Trump is doing to the Dreamers what was done to him

White House: It's Congress' job to legislate
White House: It's Congress' job to legislate

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Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: Trump's rescinding of DACA makes sense if you understand two traits that motivate him: fear and loathing
  • Having experienced brutality in military school, Trump is treating Dreamers the way he was treated, writes D'Antonio

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)To understand how President Donald Trump could rescind a program protecting nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants, it helps to recognize two of his strongest traits. The first is his conviction, as he explained it to me in 2014, that "most people aren't worthy of respect." The second is his profound fear of his fellow human being -- at least ones who don't resemble him.

Trump spent the 35 years before he moved to the White House avoiding contact with anyone who wasn't invited into his presence. The symbol of Trump's anxiety was the 66th floor of the tower he built on Fifth Avenue. His penthouse apartment was separated from the world below by guards and several security barriers, and he didn't have to risk seeing anyone he didn't employ as he made his way from his home to the office below, which was also guarded by men with guns.
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    As much a gilded cage as it is fortress, Trump Tower is a testament to the man's fear of humanity. "Man is the most vicious of all animals," he told People magazine in 1981 as he embarked on a career of continual conflict over money, property and fame. It's no fluke that his TV catchphrase -- "You're fired" -- signaled a crushing blow to contestants he deemed to have failed on "The Apprentice." On the program, the tension preceding the verdict and the suffering of the condemned made for a depraved kind of exercise the host clearly relished.
    The exclusionary exercise Trump enjoyed while firing people on TV reflected an approach to life he had taken since entering the family business. And in his insulated world, Trump's opinions were affirmed and reaffirmed until they hardened into a perspective that led him to observe conditions on the border with Mexico in stomach-churning terms. "Everything's coming across the border: the illegals, the cars, and the whole thing. It's like a big mess. Blah. It's like vomit."
    Months after making the vomit remark, Trump began his presidential campaign on undocumented immigrants, claiming Mexicans were "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." A few weeks later he added, in germophobic eloquence, that "Likewise, tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border." No evidence supports any of Trump's claims about crime or disease, but this hasn't stopped him from using them to encourage others to feel afraid, too.
    Much of Trump's campaign was about establishing an "us vs. them" view of our times, which meant that Trump's side, made up largely of white Americans, was at war with the opposition, made up of Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans, the press and foreigners.
    Among those he promised to reject were the young people covered under President Barack Obama's Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gave those who came to America with their undocumented parents legal standing to stay. He justified the exclusionary strategy as a patriotic imperative. "We either have a country or we don't," he explained on the campaign trail. "We have borders or we don't have borders."
    That Trump was reportedly troubled by the decision to rescind DACA is not proof that his heart was divided. It's far more likely that he understood the politics of the matter and was comparing the benefits of fulfilling a campaign promise with the possibility of broadening his base by sparing the Dreamers. The decision may have been governed by the realization that he needs to reassure his core supporters that he is still the angry, anti-immigrant man they saw on the campaign trail. Besides, Trump lost everyone he might have won over by sparing the Dreamers when he pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
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    Although these undocumented individuals are generally upstanding members of society, they are haunted by Trump's campaign promise to deport them and by their dependence on action taken by the President's predecessor. And, unfortunately, Trump seems motivated by the singular goal of overturning everything the previous administration did. It was Obama who included Dreamers in the American tapestry, and so Trump is determined to exclude them.
    There's something about exclusion -- the kind practiced by private clubs and luxury resorts -- that seems to please Trump at an elemental level. In the hours we spent together as I was writing his biography, he became most animated when discussing his pricey clubs like Bedminster, with its private helipad, or Mar-a-Lago, where membership is now $200,000 and dues are $14,000 per year.
    Trump clubs are not exclusive in the way that, say, an Ivy League college or the National Academy of Science are exclusive. Those august institutions value merit and reward achievement, talent and character expressed through service. In contrast, anyone with the requisite cash will be admitted into Trump's orbit.
    Membership logs at Trump's clubs are not public, but the press occasionally gets a peek. In January 2017, a notice welcoming new members to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach included 30 surnames, but not one was Hispanic. Another 30 names appeared on the welcome list in the summer of 2016. One is of Spanish origin.
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    People with Spanish surnames are welcomed by Trump if they can afford the price of admission at Mar-a-Lago, but the DACA participants who want to contribute their lives to America are not welcomed by his administration. He rejects them out of fear. And because their humanity isn't enough to merit his respect, he shows them no mercy.
    If you are wondering where this grim perspective originates, reflect on Trump's own experience as a youngster. When he was 13 years old, Trump was suddenly banished for bad behavior by his father, sent to a military academy where he was, by his own telling, treated brutally by the military veterans who ran the place. "They'd smack the hell out of you," he told me.
    What lesson could be taken away from this experience, other than that human beings are vicious and exclusion is a proper tool of social control? Now that he's the symbolic father of the American family, he's doing to the Dreamers what was done to him.