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Trump’s “animals” remark and the ensuing controversy, explained

The context matters. But the context is more than just a one-minute clip.

President Trump Hosts Leaders From California To Discuss Sanctuary Cities Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

President Trump called some people “animals” during an immigration roundtable with California sheriffs on May 16.

Who you believe he was referring to probably depends on how you feel about President Trump.

Trump and the White House claim it’s clear as day: Trump was obviously referring to MS-13 gang members who commit heinous crimes. Trump’s called MS-13 “animals” before, but after this controversy the White House has embraced the term: a Monday press release was titled “What You Need To Know About The Animals Of MS-13.”

But in the eyes of Trump’s critics, the justification for “animals” wasn’t obvious at all. Some believe that the president simply had an obligation to be more careful with his words, while others point to a long history of using a few criminals to smear entire groups of people — or simply claim that it’s inhumane to refer to any human being as an animal.

At this point, both sides think they’ve won. Trump and the White House are messaging the idea that MS-13 is a bunch of animals in the aggressive manner they use when they think they’ve found a winning culture-war argument (see also: “Merry Christmas”). Meanwhile, Democrats and advocates appear to believe that they have another remark on their hands that will pay political dividends by revealing the president’s true animosity toward people of color (see also: “shithole countries”).

Both sides believe that the other is missing, or deliberately blocking out, the context of Trump’s remark. It’s an intractable disagreement not because the immediate context is unknowable — the whole event was broadcast live — but because Donald Trump has spent his entire three years in national politics saying things that sound racist to a lot of people, and America has spent three years arguing about whether that’s the fault of the person speaking those words or the people hearing them.

The context of Trump’s “animals” comment: a statement that isn’t as clear as most people think

The original wave of progressive outrage over Trump’s comments, on Wednesday, was spurred by tweets like this one, which quoted Trump’s “animals” comment but not the comment from the sheriff that preceded it:

That outrage spurred characterization of Trump’s comments as being about all deportees or even about all unauthorized immigrants.

Trump’s defenders immediately claimed the media was getting the story wrong — that Trump had been answering a question about MS-13, so he clearly meant only that violent MS-13 gang members were “criminals.”

Both of those characterizations were wrong.

This is a pasted selection from the transcript sent out by the White House Press Office after the roundtable Wednesday:

SHERIFF (Margaret) MIMS (Fresno County, CA): Now ICE is the only law enforcement agency that cannot use our databases to find the bad guys. They cannot come in and talk to people in our jail, unless they reach a certain threshold. They can’t do all kinds of things that other law enforcement agencies can do. And it’s really put us in a very bad position.

THE PRESIDENT: It’s a disgrace. Okay? It’s a disgrace.

SHERIFF MIMS: It’s a disgrace.

THE PRESIDENT: And we’re suing on that, and we’re working hard, and I think it will all come together, because people want it to come together. It’s so ridiculous. The concept that we’re even talking about is ridiculous. We’ll take care of it, Margaret. We’ll win.

SHERIFF MIMS: Thank you. There could be an MS-13 member I know about — if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.

THE PRESIDENT: We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.

This context makes a few things clear.

First of all, Trump was not asked a question about MS-13. He was not asked a question at all. He was commiserating with Sheriff Mims about the restrictions that the California “sanctuary” law puts on the ability of local law enforcement officers to make decisions about when someone should be flagged to ICE.

Second of all, the context in which MS-13 was mentioned was itself very specific: someone identified by the sheriff’s department as a “known” gang member but who doesn’t meet the “threshold” of being charged with or convicted of a serious crime.

Third, Trump’s response to Mims’s comment wasn’t actually a response to the point she was making. It wasn’t about people in local jails in the US. He first referred to people “trying to come in” to the country and then to people who are being “taken out of the country.” He then launched into a complaint about bad US laws that allow people to reenter the country repeatedly — something that also has nothing to do with the complaint Mims was making.

In context, Trump’s “animals” comment was simply part of a riff; something at best tangentially related to the conversation that he and Mims had been having up to that point.

