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The strange history and ugly core of Donald Trump Jr.'s Skittles tweet, explained

Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images and Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The millions of people who’ve fled Syria have risked their lives to escape ISIS. The most memorable image of them was a 3-year-old boy who was photographed after his death, drowned on a beach in Turkey, which rocketed around social media just a year ago.

Donald Trump Jr., the 38-year-old son of Donald Trump and one of the Republican candidate’s closest advisers, used a very different image to refer to these people: a bowl of Skittles.

“If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful?” the text on an image of Skittles that Trump tweeted Monday evening read. “That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

“This image says it all,” Trump tweeted approvingly.

Skittles’ parent company itself summed up the problem: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t think it’s an appropriate analogy.”

Comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned candy is the latest twist on a very old racist idea about evil people hiding undetectably among good ones, akin to the bad apple spoiling the bunch or Nazi propaganda that compared Jews to toadstools.

The online “poisoned candy” metaphor started with feminists pushing back against the complaint that “not all men” are misogynists. Anti-feminists shot back, substituting Muslims for men in the analogy to demonstrate how offensive it would otherwise be. Then — truly missing the point — conservatives adopted it over the past year as a genuine argument that any migration from Syria is too big a risk.

The image, which the Trump campaign defended, is the latest demonstration of how willing the campaign is to go in demonizing entire groups of people. Prominent politicians and their advisers used to avoid referring to entire groups of people as a “problem.” But Trump — with an analogy that dramatically overstates the risk refugees pose to America — gleefully paints paints a broad, prejudiced picture.

This is not an outlier moment for the Trump campaign. It’s central. Donald Trump has used every terrorist attack as an excuse to argue that Muslims, even Muslim Americans, all mean to harm the United States. He’s called for banning immigration from Muslim countries and said Muslims can’t assimilate. When the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in action defended their patriotism, he said he’d been “viciously attacked.”

Read Trump’s tweet in this context and suddenly a terrible comment about refugees becomes a terrible comment designed to do something even worse — stoke fears of all Muslims.

Why fears about “refugees” are a dog whistle for broader Islamophobia

This is the third time in the past week that Donald Trump Jr. has made the news for saying or alluding to something that, before 2016, would have been considered beyond the pale for a major figure in a presidential campaign.

The Skittles tweet, though, is still notable for how much bigotry it manages to wrap into a very short meme:

Here is what Trump is saying here: His father might rail about ISIS on the stump, but taking care of actual people who are in far more immediate danger from ISIS than most Americans — Syrian refugees — is a “politically correct agenda.” The danger it poses is not theoretical but immediate: Refugees will kill you.

The only agenda that will “put America first,” according to Trump, is one that assumes even a tiny risk to Americans outweighs every other consideration. It’s a policy that assumes Americans’ lives are infinitely precious and that Syrians might as well be Skittles, abstract pieces in a calculation of risk.

This isn’t really just about refugees. It’s about Muslims, and Trump’s argument that they are too dangerous to be allowed into America. He stoked the fear of Syrian refugees after the Orlando shooting, and he’s doing it again in the wake of the bombing in New York City. (The Orlando shooter was born in the US; the suspect in the New York bombing came to America from Afghanistan as a child after his father was granted asylum.)

The fears Trump is stoking are not based in reality. Very few refugees eligible for resettlement are the unmarried, childless men who are most likely to commit terrorist attacks. Refugees admitted to the United States go through intense vetting that can take up to two years and involves a database shared by the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Defense Department. A recent study by the Cato Institute looked at the more than 3 million refugees who have entered the US since 1975 and found that the odds of being killed by a refugee turned terrorist are one in 3.6 billion.

But Trump’s campaign represents a troubling shift in post-9/11 politics. Conservatives didn’t use to be so careless about equating “Muslim immigrant” with “terrorist.” President George W. Bush reiterated time and again that Muslims weren’t the enemy and America wasn’t at war with Islam. In the past, lawmakers have admitted refugees despite Americans’ overall skepticism.

Trump’s policy, and his tone, is a break with this history. He’s telling voters over and over that Muslim immigrants are too dangerous to let into the United States and vowed to abandon a commitment to resettling refugees that began after Americans were ashamed they’d done so little to save victims of the Holocaust.

