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Trump is already numbing us to the horrific images his plans would create

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In his increasingly rambling public speeches, Donald Trump seems to be talking in some version of Tamarian, a language first heard more than 30 years ago in a 1991 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Spoken by a potentially hostile alien leader, Tamarian baffles the universal translator because it doesn’t consist of nouns, verbs and adjectives or any of the usual building blocks of language, but rather of allusions to myth, literature and history, densely packed but meaningless unless you know the context.

Trump is now so bonded to his base that he need merely allude to “the snake” or MIT or names like Rachel Morin and Laken Riley for the crowd to know that these stand for, respectively, a fable about immigrants and misplaced trust, a Trump relative who taught at MIT decades ago and victims of crimes allegedly perpetrated by men who entered the country illegally. Recently, a new reference has crept into the Trumparian lexicon: the Woman with Two Beautiful Children, or the Beautiful Woman with a Good Family. It appears when Trump discusses the most ambitious and cruel item on his policy agenda, the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, potentially as many as 11 million people who will be rounded up, herded into camps and returned — somehow — to countries they may not have seen in decades and that may be hostile and dangerous to them.

The Woman with Two Beautiful Children is an attempt to preempt or neuter outrage, anger and sorrow about an act for which the only recent precedents are deeply un-American: the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the 1954 deportation of more than a million Mexican Americans by the Eisenhower administration, an event known by the terrible slur “Operation Wetback.”

The image occurs in its clearest form in a speech Trump gave in Detroit on June 15. He began with his signature promise: “On Day 1 of my new administration, we will begin the largest deportation operation in American history.” The next part needs to be read in full and then parsed: “And it doesn’t make me happy to say that either. And you know what’s going to happen? We’ll get 10 terrorists and then one woman with two children that are beautiful children, and that’ll be the front page of every newspaper.”

This echoes language from a June 4 interview he gave on “The Will Cain Show” on Fox News (“You’ll get rid of 10 really bad ones and one beautiful mother”). Paraphrased into English, Trump is saying: For every 10 (or 10,000 or 10 million) bad people we deport, the media will fixate on images that depict the suffering of a few good people, perhaps an attractive woman with beautiful children, which will cause outrage and make it difficult to continue the deportation. This idea probably has roots in comments made during his 2016 presidential campaign, when the desperate plight of Syrian refugees was in the news and Trump claimed they were a “Trojan horse” for terrorists to enter the United States.

Trump is referencing a hypothetical image of something that hasn’t yet happened, and encouraging Americans to harden their hearts against its emotional power. He is extending his frequent dehumanization of immigrants — as animals and criminals — into what might be called the photographic conscience, the visceral power of images to galvanize public sentiment and reorder the priorities of political life.

The history of the United States, a polity that grew to imperial status during the age of photography, mass media and television, has been shaped by our susceptibility to powerful images of trauma and pain. The suffering of the Dust Bowl and the Depression lives on, condensed in the memory, through an image by Dorothea Lange, of an attractive migrant woman with two beautiful children seeking solace on either shoulder. The Vietnam War lives on in the nightmarish vision of children fleeing from a napalm strike, foremost among them a naked, screaming girl named Kim Phuc.

Trump is familiar with the photographic conscience from images that circulated during his first administration. In June 2019, images of tiny 2-year-old Valeria Martínez from El Salvador, lying with her father face down and dead in river’s-edge reeds of the Rio Grande, sparked outrage at the Trump administration’s policy of limiting access to asylum seekers. Even some Republican politicians said they were horrified by the image.

The photographic conscience can be summed up in phrases that gained currency after images of Nazi death camps began to circulate in 1945, “never again” and “never forget.” The caption of an 1863 Timothy H. O’Sullivan photograph of corpses in a field after the Battle of Gettysburg is an early American expression of the idea: “Such a picture conveys a useful moral. … Here are the dreadful details! Let them aid in preventing such another calamity falling upon the nation.”

After Richard M. Nixon saw Nick Ut’s wrenching image of the 9-year-old Kim Phuc, he said, “I’m wondering if that was fixed.” Trump, who frequently invokes claims of fake news and lies even though there are easily available transcripts, photographs and video to refute his claims, isn’t suggesting that forthcoming images of suffering migrants will be manufactured or fake — though he will likely make that claim, too. At the moment, Trump is doing something more ominous. He is perverting the logic of the photographic conscience. No longer do we see an image of terrible suffering and say, never again. Rather, we imagine the dreadful details of terrible suffering, and then steel ourselves to look away.

Trump puts it slightly differently. In his speeches, adjacency and proximity matter more than logic as he moves from thought to thought. Trump almost always follows his promise of a massive deportation with what may be genuine or performative expressions of regret: “It’s never an easy thing to do, but we have no choice.” And: “We have no choice. We don’t want to do that. We have no choice.” The phrase echoes how he often framed the words for which he is most famous: “I have no choice. You’re fired,” from “The Apprentice,” two decades ago.

In fact, the photographic conscience is all about choice, about the possibility that seeing something unfathomably terrible can cause a rift or rupture in our personal and collective consciousness. In her 1977 book “On Photography” — published a year after the 1972 napalm images of Kim Phuc — Susan Sontag remembered the first time she saw photographs of Nazi atrocities.

“Nothing I have seen — in photographs or in real life — ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously,” she wrote. “When I looked at these images, something broke. Some limit had been reached.”

At least some of the photographs Sontag saw were undoubtedly made by the U.S. Army, which also required German civilians to view the results of the Nazi dehumanization of Jews, directly through tours of the camps, and in newsreels and other media. A June 18, 1945, picture of the war’s aftermath shows two German children standing in front of a shop window. Plastered on the glass is a U.S. poster with images of the death camps, titled “You Should Know About It.” Yet more evidence of the U.S. belief that once seen, these acts of barbarity could never be unseen. And that would help lay the groundwork for a new Germany, democratic and peaceful.

Sontag agonized throughout her writing on photography about its power to desensitize. “Images transfix. Images anesthetize,” she wrote. That was half a century ago, before the internet, cellphone cameras and the digital fire hose of images that has saturated our consciousness. What Trump is doing with his imaginary Woman with Two Beautiful Children trope is another form of anesthetization, helping us imagine the unimaginable so that when we see it, nothing breaks, no limit is reached.

He would have us pre-see what should never be seen. And someday our children may stand before those images and wonder, did no one see this coming?

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