The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This revealing anecdote unmasks Trump’s dehumanization game

On May 17, President Trump responded to a question from a reporter on remarks he had made the previous day about the deportation of MS-13 gang members. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)


Whether he’s talking about Latino immigrants or kneeling African American football players, President Trump has a consistent way of disguising his racism, bigotry and dehumanization while dog-whistling it out to those voters who he believes may thrill to it.

The game is always that Trump fluidly conflates one set of individuals who constitute a less sympathetic target — one he ostensibly goes after, and one that is harder to defend — with the broader group he’s actually trying to belittle or dehumanize but cannot do so overtly.

This morning, Trump unleashed an assault on Democrats, claiming they are rooting against America. He tweeted that Democrats are “coming to the defense of MS 13 thugs, saying that they are individuals & must be nurtured.”

By “individuals,” Trump perhaps meant “people.” MS-13 “thugs” are in fact people, but as you’ll recall, Trump recently described some undocumented immigrants as “animals.” He says he was referring to MS-13 members, but his real meaning wasn’t entirely clear — and regardless, the obvious target was the broader group; the only question is whether this was implicit or explicit.

Trump’s words carry loathsome baggage

The Post has a good piece today that captures this whole game very well. It reports that Trump is increasingly enraged with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen over her alleged failure to secure the border. The story relates this remarkable anecdote about a meeting Trump held with son-in-law Jared Kushner and senior adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of his immigration agenda:

The night before Trump delivered his first speech to Congress in February 2017, he huddled with Jared Kushner and Miller in the Oval Office to talk immigration. The president reluctantly agreed with suggestions he strike a gentler tone on immigration in the speech.
Trump reminded them the crowds loved his rhetoric on immigrants along the campaign trail. Acting as if he was at a rally, he then read aloud a few made up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, like rape or murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country — as they did when he highlighted crimes by illegal immigrants at his rallies, according to a person present for the exchange and another briefed on it later. Miller and Kushner laughed.
A senior White House official said that while the president did discuss the “crowd enthusiasm for crackdowns on criminal aliens,” the official disputed that Trump used Hispanic names to illustrate the point.

This took place just after Trump took office, but it’s useful for understanding much of what Trump is doing right now. First, it has important and immediate policy relevance. The Post report notes that Trump is raging about the undocumented immigrants still crossing the border, and this anecdote reminds us how viscerally this connects him with his base, which makes him more likely to demand insanely draconian concessions in exchange for protecting the “dreamers,” making that less likely.

Second, the anecdote neatly captures how Trump’s ongoing dehumanization game works.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

The careful reader will note that, according to this report, Trump just selected Hispanic names at random — because they were Hispanic names — and then attached those names to heinous crimes. He then envisioned exciting his crowd by telling them that he was deporting these imaginary Hispanic criminals, just as he highlighted actual crimes by real undocumented immigrants on the campaign trail.

As you’ll recall, after Trump made his “animals” comment, his defenders — and Trump himself — erupted in anger at news organizations that had not explained that it had come amid a discussion of MS-13 members. It’s not clear from the context that he was talking only about MS-13 members. His ramble suggests he might have been referring to the people “we’re taking out of the country.” We can’t really be sure.

But as Julian Sanchez pointed out, this is precisely the point. Even if you adopt the most charitable interpretation — that Trump’s surface meaning was exclusively about MS-13 members — it is still not exonerating. That’s because the conflation of MS-13 members with undocumented immigrants is not an accident stemming from an imprecisely worded statement. The conflation is itself the statement.

Dehumanizing rhetoric works in exactly this way: It slaps the dehumanizing slur on the least sympathetic subgroup and then conflates that subgroup with the larger group that is the real target, then piously feigns innocence of any intention to tag the slur on the larger group. The dead giveaway here, as Sanchez also noted, is that this is a selectively applied technique: When Trump attacks criminals who don’t belong to the out-group he’s scapegoating, no such conflation is in evidence.

Trump’s reported play-acting gives away the game. There would be no reason to select imaginary Hispanic names to attach to crimes unless the whole point was to broadly associate Hispanics with criminals. A similar tactic is afoot when Trump attacks kneeling African American football players. They are protesting police brutality and systemic racism, but Trump instead attacks them for disrespecting the flag and our country, to avoid drawing attention to who and what he’s actually denigrating — African Americans who are demanding racial equality.

