“Virtue-signaling” is a snide little phrase that people vaguely of the “right” invented to tease people vaguely of the “left.” Like “limousine liberal” or “champagne socialist,” it implies insincerity and self-righteousness. Those who brag about doing something good — say, riding their bicycle to work every day — are said to be “virtue-signaling” their desire to fight climate change. Politicians who join Twitter campaigns in support of worthy causes are said to be “virtue-signaling” their belief in their own superiority.
More recently the British journalist Nick Cohen has identified another way of sending social messages. This is something he called “vice-signaling,” and it is precisely the opposite tactic. It applies to politicians who do something evil — deliberately — with the aim of proving they really are very sincere indeed. Cohen invented it in the context of an immigration scandal in Britain which had led not to the deportation of illegal immigrants, but to the deportation of actual British citizens, albeit with poor documentation. When uncovered, the policy led to a scandal and the resignation of the home secretary, Amber Rudd. Cohen argued, nevertheless, that the policy had never been a mistake or an accident: The Conservative Party had decided to pursue cruel and unfair tactics on immigration, precisely in order to “signal” to their base their seriousness about fighting immigration.
This is a useful context in which to understand the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s horrific policy on family separation at the border — a policy that, if it were enacted in another country, would be described by American officials as state-sponsored child abuse. It’s incomprehensibly cruel, separating small children from their parents and sending them to institutions that resemble jails. Worse, the confusion around the policy is such that some of the children may eventually be lost — or worse. It’s a policy unprecedented in recent American history; Laura Bush, the former first lady, had to reach back to the 1940s, to internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, for a comparison. Another parallel might be the removal of children from black slaves before the Civil War.
The president and his team know exactly how evil this policy is: If they didn’t, myriad officials wouldn’t be blaming it, dishonestly, on the Democrats; or pretending that Congress can solve the problem when it has actually been created by the Trump administration; or ludicrously arguing, as the Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham has done, that the child jails resemble “boarding schools.”
At the same time, the president and his team persist in pursuing it. Why? Because it signals to their base that they are really serious about stopping immigration — so serious that they will abuse children, damage families, and shock anybody who cares about civil rights or human rights in the United States or elsewhere. It’s not an accident that this policy has been attributed to Stephen Miller, the Trump adviser who has made a career out of using scandalous language and creating “happenings” designed to shock his peers. This kind of trolling is often a form of vice-signaling too. “Look,” it tells supporters, “here’s how nasty I am prepared to be.”
Will Trump’s base respond to it? Right now, nearly 30 percent of Americans say they support the policy — and, it seems, a majority of Republicans. It’s easy enough to find approving comments, even enthusiastically approving comments, on Breitbart or Twitter. Those who like it argue, more or less, that this is a hard-nosed policy, a reflection of how tough and strong we are, proof that we are willing to risk the good opinion of the nation and the world — and, of course, a demonstration of how little we care about the children of would-be immigrants.
Trump’s admirers see no moral case: Morality is for losers, apparently. Cruelty is for winners. And this will be the long-term effect of vice-signaling: it makes its proponents, and its audiences, vicious themselves.