That riff may well have been inspired by Mims’s reference to MS-13 in her previous remark. At the same time, though, Trump manifestly wasn’t talking about the same people Mims was talking about: MS-13 members in American jails without serious criminal records.

The president often does this. His comments in unscripted settings often fail to follow any obvious train of thought; he often goes off on tangents and rehashes old riffs; he often fails to demonstrate an understanding of the actual policies being discussed. This is why “what did he mean” is so often an open question. But because he’s the president of the United States, ambiguous statements can’t be left ambiguous — they’re going to acquire whatever meaning people can make from them, based on their existing understanding of what kind of person the president is.

The context of Trump’s “animals” comment: a three-year political career of talking about immigrant criminals

To people who are more skeptical of the “mainstream media” than they are of the president, the coverage of the president’s remarks seemed like a clear-cut case of “fake news” — reporters taking Trump’s words out of context to make him sound like a racist when he was in fact talking about violent criminals. “I don’t think the term the president used was strong enough,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “It took an animal to stab a man 100 times and decapitate him and cut his heart out.” And it inspired a wave of fact-checking and finger-wagging from media reporters themselves.

The Trump critics who were initially outraged about Trump’s “animals” comment, however, see this entire conversation about the context of Wednesday’s exchange as more or less missing the point.

They believe that Trump has shown a willingness to use racist language in the past and has demonstrated that he believes some people of color aren’t really human. Those facts, they believe, are more relevant context than what Sheriff Mims said at the roundtable. And they believe that in that context, it is foolish or even dangerous to present the “animals” remark as if there’s any ambiguity.

This is the debate that has defined Donald Trump’s political career. His very first speech as a presidential candidate made a riffing reference to rapists and murderers crossing into the US, spurring outrage from immigrants and progressives that the president had called Mexicans and immigrants “criminals.” Trump gleefully exploited the outrage and parlayed it into a surge in the primary polls.

Ever since, his most frequent and enthusiastic rhetorical theme has been that Americans are in danger from criminals coming into the US, and that his particular immigration agenda is the best way to stop them. This is why he keeps talking about MS-13; this is why he keeps dwelling on a few particularly gory crimes and calling the gang “animals.”

Trump critics accuse him of labeling all immigrants (or all Latinos) criminals; his critics’ critics counter that he isn’t explicitly talking about all immigrants or all Latinos and that it’s liberals who think nonracial comments are about race.

Every iteration of this fight encourages both sides’ viewpoints. It encourages Trump’s defenders — and those who are anti-anti-Trump — to believe that Trump’s words are being taken out of context to suit a preexisting narrative. It encourages Trump’s critics to believe that the president is deliberately engaging in dog-whistle politics because he knows exactly where the line is and how to tiptoe over it without admitting to doing so.

The context of Trump’s “animals” comments: all people are people — but “violent gang members are people too” may not be a winning political message

The Trump administration won the public argument about whether Trump was, at least ostensibly, referring to MS-13 members. But that doesn’t resolve the argument over whether it was morally okay for him to do that.

Indeed, to those who believe the most important point is that no one should ever be described as subhuman, attempts to explain the context of Trump’s remarks were seen as attempts to justify the dehumanization of some people as long as they’re accused of being in a gang.

On one level, this is a sheer argument of deontological ethics: All people are possessed of innate human dignity, and no act they commit can strip that of them or justify other people acting toward them as if they do not possess it. Most codes of ethics don’t allow people to treat others badly just because they have done bad things. Christianity makes a virtue of mercy and has its messiah tell a mob they are morally unfit to stone an adulteress (a violator of one of the Ten Commandments!) unless they are wholly without sin.

On another level, though, this is an instrumental argument that dehumanizing anyone leads to bad outcomes. An entire academic literature is dedicated to the pernicious effects of dehumanizing language; an oversimplified version of that literature, often expressed during the “animals” debate, is that dehumanization of a particular scapegoat group is a necessary component of totalitarian rhetoric. (The implication was often that comments like Trump’s are always a precursor to genocidal violence, which doesn’t hold logically.) More specifically, as criminologist John Pfaff pointed out, a willingness to accept criminals as subhuman encourages law enforcement officers to treat them accordingly, with often horrific results.