This has real consequences — not just for Muslims who hope to immigrate to America later but for Muslims already here. A recent report found there were more religiously motivated crimes against Muslim in America in 2015 than in any year since 2001.

The candy analogy started with the #YesAllWomen campaign — yes, really

Part of the outrage that Trump’s tweet provoked was about the broader attitude it conveyed. But it was also about the specifics: the use of candy as a dehumanizing metaphor for people, the possible implications of the choice of Skittles in particular, and the fact that, yet again, Donald Trump Jr. had turned a right-wing meme into something akin to an official campaign statement.

Trump apparently lifted the comparison from Joe Walsh, a former representative from Illinois better known for his controversial tweets than his single term in Congress:

But the history of the comparison itself shows how memes migrate and mutate online. In its original version, the Skittles meme was about poisoned M&Ms. It was a feminist meme that inspired an anti-feminist retort that, stripped of irony, began circulating on its own.

After Elliot Rodger wrote a virulently misogynistic manifesto and killed six people in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014, the popular #YesAllWomen hashtag surfaced to respond to the inevitable argument that “not all men” were bad. The M&Ms tweet, later deleted, came from this anti-“not all men” backlash: “‘UNFAIR! NOT ALL MEN!’ Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% of them are poisoned. Go ahead. Eat a handful. Not all M&Ms are poison.”

Ben Grelle

Ben Grelle, who turned the tweet into an image that went viral, argued that he only wanted to justify why marginalized people should fear the powerful majority, not the other way around: “What harm befalls an oppressive group if people are cautious of them?”

But the M&Ms comparison started circulating among anti-feminists on Twitter and Reddit as a sort of jokey allusion to what they saw as bad logic. Some substituted Muslims or black people to explain their issue with it.

Then the comparison, turned against Muslims or black Americans rather than men, took on an unironic life of its own and became a popular meme on the right. (There may have been some overlap between the ironic and less ironic uses: Some virulent anti-feminists also embrace white supremacy and love Donald Trump. The overlap in that Venn diagram is the online wing of the belief system known as the alt-right.)

By late 2015, this was a popular image on social media and popped up in other places, such as the financial blog Zero Hedge:

It also showed up in other forms. Mike Huckabee compared refugees to peanuts. The comparison was common enough that the blog Debunking Denialism published an explanation of all the ways the logic is flawed: “It has no specificity and can be applied to any group (including the group making the generalizations to begin with), it uses non-empirical base rates, the correct base rates is never factored into the analysis, it uses an irrational risk analysis that assumes that zero risk is possible.”

The meme Walsh and Donald Trump Jr. shared was about Skittles, not M&Ms. This could have been an innocent substitution. But there are also some pretty horrifying memes joking about the death of Trayvon Martin, who was killed carrying Skittles and iced tea, that mention Skittles; the Martin case helped propel the rise of the alt-right.

That might seem like a stretch — the memes didn’t circulate widely — but Donald Trump Jr. has been on a tear of promoting white supremacists that make people less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Donald J. Trump Jr. is starting to have a white supremacist problem

The broader implications of Trump’s position on refugees are horrifying, but they’re not surprising. The Trump campaign, in a statement Tuesday afternoon, reiterated that the point he was making was the campaign’s official position: “Speaking the truth might upset those who would rather be politically correct than safe, but the American people want a change, and only Donald Trump will do what’s necessary to protect us.”

So the specifics of Trump’s tweet — including whether including “Skittles” was a dog whistle to white supremacists — have gotten the most attention. It’s the latest in a week when Trump has repeatedly made allusions and nodded to symbols that are usually considered beyond the pale. Since last Monday, he’s:

Before that, he has retweeted prominent white supremacists at least twice and appeared on a radio show with a white supremacist.

In any other presidential campaign, any one of these incidents could have turned into a controversy that dominated the news cycle. Campaigns would have apologized. Tweets would have been deleted.

The Trump campaign has featured so much of this that each statement has been little more than a blip. Each time, Trump claimed he didn’t know what he was doing: Trump said he had no idea who Pepe was before he tweeted the meme and that the “gas chamber” reference was about “corporal punishment.”

But the fact that these controversies just keep coming — and that they don’t seem to make him more cautious about what he’s passing around — is starting to make it seem that, at the very least, he just doesn’t care which dog whistles he’s blowing. In some cases, at least with the Skittles, what he’s communicating is exactly the message his father wants to send.

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