Understanding the Language (An Interlude): Trump’s Immigration Rhetoric, Pt.4

This is part 4 of an on-going seres. See part 1, part 2, and part 3 here.

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.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.