“They’re Animals”: Trump Plays to His Base’s Worst Instincts 

President Trump's "animals" comment on May 16th clearly reflects his views on immigrants and immigration from the global south, and it successfully shifts focus away from a presidency fully engulfed in criminal investigations.

Whether the president was referring to all immigrants as animals or only MS-13 gang members hardly matters: What matters is the rhetoric and the political objectives from a man known for exuberance rather than eloquence.

The wholesale dehumanization of vulnerable societal groups is dangerous. History smolders with disingenuous demagogues selectively targeting (and dehumanizing) socio-political opponents to gain/maintain power, while incentivizing others to slaughter the innocent: Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, Guatemala in the 1980s, and Rwanda in the 1990s are but a few examples. While epic killings won't begin anytime soon in the U.S.A., Trump's focus on immigration is a source of solace for his loyal base. Their percolating anger holds real consequences for people "not" in the base camp and represents a troubling trend in Trump's political calculus.

click to enlarge Kirstjen Nielsen
  • Kirstjen Nielsen

For example, in early May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that folks crossing into the U.S.A. (usually at the southern border we share with Mexico) without inspection will be prosecuted, using the criminal — not civil — code. Generally, criminal prosecution for entering the U.S. without proper documentation was reserved for those who enter illegally after having been previously deported. Now, anyone caught without proper documentation entering the country, even for the first time, will face criminal, rather than civil/misdemeanor charges. Criminal prosecutions can result in incarceration. Under the civil code, those unlawfully present face deportation and a bar to reentry.

Trump's administration is seeking to incarcerate those who, in Jeb Bush's words, are engaged in an "act of love": They come to the U.S. seeking an opportunity to free their families from grinding, generational poverty or seeking asylum from violence in their home countries.

This aggressive, Department of Justice-sanctioned approach will separate families; Sessions also announced, earlier in the month, that people who cross our border with their children will be prosecuted for smuggling — and separated from their children. The Trump administration is preparing to place the children of those detained parents (awaiting criminal prosecution) on internal military bases. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is studying the feasibility of sending children under 18 years of age to four or more bases in Arkansas and Texas, reminding some of Japanese Internment during World War II. For those familiar with 20th-century history, the thought of a powerful nation dividing families and placing children at military installations congers up an even darker past, from a distant continent.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has energetically supported this plan, despite reports of a recent public "dressing down" by the president, she remains a champion enabler. She reflects the administration's most loyal voters, those who feed on Trump's cruel demonization of immigrants. These migrants are mostly poor, brown-skinned people who seek asylum, work, or a better life in the United States given that their own countries (especially Honduras, El Salvador, and segments of Mexico) have been ravished by gangs, violence, and drugs. The United States' recent and historic policy toward the region has exacerbated the upheaval; we've provided military and police training to some of the most repressive elements of those societies; and America's insatiable appetite for illegal narcotics, which drives the illicit markets there, needs no further comment.

People are not animals; even the worst people are still people. People are never "illegal"; they sometimes commit illegal acts. Murderous regimes, like the Third Reich, which categorized their neighbors as "subhuman, inferior races" are not remembered fondly. Demagogues, like Cuba's Castro, referred to those who disagreed with him and fled the Marxist island he commanded as escoria — literally, scum.

President Trump, the leader of the free world, must do better than referring to people as animals. The comment is shameful, but the real shame is born by all citizens of this nation who willfully refuse to understand the magnitude of the dangerous demagogue dug-in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is time to act, and the most significant next step in restorative justice, for our nation, takes place on Tuesday, November 6, 2018.

Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board chair at Latino Memphis; Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

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