result in absurd outcomes. It was in the name of zero tolerance that a kindergartner was once suspended for bringing a dinosaur-shaped squirt gun to school and it was zero-tolerance that led school boards to such excesses as expelling a high school student for having a single tablet of Advil in her purse.

But now, somehow, “zero-tolerance,” with its blunt force mindlessness, has become the go-to policy for securing our borders. (Even with the new executive order, that policy remains in place.)

What’s important to recognize is that the children were not collateral damage of Trump’s policy: They were the entire point. Removing them from their parents was designed to be shocking because their trauma was intended as a deterrent. Under the New Cruelty, the pitiless separation of young children from their mothers was supposed to send a chilling message to anyone foolish enough to seek asylum here.

More important, it was supposed to project strength, or at least the bully’s imitation of strength.

Perhaps more than any other trait, it is this that motivates Trump: his need to appear strong and his fear of looking weak.

Lewandowski, in this sense, is a bit player. He is just another of the menagerie of misfit toys, in the likeness of Steve Bannon, who feed off Trump’s sundry insecurities. They do not shape or influence those anxieties, they simply minister to them, encouraging the president in his use of spite to substitute for real strength.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt described the New Cruelty as the ultimate victory of Bannonism:

Truculent, anti-immigrant nationalism; disdain for the “deep state”; disparaging democratic allies while celebrating dictators: These are now the pillars of President Trump’s rule. In his administration’s policy, foreign and domestic, and in the compliant Republican Party, Bannonism is ascendant.

But, as Hiatt later acknowledges, Bannonism is now indistinguishable from Trumpism. Perhaps it always was, because Trump’s presidency has never really been about his staff, his Cabinet, or his advisers.

Last year, after Bannon’s spectacular defenestration, I cautioned those who thought that it might mark a significant shift in the direction of Trumpism:

But while it's tempting to see Bannon's fall as an inflection point, the reality is that his departure does nothing to change the fundamental nature of this presidency, which continues to be shaped by Donald Trump's hollow core, erratic character and impulsivity…. 

As malign an influence as Bannon was, it seems naïve to now expect a more modulated or moderate Trump. Instead, we can expect Trump to attempt to insulate himself against Bannonite attacks by throwing out even more red meat for his base, and escalating the culture wars that Bannon has done so much to foment. 

In other words, don't expect much to change. Bannon may have helped write the ill-fated travel ban, but it was Trump who denounced "Mexican rapists," and Trump who called for a Muslim ban. It was Trump, not Bannon, who rose from reality TV stardom to political prominence and power by spreading birther conspiracy theories. 

It was Trump, not Bannon, who retweeted white supremacists and refused to distance himself from white nationalists during the campaign; Trump, not Bannon, who attacked a Mexican-American judge, demeaned women and mocked a disabled reporter. 

Divorcing Bannon doesn't fix what is wrong with this presidency. The cancer at the heart of this White House isn't the staff. It's the man in the Oval Office and he is not changing.

That’s aged pretty well.