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Trump’s “Animal” Act is an Old Racist Trope that Always Works

President Trump’s use of the word “animal” to refer to human beings is part of a long American history of dehumanizing suspects of color.

May 22, 2018

When I first heard Pres­id­ent Trump refer to human beings as “anim­als,” when he used the word last week in the context of immig­rants and MS-13 gang members, I thought imme­di­ately of Donald Myers, other­wise known as “Death Penalty Donnie.” He is the now-defrocked South Caro­lina prosec­utor who loved so much to convict black defend­ants in capital cases that he frequently sought to dehu­man­ize them, espe­cially before white jurors, using racist language.

In one case, the sentence of which has since been over­turned, he told jurors during clos­ing argu­ment that the black defend­ant, Johnny O’Landis Bennett, was “a monster,” a “cave­man,” and a “beast of burden” and then, as if the racial implic­a­tions were not clear enough to the all-white jury, he called Bennett “King Kong.” Years later, when asked why he thought Bennett had killed his victim one of the trial jurors said: “Because he was just a dumb nigger.”

You can draw a straight line in Amer­ican history from lynch­ing a century ago to the myth of the “super­pred­ator” black teen­ager a gener­a­tion ago to the demon­iz­a­tion of foreign-born terror suspects after the terror attacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001 to the perni­cious use of racial stereo­types by prosec­utors like Myers to Pres­id­ent Trump’s racist trope about MS-13 gang members.

In each instance the demagogue moves for the most cynical reas­ons to instill popu­lar fear of the “other” by claim­ing that the “other” some­how is more danger­ous and vicious than his white coun­ter­parts or just any ordin­ary human. In each instance the dehu­man­iz­a­tion is designed to create an atmo­sphere of public anger and vitriol that then is used to justify policies and prac­tices that erode a neut­ral applic­a­tion of the law and under­mine consti­tu­tional rights.

Why? It’s simple. And so sad. The reason men like Myers and Trump rush to call human beings “anim­als” is because the tactic always works — or at least always works well enough with a steady segment of the Amer­ican popu­la­tion will­ing to see brown or black crim­inal suspects as inher­ently differ­ent from their white coun­ter­parts. These are the same people “Death Penalty Donnie” wanted on his juries when a black defend­ant’s fate was on the line.

And it’s clear the White House thinks it is going to work again, that send­ing a racist message about foreign gangs is a winning polit­ical message lead­ing into the Congres­sional midterms. Last week, conser­vat­ive tribunes rushed to defend the pres­id­ent’s comments, arguing on a tech­nic­al­ity that he was some­how on reas­on­able ground because he wasn’t call­ing all undoc­u­mented immig­rants “anim­als” just those he says are involved in viol­ent gang activ­ity.

This played so well in Trump­land that the White House decided on Monday to double-down with a press release that called these gang suspects anim­als no fewer than eight times. The argu­ment now is this: these gang members, only some of whom have been convicted in our courts beyond a reas­on­able doubt, commit viol­ent crimes that are so savage they some­how tran­scend “normal” crim­inal conduct and preclude them from being considered human.

Perhaps there will be a philo­sophy course at some college one day on who is more of an “animal,” the gang-member who kills for turf or drugs or sex traf­fick­ing or the racist loner who delib­er­ately walks into a black church and shoots parish­ion­ers? The mass shooter who targets students or drive-by shooter who fires from a car? Perhaps such a class already exists but it’s an argu­ment that heads down the wrong path. No human being, no matter what he or she has done, or is alleged to have done, is an “animal.”

But “no human being is an animal” is too nuanced a senti­ment to take hold during a campaign when the other side is telling voters there is an MS-13 gang member lurk­ing with deadly intent behind every shrub. It’s the age-old story: The Demo­crats have to counter the White House’s ploy without appear­ing soft on crime. They have to find a way to stand up for the propos­i­tion that crim­inal defend­ants in Amer­ica are indi­vidu­ally judged based on their conduct as human beings.

That Demo­crats have the facts on their side should help. Members of the MS-13 gang have not some­how revo­lu­tion­ized viol­ent crime and they are not any more or less brutal than viol­ent members of domestic gangs. Murder is murder is murder. But that won’t stop the Trump admin­is­tra­tion from using its dehu­man­iz­ing language to continue to imple­ment federal immig­ra­tion policy that dehu­man­izes immig­rants, undoc­u­mented and other­wise, who are not viol­ent crim­in­als.

Includ­ing those people who are falsely accused of gang ties. There already is every reason to be skep­tical of claims that people are gang members. The second person I thought of when I heard Trump’s racist comments last week was Daniel Ramirez Medina, a DREAMER who was falsely accused by ICE offi­cials of having a gang affil­i­ation to justify his deten­tion. A federal judge figured out the ruse and stopped it but there are count­less other federal detain­ees who are not so lucky. Is Medina an “animal,” too?

And the third person I thought of last week, when the “animal” act appeared at the White House, was U.S. Attor­ney General Jeff Sessions. For him, the pres­id­ent’s devol­u­tion is a sweet song, indeed. It unifies three of the most signi­fic­ant themes of the Sessions-led Justice Depart­ment. The first is an assault on immig­rants. The second is the fight against MS-13. And the third is the rein­vig­or­a­tion of the failed war on drugs. Animal House isn’t going anyway anytime soon.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.