In a psychodrama played out on a giant scale at the US border with Mexico, the Trump administration is wrenching immigrant kids away from their parents and locking them up. Officials explain it as a "zero tolerance" policy for those crossing into America illegally. To me as a biographer of Trump, this is a re-enactment of the President's own childhood trauma, and anecdotal proof that an abusive attitude toward children can be passed from one generation to the next.
The science on intergenerational child abuse is not certain, but some studies do show that kids who were hurt at a tender age may be more likely to become abusive adults. The defining moment in Donald Trump's childhood came when, at 13, he was torn from his family home and sent to a Lord-of-the-Flies military school where, as Trump and some of his schoolmates told me, boys were beaten by grown men and then turned on each other.
When I see images of border agents separating kids and parents I recognize a similar cruelty. Others, who may not know the President's history, recognize a more general kind of meanness:
"...this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart." said former first lady Laura Bush.
"Babies torn from their parents. Can't stand it," said Oprah Winfrey.
"The effect of this type of event will follow these children into adulthood and into their entire lives," said Dr. Ana Maria Lopez, president of the American College of Physicians.
Even if Trump's actions have nothing to do with how he was treated as a child, the policy he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are enforcing speaks to a President who fails to show the normal degree of empathy we expect of our leaders.
The impact of childhood trauma is well understood by physicians and has been established by many studies. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris's book "The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity" describes the science very well. Of course no one needs a book to explain that hurting kids is wrong. Common sense tells us that pain inflicted on a child can have lasting impact.
Trump falsely claims that Democrats are to blame because they supposedly created a law that forces the separations. No such law exists. Trump's ally, US Senate candidate Joe Arpaio, says blame belongs to the moms and dads who illegally cross the border with their families in tow. Lost on Arpaio and on Sessions, who has quoted the Bible to defend the policy, is the fact that these families are refugees fleeing real danger in their home countries. Desperate to find safety, they undertake dangerous journeys and border crossings in hopes that America will meet them with compassion.
Instead of receiving the care that strangers in need deserve, the immigrant families are enduring the kind of treatment that diminishes America's ability to advocate for human rights around the world. How is a nation that mistreats children in this way going to credibly oppose human rights abuses carried out by regimes abroad? It clearly weakens US credibility in the case of any protest against authoritarian actions in North Korea or the Philippines or Venezuela, to name just three places where America needs to speak up in defense of human rights.
At home the policy foolishly ignores the fact that cruelty can enrage and radicalize victims and bystanders and inspire them to fight back. (Terrorists and criminals are born of this kind of treatment.) It also inflicts a moral trauma on American citizens who want to believe their country stands for something better. How are we supposed to hold in our hearts both the Statue of Liberty and the photos of incarcerated children?
The pain created by the zero-tolerance policy disturbs compassionate Americans because it is abuse inflicted in our name and, since we do not possess the authority to change the policy directly, we feel like powerless bystanders. However some people do have influence on the President and his decisions and here it is helpful to return to the family factor.
With the President who was treated cruelly now abusing children at the border, his wife, first lady Melania Trump, has said that something needs to be done to rectify the situation. I believe it is time for his own offspring to act.
No one in Donald Trump's world is more important and influential than his daughter Ivanka and she has reportedly pursued a pro-family, pro-children agenda. As a child, Ivanka was treated abysmally during her parents' divorce. (Consult the tabloid headlines of the day for evidence.)
By all accounts her own kids are treated with empathy and kindness, which means she has stopped the cycle of poor treatment inside the House of Trump.
Now she has the chance to do something more by speaking directly to the government's abuse of immigrant children and demanding that it stop. Decency requires nothing less.
- Doctor: Family separation is child abuse
- Dem senator: Family separation is 'official kidnapping and child abuse'
- DHS Secretary Nielsen denies separation amounts to 'child abuse'
- Senator: Family separation is kidnapping
- Differing accounts for child separation policy
- Celebs read mother's account of child separation
- Surge in family separation at border
- Sessions defends family separation with Bible
- Trump blames Dems for family separations
- DHS: 2,000 children separated from families