Columnists Eugene Robinson and Christine Emba discuss the NFL's decision to fine protesting players. (Video: The Washington Post)

News organizations bent over backwards to chastise themselves for having failed to put Trump’s “animals” remark “in context.” And, yes, reports on it should have included the fact that MS-13 was being discussed. But “context” is a malleable thing. The still larger context is Trump’s well-documented use of dehumanization word games, not to mention his explicit conflation of immigrants with criminals. Downplaying that context is to err on the side of credulousness about Trump’s actual intent. The real import of this newly revealed anecdote should be that no one can credibly feign innocence about this game any longer.

* TRUMP WANTED TO CANCEL SUMMIT FIRST: NBC News reports that Trump pulled out of the North Korea summit quickly for a reason:

The president, fearing that the North Koreans might beat him to the punch, wanted to be the one to cancel first, multiple officials told NBC News. … The decision occurred so abruptly that the administration was unable to give congressional leaders and key allies advance notice.

Nobody breaks up with Trump. He breaks up with them.

* TRUMP LEFT U.S. IN ‘WEAKENED POSITION’: The Post reports that Trump’s pullout from the summit has stranded South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who had positioned himself as an intermediary between the United States and North Korea. And:

White House aides … emphasized that the administration would maintain its policy of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation … Butcritics said Trump’s hasty jump into a poorly thought-out summit process had left the United States in a weakened position. Kim’s outreach to Seoul … has fractured the pressure campaign, analysts said, and Trump’s personal dalliance with Kim elevated the stature of a brutal, authoritarian regime on the global stage.

Never forget that in making the decision to do this summit in the first place, Trump went from his gut. How much more damage can Trump’s gut do?

* NUNES IS QUIET ABOUT FBI INFORMANT: Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and other Trump allies finally got the Justice Department to show them the documents relating to that FBI informant they’ve demanded. The Times makes an interesting point:

Mr. Nunes, a loyal ally of Mr. Trump who advised his presidential transition, has been quiet about what exactly he hoped to learn about the informant, saying only that his … request was part of an oversight investigation into potential political bias and abuse of power within the Justice Department as it relates to the Russia investigation.

Perhaps Nunes isn’t sure what he’s looking for, other than that he’s fishing for something, anything, he can use to keep smearing the Mueller probe on Trump’s behalf?

* SHOWDOWN IS AVERTED — FOR NOW: The Post reports on the aftermath of the meeting at which Nunes got to see the documents relating to the informant:

Some had feared Trump might go a step further and order the department to turn over documents it believed should not go to Nunes. That might have provoked a catastrophic confrontation — with Justice Department leaders quitting in protest or refusing the order and forcing Trump to fire them. … But after two briefings Thursday, there were no signs of an imminent showdown.

One imagines that if more shoes drop on what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is investigating, Trump and his allies will re-escalate this showdown, however.

* RISING GAS PRICES COULD CANCEL OUT TAX CUTS: Politico’s Ben White reports that Team Trump is worried about the political impact of rising gas prices:

The economic and political benefits …  from cutting tax rates could be swamped by higher pump prices that Americans face every time they hit the road. “If you look at the benefits of what households are getting from lower rates, roughly one-third of that is wiped out if these higher gas prices are sustained,” said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley.

As Politico also notes, rising gas prices could hit hardest among Trump’s blue-collar white base. And the tax cuts have been a total political flop among those voters as it is.

* TRUMP RUNS ADS AGAINST ‘FAKE NEWS’: CNN reports that the Trump campaign has quietly blitzed his personal Facebook page, which has more than 24 million followers, with over 4,000 ads. Note this:

Almost 300 ads run by the President’s page mentioned “fake news,” 177 mentioned the Second Amendment and 59 mentioned top Democrats Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.

If you wonder why a majority of Republicans agree with Trump that the media is the enemy of the American people, this sort of thing helps explain it.

* AND HERE’S GIULIANI ON MUELLER AND NORTH KOREA: Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani says Trump returning to the table with Kim Jong Un is more likely than an interview with Mueller:

Giuliani … believes Trump is more likely to eventually sit down across from Kim than Mueller. “I think it is more inevitable than a Mueller interview,” Giuliani said. “At least they’re not going to try to trap him into Korean perjury.”

No matter how much they dress this up with “perjury trap” nonsense, the bottom line is that Trump’s team knows he’ll likely lie to Mueller because he has good reason to.