On the dehumanizing rhetoric of Donald J. Trump
Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator who ran for president in 1992, once noted that Bill Clinton was "an unusually good liar." This was absolutely true. President Trump, on the other hand, is an unusually bad liar. His lies are so obvious and so blatant that when he lies, everyone knows it.
The flip side, however, is that when Trump expresses his true feelings, that's obvious too. That's what he did at a roundtable on immigration at the White House on Wednesday, when he said this:
We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we're stopping a lot of them — but we're taking people out of the country. You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals. And we're taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that's never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It's crazy. [President Trump]
Trump's defenders rushed to insist that the "animals" he was referring to weren't all of the "people coming into the country" but members of the extremely violent gang MS-13, since just before he said this a sheriff in attendance had mentioned the gang. (This isn't exactly exonerating. As Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall wrote, "[L]abeling classes of people subhuman is really always wrong. It leads to horrific actions. That's still true even if we're talking about people in gangs who do commit horrific acts.")
But even if you want to (very generously!) assume that MS-13 was indeed on Trump's mind at the moment he said these words, it hardly changes the fact that these comments are very much in line with what we all know Trump thinks of immigrants.
Since the moment he announced his campaign for president, Trump has used a particular strategy to justify his immigration policies: Focus on crimes committed by individual immigrants as a way of ginning up fear and hatred, creating animus toward all immigrants. And when necessary, use dehumanizing language — like calling them "animals" — to make sure that your target audience feels no empathy or hesitation about supporting the cruelest policies to target them.
You'll remember that in his announcement speech in 2015, Trump said that "when Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." Some.
And then throughout the campaign, in one rally after another, Trump would bring up the case of an individual crime committed by an immigrant to explain why we had to build a wall, ramp up deportations, unleash Immigration and Customs Enforcement to rampage through immigrant communities looking for those who are not Us, but Them. His favorite was that of Kate Steinle, a young woman (whom Trump would inevitably describe as "beautiful") killed by a bullet fired from a gun held by an undocumented immigrant.
I describe it that way because that man, Jose Garcia Zarate, was ruled not guilty of murdering Steinle. He found a gun, which went off in his hand; the bullet ricocheted off the pavement and then hit Steinle. A horrible tragedy, but not one that tells you anything about immigration.
No matter, though. The story of the pretty young white girl struck down by the murderous foreigner was too good for Trump to resist. The problem with stories like that one as a means of arguing for policy change is that they distort reality. The truth, as extensive research has demonstrated, is that immigrants both documented and undocumented commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
"But even one crime committed by an illegal alien is too many!" Trump's supporters will respond. As a guide to policy, that's nonsensical. In a country of 320 million people, I could probably find 1,000 murders committed by guys named John who have brown hair and are over six feet tall. So should we lock up every tall brown-haired guy named John, no matter what they did or didn't do? If we don't, isn't the blood of the victims on our hands? Even one tall brown-haired John murder is too many.
As this week has reminded us, when Trump took office, his obsession with immigrant crime didn't wane. With an early executive order, he created the Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement Office, the job of which is to publicize crimes committed by immigrants — and therefore keep stoking the fires of fear and hatred. Earlier this year, the Trump re-election campaign (yes, it already exists) released an ad highlighting the case of an undocumented immigrant who killed two police officers as a reason why we need to build a wall, saying that "Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants."
Once you've decided that immigrants are not human, you can do whatever you want to them, no matter how inhumane. You can separate small children from their parents, for instance, when families are caught together. "The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever," said Chief of Staff John Kelly about the new policy. (Now the "or whatever" looks like it'll be internment camps on military bases.)
When Trump took office, his harsh rhetoric sent a clear signal to ICE that the gloves could come off — and the result has been a wave of abuses so shocking that it has given rise to a movement to abolish the agency entirely.
No one doubts that a clear message has been heard by Trump's supporters: You no longer have to treat immigrants with dignity, respect, or even basic humanity.
Trump supporters may not all be like the dudebro in that viral video who was so enraged by hearing two restaurant employees speak Spanish to each other in New York City that he went on a rant ("My guess is they're not documented, so my next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country. They have the balls to come here and live off of my money? I pay for their welfare; I pay for their ability to be here") and who is now feeling the full wrath of the internet. But the Trump era has given people like him permission to be more vocal than they have ever been. And Trump's rhetoric of dehumanization is a key reason why.
He didn't invent it, of course. Every genocide in history was preceded by the perpetrators telling their supporters that the soon-to-be victims were animals, insects, vermin — in one way or another, not human. That's what was necessary to get consent for whatever the government was going to do. Because once you deny people's humanity, there's almost nothing you won't do to them, or allow to be done to them in your name.