Whomever President Trump was speaking about on Wednesday, they began the paragraph as human beings. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” the president told Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims and the rest of the assembled California officials in a meeting about the state’s “sanctuary” immigration laws. Trump quickly corrected himself. “They’re not people,” he said. “They’re animals.”
Asserting that he was alluding to members of the international gang MS-13, Trump reasserted himself on Thursday during a meeting with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General. “When the MS-13 comes in, when the other gang members come into our country, I refer to them as animals,” he said to a reporter, adding, “And guess what? I always will.” No one asked him about that last part, because they did not have to. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had already declared that “animals” didn’t go far enough, daring “the media and liberals” to defend MS-13. Additionally, the “shithole countries” president used the same erroneous descriptor last year in front of a bunch of Long Island cops to describe MS-13, a merciless, murderous gang that is nonetheless comprised of actual human beings.
The central debate about whom Trump was truly describing was largely pointless. Whether or not he was referring directly to MS-13 with the word “animals,” as he and his defenders insist – or to undocumented immigrants generally, using the gang as a placeholder – is beside the point. He chose to make that distinction the subject of his latest rage tweet Friday morning. Bigotry requires that the enemy be made out to be less than human, and Trump has long made use of blurry lines to criminalize entire groups of people. The president’s alienating language about undocumented immigrants further served to make them targets for discrimination and violence, whether or not they are violent. And for those who are, robbing them of their humanity does not help reform them. The cop or the federal agent, following the president’s lead, may think she or he is honoring the rest of us when classifying certain people as “animals.” Perhaps they think it makes it easier to imprison or kill them. But it does us no favors as a society to pretend as though human beings are not capable of the very worst that we can imagine. Such talk is the stuff of genocide, not government.
We know that the president is a bully. But the “animals” comment went beyond the sophomoric pejoratives he hurls at his rivals and former FBI directors. For people of color whom he would like to make into bogeymen for his base, the president indulges in a more primal and authentic part of himself. The only chances that we typically get to see the actual @realDonaldTrump are the times when he is being a bigot or when he’s talking on a hot mic inside an Access Hollywood bus. Yes, he is a performer, but this was different.
For all of the years that I have been aware of Trump’s existence, I have not known him primarily as a tabloid subject, real estate tycoon or reality star. First and foremost, Trump was the guy who, 29 years ago this month, declared that five black and brown teenagers deserved to die for a Central Park rape that they didn’t commit. In Trump’s world, the due process Special Counsel Robert Mueller is currently affording him has long been “whites only.” Trump calling people “animals” seemed to hint at an extrajudicial outcome that could be more than mere bluster.
The Palestinians were reminded of that on Monday – those who survived, at least. For the second time in less than two months, Israeli soldiers shot and killed several civilians on the Gaza Strip. More than 1,350 Palestinians were wounded, and at least 60 of them were killed. The United States, which had opened its politically provocative new embassy that day in Jerusalem, endorsed the massacre. A White House spokesman declared that same day that the Palestinians had somehow gotten themselves dead, because Hamas. The following day, Nikki Haley, our ambassador to the United Nations, walked out of a Security Council meeting as the Palestinian envoy was about to speak. The otherizing of the Palestinians was unnecessary for the celebration of the new embassy, but it was nonetheless well underway. It isn’t difficult to deny rights or even life to an animal, after all.
It’s not difficult to imagine, given their justification for the Gaza killings, how Trump might order a similar offense along our southern border. After all, he is the one who famously declared during the campaign that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” What would happen if he ordered a bunch of Mexicans and Central Americans murdered for trying to scale his beloved “wall”?
Leaving aside that potential horror for a moment, we should remember how the Trump administration weaponizes this dehumanization in very real ways today. Trump’s team seems to take a rather sadistic pleasure in dispensing misery in many aspects of governance, and nowhere has this been more evident than in immigration policies and enforcement. ICE has become a goon squad, rounding up nonviolent immigrants with abandon and lying about DACA recipients being gang-affiliated, not thinking that a judge will intervene. The folks who actually want to practice law enforcement are having a harder time of it in the Trump era, the ACLU reported earlier this month, because the president has made immigrants afraid to call the police.
One week ago, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly referred blithely to the punitive separation of immigrant children from their families when he told NPR, “The children will be taken care of, put into foster care or whatever.” Days later, the policy proposal emerged, and it was actually worse. If Trump thinks that a family escaping guaranteed violence or persecution in their home country will be deterred by the practice of putting children in military housing, I suspect that he underestimates their resolve and does not understand the true meaning of desperation.
Knowing that Trump’s “animals” meeting was caught on tape there is reason to believe that the show reached its intended audience. Not just his voters – bloodthirsty for that good racist gristle – but the members of Congress who may be tempted to help Democrats push through an immigration bill that could rescue DACA from Trump’s limbo. While lame-duck Speaker Paul Ryan and most of his fellow Republicans may not favor it, a discharge petition could be filed by a majority of House members to force a vote – and there are signs that enough Republicans in vulnerable districts will help. They were four signatures short on Wednesday after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, himself a Californian, warned Republicans behind closed doors that, “If you want to depress intensity” of GOP voter turnout in the 2018 midterms, “this is the number-one way to do it.”
It is no surprise, then, that Trump would take that cue on the same day, turning to the number-one way to fan the flames of the right. Rage and resentment toward The Other propelled him to the White House. Though he wages culture wars daily on a number of intersectional fronts, he does so most conspicuously when he and the GOP are most urgent to engender support. Cruelty is their voter turnout engine, even as it pushes actual solutions further away.
What may be most curious is Trump’s choice of metaphor. I thought people with his views on race liked animals more than people of color. Were there an epidemic of cops killing dogs, it would not be a partisan issue. I’d think that the image of an undocumented immigrant from south of the United States border transmogrifying into an animal should seem appealing to a man in the business of furthering white supremacy. Animals can be put in cages, or killed, when they act out. Trump knows this. They all know this.