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Kate Maltby: Conservatism under President Trump, as in Europe, is no longer worried about seeming compassionate

Trump has long broken with his party's traditions -- even ones supported by President Reagan, she writes

Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN  — 

In 1980, at a political debate in Texas, a bleeding-heart liberal took it upon himself to attack America’s tough immigration law.

“We are creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family loving people that are in violation of the law,” he told his audience. “I don’t want to see … six and eight-year-old kids being made .. totally uneducated and made to feel like they’re living outside the law. These are good people, strong people.”

That bleeding-heart liberal was George H.W. Bush. His debate opponent, who fell over himself to match Bush’s compassion, was presidential rival Ronald Reagan.

You’ve likely seen this video already. In the hours leading up to President Trump’s long-telegraphed decision to scrap the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) protections for those who were brought to the US illegally as children, the clip went viral on social media, shared by those who felt it proved yet again Donald Trump’s deep rupture with the best instincts of the Republican Party’s history.

Kate Maltby

The Twitter commentariat are not wrong to point out that Trump has long broken with his party’s traditions. Trump and his supporters like to compare him to Reagan – the establishment looked down on Reagan too because he was a movie actor – but Trumpism has little in common with the anti-statist doctrine at the heart of the Reagan White House.

Reagan was inherently skeptical of the efficacy of government bureaucracy to improve people’s lives. If there is one quote that still sums up his political philosophy, it is the famous quip: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

By contrast, Donald Trump built his successful campaign for the presidency on a promise to white Americans that their financial struggles could be mitigated by a strong, interventionist government.

After signing the Disaster Proclamation last week, which released federal funds to help Houston, Trump told us: “I have signed the Disaster Proclamation, which unleashes the full force of government help.”

It is natural, and praiseworthy, for a federal government leader to provide extra support for those affected by a Texan disaster. But one wonders if Reagan would have spoken quite so glowingly of the government’s power to help.

The decision to scrap DACA, however, marks Trump’s departure not from Reaganism, but from a different tradition of Republican thought.

George H. W. Bush may have decried the law’s crackdown on “honorable, decent” illegal immigrants, but it was his son, President George W. Bush, who would firmly align the Bush family doctrine with a newly emergent form of late-20th century Republican thought: “compassionate conservatism.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions gestured towards this doctrine even as he announced yesterday the administration’s decision to end the DACA program: “We are people of compassion and we are people of law. There is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws.”

But while doing so, he turned his back on the very core of what it once meant to be a compassionate conservative.

Compassionate conservatism may sound like an oxymoron to liberals. It was by no means “conservatism lite.” Adopted by hard right-wingers across Europe as justification for hacking away at the welfare state – most notably by Britain’s highly unpopular former work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith – compassionate conservatism warns against dependence on state handouts and blames welfare for the decay of the traditional family.

Compassionate conservatism shares with Reaganism a deep skeptism of the state. One familiar definition, by Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, defines it as “the theory that the government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself.”

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Yet despite the rigor of this approach, the key part of “compassionate conservatism” is in the title – compassionate. Compassionate conservatives would argue that they didn’t defund child day-care centers because they wanted to put working women under pressure, but because they felt incentives for businesses and churches to provide them would be more effective.

Whether you agree will depend on your economics. But compassionate conservatism only really worked for American Republicans as long as the populace saw positive effects in their communities.

As Doug Wead, the Republican figure who coined the phrase, wrote in his 1992 book, “It’s Time For A Change,” even measurably successful Republican economic policies have never been vote winners if the voters perceive them as lacking compassion. (Wead, in a surprising policy shift, is now a Trump acolyte, but most of his fellow travelers from the ’90s are not.)

Fortunately for the Republican Party, there was one area of policy that allowed the Bush family to flex its compassionate muscles in the 1980s and ’90s without ever abandoning its Reaganite commitment to the small state. That area was immigration.

Compassion meant taking pity on the “six and eight year old kids” brought to America by their parents and doomed forever to live without official documentation.

Conservativism meant championing Hispanic immigrants as models of religious, family-focused self reliance. Reaganism meant reframing the presence of illegal migrants in the US as the result of failed federal policies – at home and abroad – and bowing to the pressure of big business to safeguard this source of cheap, legal labor.

The push towards immigration reform began under Reagan, with the amnesty of 1986 spearheaded by then-Vice President George H. W. Bush. It would be expanded under two Bush presidencies.

In scrapping DACA this week, Sessions reasonably argued that Obama’s protocol represented executive overreach: It acted to force through the provisions of the DREAM Act after that bill was rejected by Congress. Yet that was also how Reagan and Bush Sr. operated to extend immigration rights.

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In 1987, Reagan used his executive power to define the terms of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to protect the minor children of parents covered previously by his 1986 act. In 1989, the first President Bush did the same to force through extensions that Congress had voted down.

When municipal authorities across America act independently to issue ID cards to DREAMers, or businesses shield their illegal employees for no greater moral reason than the need for a cheap labor force, they are doing so in service of a true Bush ideal: that local authorities and businesses are the best people to step in when federal policies fail in the face of reality.

The Bush family were uniquely situated to celebrate the integration of immigrants: The lifelong teenage love story of Jeb Bush and his Mexican wife Columba has made its way into stump speeches by every member of the clan.

But the Bushes, like all patricians, were also keen to demonstrate their own charity. So were the proponents of immigration reform – Democrat or Republican – who came after them.

The individuals protected by DACA and who would have benefited from the aborted DREAM Act – those who now face deportation under Trump – could have stepped from the language of a dozen Bush speeches, as well as the Democrats who took up the cause across the aisle.

To fit the provisions of DACA, applicants had to have arrived under the age of 16 and lived in the US for five consecutive years. They had to be willing to serve in the US military in the case of conscription, to earn a GED, to be of “good moral character” with a “clean criminal record.” They had to be almost perfect.

These are not ordinary flawed people so much as walking advertisements for the compassion of their political sponsors. That Trump has been so willing to reject them signals that compassion is simply not part of his political brand. He’s interested in something else.

What compassionate conservatives recognized at the end of the 1980s is that the era of the nation state is ending. The failure of nations around the world to protect their borders is as great a marker of that change as the rise of mega-corporations.

Trump won the presidency by insisting that change could be reversed. Hence his obsession with a great wall against Mexico and his insistence on American military power.

Yet this isn’t just Trump being Trump. This is a backlash against open borders, being felt across the world. The governments of Britain and other European countries – with the notable exception of Germany – have retrenched their border controls, even as increasing numbers of migrants flee unspeakable suffering in North Africa and the Middle East.

It’s not clear that the Trump approach will survive economic inevitabilities, just as it’s not clear the European Union will survive this most existential of crises.

Conservatism in Europe, as in the US, is no longer bothered about seeming compassionate. It wants to be strong.