A Perversion of Strength

January 3, 2019

As I found myself scrolling through The New Yorker reading a number of new political pieces, I stumbled upon Amy Davidson Sorkin’s “Countering Trump at the Border.” I found myself oddly compelled by the first line: “President Trump has always had an odd idea of what constitutes strength.” Sorkin includes a quote from a Trump rally—“‘Frankly, if we didn’t show them strength and a strong border, you would have hundreds of thousands of people pouring into our country’”—before concluding that Trump’s idea of strength is that “Strength is a display, in other words, meant to demoralize the vulnerable.”

As the article continued to detail Sorkin’s issues with Trump’s stance on border security, my mind was still lost in the idea of strength in politics. How have other presidents represented the idea of strength, and what does strength truly mean in the context of diplomacy? And perhaps most pertinent to the article at hand, why would we need strength at the border?

I began my exploration of this idea of “strength” by researching how other U.S. presidents have characterized strength. I combed through quotes that included the word itself, looking at how the word was contextualized and what it meant in isolation.

Right reason is stronger than force.”

— James Garfield

Garfield uses strength comparatively in something of a “mind-over-matter” comparison. Moreover, Garfield shows that strength is not force—as a matter of fact, he states that there are things stronger than force.

But I contend that the strongest of all governments is that which is most free.

— William Henry Harrison

Harrison more directly defines strength, saying that the gradation of strength is correlatively influenced by the extent of freedom. The more that freedom is celebrated and exercised—and the more that is asked of a country’s freedom—the stronger the government will be.

The wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom.

— George W. Bush

Bush’s analysis seems to be the bridge of the ideas of Garfield and Harrison. While Garfield showed that there is reason above force and Harrison showed that freedom is a great show of strength, Bush highlights that right reason itself indicates that advancing freedom is the best display of strength. From this, strength is the direct result of a reasoned mind understanding the need for the enjoyments of freedom under a government that advances its liberties.

But the question remains: what is this idea of “strength” at the border?

At the border, Trump’s “strength” is exerted against immigrants—against refugees. “Strength” is against what the Sisters of Mercy made a critical concern, and against what the Statue of Liberty welcomes into the country: “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

According to the critical concerns of the Sisters of Mercy, “In the United States we work for just and humane immigration laws, a reduction in deportations that tear families apart, and an end to the detention bed quota.” Immigration law has arguably been in need of reform even prior to the Trump administration, but tearing refugee families apart as they arrive at the border is an entirely new policy under the Trump administration, and one that Trump seems to attribute much of this “border strength” towards. We are confronting a new policy that criminalizes refugees and children for seeking refuge in the United States, a country that has historically been free—that has historically been strong. The most vulnerable are being taking advantage of in the name of a “strength” that has been lost in the shuffle.

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