On Monday, the White House waded into the debate over whether it is okay to call human beings “animals” after President Trump's use of the phrase led accusers to associate his language with words used by some of history's worst dictators, and his supporters accused the left of defending violent gang members who regularly torture their opponents and insiders alike.
And the White House also sought to put to rest questions about who exactly Trump was referring to.
The White House released a statement Monday headlined, “What you need to know about the violent animals of MS-13.” It read like a fact sheet on the gang and used the word “animals” nine times after the headline.
“MS-13 is a transnational gang which follows the motto of 'kill, rape, control' by committing shocking acts of violence in an attempt to instill fear and gain control,” the statement said.
“MS-13 is a transnational gang that has brought violence, fear, and suffering to American communities. MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, commits shocking acts of violence to instill fear, including machete attacks, executions, gang rape, human trafficking, and more,” they added. “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.”
Trump has regularly referred to undocumented violent gang members as “animals” since launching his campaign — a politically incorrect approach to dealing with criminals and undocumented people that many who voted for the “law and order” candidate found attractive. But Trump's use of the word last week during an immigration roundtable at the White House with administration aides, political leaders and California law enforcement officials made headlines, in part, because it was not clear that he was specifically talking about gang members.
Here's the transcript:
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims: Thank you. There could be an MS-13 member I know about — if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.
President Trump: 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.
The words also were poorly received because they reminded many of just how callous Trump's language toward undocumented immigrants has been. The president launched his campaign calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers. While Trump supporters praised the tough talk, many argued that calling human beings animals was inappropriate regardless of the person's criminal activity.
Washington Post opinion columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote that “it's never right to call other human beings 'animals.' ”
No one wants to be put in a position of seeming to say anything good about gang members. Yet Trump’s strategy of dehumanization must be resisted across the board. We cannot shy away from what history teaches. Pronouncing whole categories of people as subhuman numbs a nation’s moral sense and, in extreme but, unfortunately, too many cases, becomes a rationale for collective cruelty. … What’s not fake news is Trump’s refusal to take responsibility for using words quite deliberately to enrage, degrade and divide.
Trump is not concerned about recognizing the humanity in all human beings — he didn't get to where he is by doing that. He is concerned about three of the things that got him to the White House.
- Remaining tough on violent undocumented criminals.
- Pleasing his base, and reminding them that he's not afraid to be offensive when he feels tough talk is in order.
- Never apologizing and always doubling down.
This approach is certainly understandable, because a hard-line approach to immigration is what much of Trump's base deeply values. And part of the strategy to securing America's borders is rooted in using language that some find so offensive that those linked to Trump can accuse them of being on the side of violent gang members.
In these hyperpartisan times, where there seems to be little reward for admitting mistakes and walking back missteps, this White House has repeatedly shown that doubling down and leaning in to the things that your opponents detest often seems like the best approach for the president and those who side with him.