One of the oddities of our political moment is how frequently we are asked to tease out the layers of meaning of remarks by President Donald Trump as though he had chosen them with the care of a good poet. The latest controversy — although by the time this appears it may have been overtaken by another one — concerns the president’s comment, “These aren’t people. They’re animals.”
The New York Times and USA Today were among the media outlets that suggested that Trump had referred to illegal immigrants as a class. His defenders, who on this occasion include some people who are not kneejerk supporters of his, say it’s important to look at the context. A sheriff had been complaining to Trump about the difficulty of deporting members of MS-13, the criminal gang, before he made the remark. So, Trump’s defenders say, he meant to describe MS-13 members, not illegal immigrants, as animals. As the controversy continued, Trump himself said that’s what he meant.
Media outlets that presented Trump’s remark without mentioning the MS-13 lead-in did their audience, and Trump, a disservice. They could have provided more useful context by noting that the sheriff was specifically referring to members of the gang who were not charged or convicted of serious crimes.
The MS-13 explanation led to a secondary complaint: Some of Trump’s critics insisted that it was wrong to refer even to vicious criminals as though they were not human beings. That criticism seems off base.
The critics are right that even the worst of us have a certain dignity that attaches to our common humanity — a dignity that no act, however vile, can forfeit. That’s why we can hold people morally accountable for their freely-chosen wrongful acts, as we could not if gang members committing rapes and murders were the equivalent of tigers feasting on a gazelle.
Some of us would go so far as to say that human beings, even mass murderers, remain children of God. But it is also true that people can act bestially, and can be faulted for it. Often when people call other people animals, that’s what they mean. They don’t mean that you would be justified in taking them to a slaughterhouse and then eating their flesh.
(Labeling people vermin or insects, on the other hand, has historically tended to mean that they should be killed en masse.)
Condemning violent criminals for acting like animals is certainly defensible. But all this context requires a context of its own, which is Trump’s general approach to immigration and crime. He frequently links the two. His administration regularly sends out alerts about crimes committed by illegal immigrants, and it created a government agency designed to publicize those crimes.
In December, Trump said:
“The Democrats are really looking at something that is very dangerous for our country. … They want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime. We don’t want to have that. We want to have a great, beautiful crime-free country.”
Whether illegal immigration increases violent crime rates at all is not clear from the data, and several studies say otherwise. But we know enough to reject Trump’s portrait of a tide of such crime. We went through decades of illegal immigration that coincided with a falling crime rate.
We also know that Trump’s policies have moved away from a focus on crime. Criminals are a smaller percentage of immigration arrestees under Trump than they were under President Barack Obama.
Trump blurs the lines between criminal and non-criminal illegal immigrants in a way that is demagogic and designed to increase hostility. That’s part of what has been wrong with his immigration platform from the very beginning, and it’s more troubling than his use of the word “animal.”