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…

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.