The Real Context Behind President Trump’s “Animals” Comment
Yesterday, a video clip of President Donald Trump speaking at a California Roundtable on Sanctuary Cities went viral on Twitter. It appeared to show the President calling certain immigrants “animals.”
Here is the President of the United States dehumanizing immigrants who, in many cases, are either seeking refuge from violence or seeking opportunity in America:
“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” pic.twitter.com/gpCFvAAzBc
— Rantt Media (@RanttMedia) May 16, 2018
This morning, as members of the Trump administration and pundits on the right finally figured out their messaging, we began to see pushback claiming that the video circulating the internet cut out important context that made it clear that the President was only referring to the gang MS-13. Here is the longer video with the preceding question, followed by the transcript, for good measure.
There’s been a lot of question about whether he was taken out of context when he referred to “animals” and that he was supposedly only talking about MS-13 gang members. That’s not quite true. It’s actually a broader discussion about who local PDs can work with ICE. Watch. pic.twitter.com/QxxsEP1XCa
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 17, 2018
4/ And if you’re STILL jonesing for more context, here’s the official transcript … pic.twitter.com/5BbR7k266G
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 17, 2018
Seriously asking – what possible context is there that makes Trump’s “they’re animals” comment from yesterday more nuanced?
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) May 17, 2018
Essentially, a question referenced MS-13 within a conversation about ICE, local police departments, and so-called sanctuary cities. President Trump then responded with comments about how the “people coming into the country” are animals and less than human. I’m not entirely sure how the extra context provided exonerates this, so let’s break this discourse down.
The problem here is incomplete context masqueraded as accurate analysis. Even with the above question added to the video, the context necessary to understand what the President was saying needs to begin much further back. In fact, we need to go to the very day Donald Trump began his campaign. In what has now become an infamous speech that serves to characterize the very crux of his entire political persona, then-candidate Trump descended down a gilded escalator to call Mexicans rapists and criminals. It’s important to note that he didn’t take to care to distinguish specifically between gang members and the general immigrant population. Lumping everyone together seemed good enough for him then – I’m not sure why one would believe he thinks differently now.
The laissez-faire conflation of undocumented (and sometimes documented) immigrants and criminal gang members has long been a decided choice of the Trump camp. We saw it again during the campaign and early days of the administration in reference to Muslim immigration and the multiple attempts at a travel ban that primarily targeted Muslim majority countries. Often, the language used by the President and his team seems designed to blur the lines between the general population of these groups and extremists on the fringes of society. (It’s important to note that when asked about neo-Nazis, the President was actually interested in presenting clarifying language to avoid overgeneralizing…)
This, of course, ignores the fact that there is little to no correlation between immigration and criminal activity and that certain groups of immigrants are more well-educated than native-born Americans. It also ignores the fact that MS-13 is an American gang. However, playing to facts has never been this administration’s strong suit.
And this is not President Trump’s first time using MS-13 specifically to promote racist policies that actually have nothing to do with the spread of the gang. His administration argued that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) needed to be ended because gang members saw it as a loophole to gain entrance to the country, while studies showed little to no evidence that the two were related.
To consider the comments made by the President yesterday in a void, without awareness of his long history of inaccurately conflating criminal activity with immigration in order to galvanize his base through discriminatory rhetoric, is the true lack of context. The question asked before his comments does not exonerate the racially-coded, inherently xenophobic response he gave in return, and to suggest it does it to support the use of such language to codify racism into law.
A quick google search shows the conservative side of the aisle has already decided how to spin this situation – the majority of people crossing the border are MS-13 or other gang members, therefore Democrats are standing with criminals and do not have the best interests of the country at heart. Again, this refrain is common and was used in both Trump’s 2016 campaign and his current administration (just check out any speech Stephen Miller had anything to do with). It plays into the concept that Republicans are the party of family values, while Democrats don’t care about your family. They want to take your guns, they want to bring gangs into the country – essentially, they are portrayed as anything that serves to seize upon the fear that fills Trump’s base and drives them to the polls. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on this messaging while speaking to reporters:
“Frankly I don’t think that the term ‘animal’ doesn’t go far enough,” fired up @PressSec says about the president calling illegal immigrants with MS-13 gang ties “animals.” Says liberals and the media can support MS-13 if they want to.
— Katie Rogers (@katierogers) May 17, 2018
By falling for this rhetoric, by suggesting that President Trump’s comments were anything other than discriminatory and dehumanizing is to ignore who the President really is and to disregard his long history of coded (and not so coded) language about immigrants. It is important to accurately represent the comments made by our elected officials and avoid characterizing their remarks in a partisan manner. The President’s comments yesterday were not a case of this, and those that say they were are promoting this administration’s discriminatory agenda – whether they mean to or not.