What makes Trump’s rhetoric so uniquely disruptive? One way to think about this is by examining just how strongly he breaks with more than a century of other presidents. In this regard, he is a uniquely destructive speaker: a 2017 analysis of just 100 days of his statements in office revealed a “break” from decades of “sanitized, prepackaged rhetoric of predecessors.” The researchers go on:
His apocalyptic contrasting of demise and deliverance, parsing of individuals as winners and losers, and demonization of those with whom he disagrees also differentiate Trump’s rhetorical repertoire from that of those who previously held the office… Finally, more so than past presidential contenders, when it serves his advantage, Trump questions the integrity of democratic institutions, some of which can hold a president accountable for abuse of power or misuse of evidence, including the electoral system, the courts, the justice system, and the media.<
In other words, his divisive, racist hate speech toward immigrants who are not white is consistent with a broader “burn the boats” approach to Trumpian politics that is going to leave an indelible mark on American society. His racist attacks on immigrants is calculated, intentional, and working.
So, knowing that president Trump is a uniquely divisive president whose language is uniquely hateful, what can we learn by studying it in detail? For one, Trump’s racism taps into America’s original sin, which is the violent belief system of white supremacy. At its very core, the U.S. Constitution enshrines the supremacy of white men over black men and women as an institution so sacred it was defended for nearly a century before prompting the most destructive war the country has ever faced (and the descendants of the losers of that war still fly the flag of slavery, proudly).
In fact, racist resentment toward minorities and anti-immigration beliefs are one of the strongest indicators of support for Trump, according to a massive 2018 study of survey data — even more so than outlawing abortion, which energized the evangelical base but remains a deeply unpopular idea in the broader electorate (and has its own heritage steeped in white supremacy as well).
Because of Trump’s direct line to this enduring artifact of American society, he resonates with a lot of people who might not otherwise find his style appealing (indeed most Republican opposition to him is aesthetic, rather than substantive — they think he’s crass, not that he’s wrong). It takes a lot of semantic twisting and turning to not describe the president’s racist language about immigrants as anything other than racist. Recently, his “go back where you came from” — directed at three women of color who were born here and one who’s been a citizen longer than the First Lady — is the most open embrace of this racism he has yet expressed. Trump’s own government, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifically lists it as discriminatory language.
Trump followed that up with a fascist rally where he nodded along with the crowd beying “send her back” about a sitting member of Congress who naturalized after she was admitted as a refugee (Trump disavowed the chant after he realized it played poorly in the media, then reversed his disavowal, because he really doesn’t disagree with it). His political rallies have become clear assertions that only whiteness counts as American, and any other skin color is less legitimate. That the entire Republican party has closed ranks to defend him while denying the plain spoken racism they represent suggests that countering this hate speech will not come from the political sphere. It has to come from elsewhere.
Internalizing the reality of an openly white supremacist presidency is not easy. No one really wants to admit that such a person could win an election — even those who study politics professionally (as Sam Page and Jason Dettmer, professors at University College London and the University of North Carolina, respectively, put it, “we underestimated the degree to which the RepublicanParty had become a proxy for white supremacy”). Indeed, Trump has run his administration as “white counter-revolutionary politics”, whereby he represented essentially a racial immune response to formerly oppressed groups gaining equality — something baked into that original sin of racism that characterized the formation of this country. This is not new territory for him — Donald Trump has been an infamously bigoted person for decades before he ran for president, but he only recently learned how to mobilize that racism to benefit himself. There is no separating his personhood from his racism, for they are the same.
All of this is to say that Trump’s anti-immigration language and policies don’t reflect some heightened concerns about the economic wellbeing of the ordinary Americans he claims are harmed by immigrants — his disastrous trade policies and the 2017 tax cut certainly are not targeted at helping ordinary Americans — rather, they reflect white racial resentment that “the others” are gaining on them and will soon be “overtaken.” And indeed, survey data show that Trump’s supporters are very much defined by this fear of a loss of status — mostly in terms of fearing a “minority majority country,” which means one that is less overwhelmingly white. (Why one would fear being a minority in an America that is fundamentally not built on racist beliefs and systems is, of course, not discussed.)
By tapping into a primal pathology of American political life, one most people try not to acknowledge, Trump is “speaking the quiet parts aloud” — that is, he is plainly speaking to an agenda that is normally much easier to deny. And this lack of deniability makes his words powerful, as he is the most powerful person in the country telling people with violent, extremist views that they have legitimacy and are valued.
Hence, studying and understanding how Trump talks about immigration matters if we want to understand just how he is changing the American political landscape, and eventually have a plan for how to reverse the onslaught of racism. This has real consequences for people and materially affects their health.
Even a cursory glance at his history of racism reveals how deep-seated it is:
- Trump still insists the Central Park Five are guilty of murder despite copious physical and legal evidence they are not, because they are not white and therefore guilty. He has never recanted the 1989 ad he bought demanding their deaths as teenagers.
- His continued use of “Pocahontas” to refer to Elizabeth Warren (who does have some Native ancestry, though not enough to claim official heritage).
- Trump also has a decades-long history of racist language toward Native Americans — another data point that his language about immigrants is not rooted in economic concerns, but racial animus.
- Much like the Central Park Five, Trump falsely insists that Barack Obama was not a citizen of the United States despite copious evidence to the contrary. So-called “birtherism” is nakedly racist and widely debunked as false.
- He has a decades-long history of discriminatory and predatory behavior toward black people, including when he called African Americans “lazy” in the early 1990s. The Department of Justice sued him twice over illegal discrimination.
- “Shithole countries.”
- “When Mexico sends its people, it is not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And som, I assume, are good people.”
- Trump attacked a judge born in Indiana for being Mexican, and thus unable to rule fairly in the lawsuit over his ponzi scheme to defraud people through Trump University.
- Attacking non-white Americans born here as having dual allegiance, which never making a similar comment toward white people of European descent, is a recurring theme.
- For example, Trump asked an intelligence analyst conducting a presidential daily briefing where she was “really” from even though she was born here and maintained a high level security clearance.
- Trump’s racism against people of Latino heritage is so entrenched many white audiences think yelling his name is the same as expressing anti-Latino racism.
- The Muslim travel ban, another racist attack on immigration.
- After a neo-nazi murdered a young woman in Charlottesville, Trump refused to condemn the swastikas and said there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the march.
- Trump pretended he didn’t know who former KKK leader David Duke was when he endorsed Trump in 2016. Trump’s family has a multigenerational relationship with the Klan.
That’s only a partial list, the largest whoppers. And despite that, people will still insist that he isn’t really racist. By some standards, he is simply incapable of racism, because the term “racist” is defined so specifically no one will ever truly meet it unless they literally don a white hood and burn a cross.
But being crystal clear about what Trump represents is important. There remains strong social stigma associated with open racism, which means using plain language to describe this language and these policies — as being rooted in racism — is so important.