There was never a way to understand the forcible separation of migrant parents and their children as anything other than a program to intentionally inflict widespread punitive psychological harm. Even as Trump administration officials publicly claimed ripping apart families was an unforeseen consequence of begrudging compliance with existing immigration law, they privately promoted the policy as one that would create mental anguish to deter migrant arrivals.
In May 2018, one month before falsely claiming the administration had “never really intended to” separate families, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly gave border prosecutors their marching orders, declaring, “We need to take away children.” Rod Rosenstein, the deputy AG at the time, ordered US attorneys who had declined to pursue cases involving toddlers to make “no categorical exemption” in prosecutions merely “because of the age of a child,” despite a secret 2017 pilot of the family separation policy in which prosecutors determined children younger than 12 would likely be unable to relocate their parents. That trial run reportedly saw immigration authorities “taking breastfeeding defendant moms away from their infants,” according to one government prosecutor.
At least three Trump administration officials were warned that callously breaking up migrant families “entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” according to testimony from Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Cmdr. Jonathan White. The Trump team plowed ahead with the policy anyway, led by Stephen Miller—whose white supremacist ideology has defined this administration’s anti-immigration stance—without even bothering to develop a tracking system to reunite families. (Federal lawyers recently admitted that more than 540 children remain in custody alone because the government doesn’t know where their parents are.) “Miller made clear to us,” one Department of Homeland Security official told The New Yorker, “that if you start to treat children badly enough, you’ll be able to convince other parents to stop trying to come with theirs.”
Trauma isn’t an unforeseen byproduct of Trumpism; it is the intentional policy strategy of this administration and the hateful man who leads it. The president consistently acts on this country’s ugliest and most dangerous impulses, leveraging psychological pain and mental terror to push us further toward white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. Family separation is one of the most extreme such examples, and there are many more. The Muslim travel ban, devised by Miller and then–Trump strategist Steven Bannon and signed by Trump just seven days after taking office, was a precursor to child separation, serving essentially the same purpose: to emotionally devastate families torn apart by the law as it stemmed Muslim migration flows. Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, both threatened and carried out, knowingly create a toxic atmosphere of fear and anxiety for unauthorized migrants.
Meanwhile, this administration’s unstinting efforts to roll back LGBTQ rights, from pushing a rule that would allow shelters to deny space to unhoused transgender people to scrubbing all mention of LGBTQ rights from the White House website, have served to not only oppress and erase but also demoralize and mentally fatigue. And Trump’s repeated calls to his self-dubbed “army” of racist supporters, whom he is now urging to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for nonexistent fraudulent “thieving and stealing and robbing,” were an open incitement to violence as well as a mental poll tax levied against Black voters, in particular, to suppress their turnout. Even Trump’s daily barrage of rage tweets, which frequently bundle violence and racism—such as when he threatened anti-racist protesters with the taunt that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—are a reflection of his addled psyche and his goal of traumatizing perceived enemies and political opponents.
Thousands of Americans not directly targeted by these policies have also been justifiably shaken by Trump’s election and presidency. The ascension to the Oval Office of a sexual predator who boasted about being able to “do anything” to women, including “grab ‘em by the pussy,” retraumatized survivors forced to grapple with living in a country where many, including a plurality of white women, appear to be largely indifferent to sexual assault. The sight of Trump mocking a disabled reporter to the approval of his rally attendees served as a deeply emotionally unsettling reminder of who is unwelcome in Trump’s America. It’s no wonder that on election night 2016 and in the following months, suicide and crisis hotlines reported a precipitous rise in calls from people who specifically reported distress over Trump’s win. Likewise, mental health practitioners developed a whole series of unofficial diagnoses—Trump anxiety disorder, post-Trump stress disorder—to give name to the widespread negative mental health impacts they observed as a result of his election. These were the psychological wages of merely bearing witness to Trumpism’s celebration of casual abuse, its reflexive and rabid cruelty.
Were they less invested in the politics of white racial resentment and revenge, Trump’s followers might take notice of how easily he also traumatizes them, with increasing frequency and intensity as we close in on the election. He is fearmongering among his base and demonizing his perceived opponents—deeming Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate,” calling for “retribution” against anti-racist activists who deface Confederate monuments, insisting the suburbs will fall to antifa throngs under Joe Biden—to sow discord and chaos, inflaming anxieties all around. Trump’s use of trauma as his defining reelection tactic, after four years of sustained mental abuse, guarantees the psychological wounds of Trumpism will persist long after he exits office, and those scars will take doubly long to heal among those most directly targeted. Even with a Biden win this November, we still face years of undoing the profound breaches of trust we’ve suffered.