Stigma in a Polarized Society: The Case of Trump’s Family Separation Policy.
In June 2018 the United States’ news cycle was dominated by images of distraught children being separated from their anguished parents by uniformed Customs and Border Patrol officers. Although enforcement of the U.S.-Mexico border has long been condemned as draconian by human rights groups, the Trump administration’s move to a “zero-tolerance” border control policy resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of migrant children who were separated from their parents. The shift in enforcement drew much opprobrium, before the Trump administration scaled it back.
It was readily apparent that the situation was imbued with strong feelings and polarized visions of what constitutes shameful conduct. Supporters and defenders of the practice face some degree of stigmatization. This particular conflict was but one more flashpoint in the political and cultural struggles of the United States. Donald Trump’s Presidency has proven to be a juncture of stigma contests, where a number of groups struggle against each other for moral worth (Silva 2019). These stigma contests (Schur 1982) cover the meaning of religious, gender, and racial identities. While some might blanch at the notion that Trump’s white base of support is stigmatized in the typical sense of the term, there is much evidence that they do believe themselves to be marginalized. Immigration has been one of the central points of contention. For some, unauthorized immigration is worthy of scorn. For others, the mistreatment of immigrants is also deserving of opprobrium. Given the relativity of stigma, then, my co-author, Matthew B. Flynn, and I asked : How do we conceptualize stigma in cases where there is substantial disagreement over right and wrong? What becomes of stigma in a polarized public sphere?
We addressed this question by analyzing 1,500 comments made in response to CNN and ProPublica’s reporting on the Trump Administration’s policy of separating child refugees from their parents. Immediately, we find that what counts as monstrous varies substantially. Both supporters and opponents of the policy assert the moral worth of their identities that are under attacked.
We found that opponents of the family separation asserted that the detained migrants were innocent, for example:
“These kids’ parents and guardians risked all to try to make it to the US. I’ve acted out of desperation before. Have you?”
They would also vilify supporters of the policy as cruel and depraved:
“Keeping children in this enforced situation constitutes child abuse.
As racist or xenophobic:
“The Republicans enable Trumps Crimes against America. Trump is openly racist and so are his supporters”
Or as otherwise shame worthy:
“At the end of the day. Most Trump voters are literally uneducated. Either didn’t finish High school, didn’t go to college or finish college.”
Supporters of Trump’s policy claimed that the policy was not cruel. For instance, in response to audio of crying children in detention, one writes:
“Check out line at a grocery store?”
Others denied the victimhood of the detainees by claiming that they posed a threat to the United States:
“No sympathy for illegal aliens at all. If you want to come to this great land of ours come here legally. Just like others did before you.”
“Blame their parents for putting them in this situation. If they had not crossed the border illegally they would still be together.”
They would also cast their political adversaries as hypocritical:
“please bleeding hearts, let homeless people stay in your house. feed them and let them sleep in your bed.”
As complicit in illegal immigration:
“You are either with america or you are with illegal immigrants…Liberals are traitor to our nation”
As dishonest or foolish:
“More fabricated lies by the left media.”
“So when Americans commit crimes and go to jail do they take their toddlers to jail too? No when do libtards understand this??”
Or more generally loathsome: “Democrats are scum”
Both sides effectively agreed that the situation was shameful, but, with countervailing preferences for who should be stigmatized. The result, then, is what we term a liminal stigma, “the situation where an identity is subject to a potentially transitory discrediting as this identity is both ideationally devalued and defended by multiple others.” On a general level, the notion of liminal stigma can help us avoid reifying stigma. By looking at the set of conflicting accounts of which identities should be discredited we can see how people actively construct stigmatization. More specifically, the concept of liminal stigma can help us to consider the experience of ostensibly privileged Trump supporters who nonetheless claim to be marginalized. An individual who supports or opposes this policy will experience both validation and rejection in the public sphere. Conflicts over family separation and any number of other issues in the Trump Presidency are not just over the content of US policies, but also, who exemplifies moral worth.