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.