Even by the standards of Twitter mistakes, this weekend’s frenzied sharing of a photograph of immigrant children sleeping in a cage stands out. The picture is pretty sobering. It shows two young kids sleeping behind a chain-link gate. Their surroundings look worse than in prison: At least inmates get a bed and a toilet.
Why were we treating children worse than hardened criminals? Former Obama speechwriter (and current star of the Pod Save America franchise) Jon Favreau spoke for the outraged masses when he tweeted this:
And he wasn’t the only one. My own timeline filled with tweets and retweets. Prominent activists like Linda Sarsour shared the image, as did journalists like CNN’s Hadas Gold and Jake Silverstein of the New York Times.
Unfortunately for Favreau and his ilk, this isn’t “happening now.” It turns out that the picture is from 2014, when the Obama administration still ran U.S. immigration policy. In the lingo of Twitter, that’s what you call a “self-own.” And this weekend was full of them.
It turns out that both administrations have had trouble accounting for unaccompanied, illegal-immigrant minors after they’ve been placed with adult sponsors. For example, a 2016 inspector general’s report “showed that the federal government was able to reach only 84 percent of children it had placed, leaving 4,159 unaccounted for.” That’s on Obama’s watch.
Did you see a picture of a “prison bus for babies”? Well, that’s from the Obama era as well, and it was designed to assist in ICE-organized field trips from the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.
This is what happens when narrative trumps truth: Even responsible people are primed to believe lies.
Yes, I know that much of the nation is in the grips of Trump Derangement Syndrome, but does that fully explain the gullibility on display here? After all, while some of the images and stories were shared by activist hacks, some of those who jumped on the outrage train were smart and careful people who ordinarily know better.
This is what happens when narrative trumps truth: Even responsible people are primed to believe lies. We see this all the time in the wars over our current president. We’re forgetting, however, the extent to which narrative still trumps the truth about the Obama administration. This is particularly true when the dominant narrative serves both sides of our ideological divide.
Let’s take immigration, for example. Much of the Left and the Right are invested in the notion that American policy and practice took a sharp and dramatic turn (from good to evil in the progressive mind, from feckless to responsible in the GOP mind) when Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. And, yes, there have been changes, but those changes are exaggerated by both sides.
Take, for example, the shock and outrage at Trump’s first so-called travel ban. When he “slammed the door” on Syrian refugees, liberals said the Statue of Liberty wept. They said it was a betrayal of American values, and a dramatic reversal of the Obama administration’s longstanding openness and compassion.
They were wrong. The vast majority of Americans has absolutely no idea that the “compassionate” Obama administration admitted less than 2,000 Syrian refugees in the first five years of the Syrian Civil War. Millions of men, women, and children were fleeing their homes, and the U.S. opened its doors to almost none of them. It was only in the last year of Obama’s two-term presidency that the number substantially increased, and even then the 13,000 refugees admitted represented an insignificant contribution to efforts to ease the crisis.
Time and again, the black/white, good/evil categorization of Obama’s and Trump’s policies fades away into matters of degree. For example, is Trump a monster for capping refugee admissions at a number higher than the average number admitted during the Bush administration and only slightly lower than the average admitted during the vast majority of the Obama years? When it comes to deportations, have we moved from light to darkness when ICE border removals are slightly down from the Obama era, but ICE interior removals are substantially up?
No. We’re dealing with relatively normal policy fluctuations in the context of changing administrations. This is not the transition from the Archangel Michael to Baphomet.
Similarly, in foreign policy, the move isn’t from Obama, man of peace, to Trump, man of war. There was a time, to be sure, when that caricature might have had more credence. That time was before the rise of ISIS. But even when Obama was withdrawing from Iraq, he was conducting a comprehensive, aggressive drone campaign against al-Qaeda and had reinforced Afghanistan. By the time he left office, his Nobel Peace Prize seemed even more like a sad, hopeful joke. There were American boots on the ground in Iraq (again), Syria, Afghanistan, and North Africa. American planes were refueling Saudi jets to enable their brutal, indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen. And now, thanks to an extraordinary New York Times investigation, we know that civilian casualties in Obama’s air war against ISIS were likely far, far higher than his administration reported.
It’s easy to look at the nuanced picture above and point fingers straight at the mainstream media. “Look how they made Obama look more compassionate than he was! Look how they ignored Obama’s possible war crimes!” But that’s only half the story, because much of the conservative world fed off the notion that Obama was an abject weakling.
Indeed, the notions that America had effectively opened its borders and was “in retreat” against ISIS fed into the absurd Flight 93 election narrative that dominated discourse on the right. In fact, I constantly heard conservatives tell me that “Obama hates Republicans more than he hates ISIS.” This, when Obama was conducting B-52 strikes against the caliphate.
In reality, the immense ship of state is hard to sharply turn, and while policy differences are real and meaningful, they’re often far less consequential than the attendant rhetoric would imply. But when trying to motivate a sometimes-listless electorate, “better” is a less-powerful word than “great,” and “worse” is less-alarming than “authoritarian” or “fascist.”
Partisan media primes us to believe the best of our friends and the worst of our ideological foes. So of course the picture of kids in cages had to come from Trump. Of course he’s the one who lost immigrant kids. It’s time for everyone to grapple with reality. Obama wasn’t as wonderful (or terrible) as you remember, the Trump administration isn’t as terrible (or wonderful) as you think, and the true story is far, far more complicated than the facile narratives partisans would have us believe.