A truckload of teddy bears is not typically a source of controversy. But when Glenn Beck travels to McAllen, Texas, this weekend with trailers full of stuffed bears and soccer balls for the migrant children detained there, he will be driving straight into a debate raging within the conservative movement: Can compassion coexist with a hardline stance on immigration?
Beck courted the controversy when he announced his plan to bring aid to the children, who are part of an unfolding crisis that has gained substantial media attention in the last month. While fellow conservatives leveraged the story to rail against the Senate’s immigration bill or to seed fears of an unsecured border breeding crime and disease, Beck focused on the children who “through no fault of their own are caught in the political crossfire.” A day after announcing the trip, he explained why he was offering aid. While he assured listeners “my brain is with the law,” he also stressed, “My heart is with anyone who is suffering.”
In a battle of brain versus heart, Beck is an unsurprising champion of the latter. A contrarian with a knack for theatrics, his deficiencies have always been of logic, not emotion. Little wonder he has wound up in the middle of the right’s internecine debates over immigration, where hearts have long played a central role. In a 2011 Republican presidential debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry addressed his decision to sign a law providing in-state tuition rates to children in the country illegally. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” he said. Promoting immigration reform earlier this year, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush talked about the decision to cross the border illegally as a matter not of law but love: “Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.”
Questions of heart aren’t limited to immigration debates. Conservatives have wrestled with the role of compassion in politics for years. When he was vice president, Richard Nixon said, “Republican candidates should be economic conservatives, but conservatives with a heart.” Some years later, George W. Bush picked up the term “compassionate conservative” and made it the cornerstone of his 2000 campaign.
These formulations tend to rankle the conservative base, which sees them as tacit admissions that conservatism is inherently heartless. “I have been much concerned that so many people today with Conservative instincts feel compelled to apologize for them,” Barry Goldwater wrote in 1960 of politicians like Nixon. Conservatives also turned against Perry after his accusation of heartlessness. It was that comment – not his later “oops” moment – which cost him his frontrunner status. After that debate, he never topped another poll.
Beck is facing a similar backlash. After announcing his aid plan, he claimed he has “never taken a position more deadly to my career than this.” Subscriptions to his program and donations to his charity were down. “I’m getting violent emails from people who say I’ve ‘betrayed the Republic,’" he said. (Ironic, given the number of times he has leveraged that charge against others.)
Yet Beck’s overt display of compassion is exactly the right move for an opponent of immigration reform. For one, it is a necessary counter to his compatriots who protested school buses full of children in Murrieta, California, and vandalized a proposed shelter site in Maryland. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough may have been over the top in calling Beck’s generosity “Christ-like,” but it displays a sense of empathy and compassion often missing from the rhetoric of those who call for stricter immigration laws and more draconian enforcement mechanisms.
Beck is demonstrating more than compassion, though. He’s modeling the type of society his politics requires. Conservatives argue government has usurped the role of civil society, that churches and charities and private citizens should do many of the things government now does. Partnering with churches near the border to supply the food, money and toys they need to serve the detained children, Beck hopes to show that civil society can care for the vulnerable. And in the process, he is showing children thrown into a frightening, confusing system that someone cares about their wellbeing. It’s good politics, to be sure, but it’s also just good. Score one for the heart.