The people making this argument weren’t primarily Democratic politicians. But after a day or so of the animals debate, Republicans had shifted to the idea that they had jiujitsued liberals into defending MS-13, and that that would help them in November. This, too, is a fixture of dialogue in the age of Trump: even people who wouldn’t defend his statements on the merits believe that they create an advantageous political situation for his party by inspiring the other side to do something politically counterproductive.

It seems logical that MS-13 is inherently a winning issue for Trump and a losing one for Democrats (though it’s worth noting that in the one post-Trump race where the tie between immigration and crime was central to the campaign, the Virginia gubernatorial election, the Democrat won).

But it’s another example of people talking past each other. No one is saying that it is politically useful to adopt the message of “Trump was just talking about violent MS-13 criminals, but they are people too.” Trump’s critics are either emphasizing that it is true that MS-13 members are also human beings or making the argument that Trump doesn’t really just mean MS-13 members when he says “animals.”

The context: an immigration and criminal justice system that does not actually focus on the “worst of the worst”

The problem with fighting about whom Trump meant when he said what he said is that, on a policy level, what he said does not actually matter.

His administration is not focusing on deporting people who have committed particularly heinous crimes, gang members, or people with criminal records. From Trump’s inauguration to the end of 2017, ICE arrested 45,436 immigrants without criminal records.

On Thursday, in the midst of the furor over the “animals” comments, ICE released new data for the first three months of 2018 — showing that an additional 13,300 immigrants without criminal records were arrested from January to March.

To be sure, ICE arrests of immigrants with criminal records ticked up slightly from the last year of the Obama administration (in which immigration enforcement was subdued compared to previous years) to the Trump administration. But arrests of immigrants without criminal records have also spiked. During President Obama’s last year, about 16 percent of ICE arrests were of noncriminal immigrants; each month since July 2017, between 32 and 40 percent of arrestees have been noncriminals.

The Trump administration is still deporting fewer noncriminal immigrants than the Obama administration did circa 2011, and the proportion of deportees who are noncriminals is usually smaller than the proportion of arrestees who are. But the Trump administration is aiming to not just ramp back up to the deportation peak of Obama’s first term but surpass it, and that’s going to require arresting and deporting a lot of immigrants without criminal records.

If Trump understands his own administration’s policy, he’s never acknowledged it in public. He sticks to the same rhetorical move every time: refer to some specific criminals, call them horrible people and animals, say that their evil justifies his immigration policy, and allow the conflation of all immigrants and all Latinos with criminals and animals to remain subtext.

This isn’t unique to Trump. An entire era of American criminal justice policy was defined by this rhetorical move: Politicians attacked each other over horrific cases of leniency gone wrong, or with the threat of child “superpredators” roaming the streets, and the fear of those “worst of the worst” criminals led to policies that swept millions of people into the criminal justice system.

As Trump has amped up his rhetoric about MS-13, local and federal law enforcement officials have started rounding up immigrant teens on the basis of suspected gang membership — no matter how dubious those claims are.

In a 2017 feature about MS-13 and Long Island’s immigrant community, Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker says that one Long Island teen was arrested in a gang sweep for having a Salvadoran flag as his profile picture (whose dominant color, bright blue, is also used by MS-13). One ex-girlfriend of a gang member told Blitzer that when they needed to lie low, “Carlos and his friends from MS-13 would change their style of dress” — like swapping out their shoes — and then “mocked the police for being slow to catch on” to the fact that they weren’t wearing their “characteristic” gang attire. “Immigrant teens without ties to the gang,” meanwhile, were at risk: They “didn’t necessarily know which clothes were off limits.”

In one high-profile case from 2017, ICE agents made several attempts to strip protections from an immigrant covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by claiming he was a gang member; the immigrant, however, claims that the ICE agents falsified a document to make it look like he admitted to being in a gang (and federal judges have believed him).

These things don’t just happen because Donald Trump uses the word “animals.” But they don’t get the attention that Trump’s words do. And while plenty of people are willing to defend calling gang members “animals,” few are interested in looking at whether the immigration enforcement system as it exists draws the clear distinction they claim to have heard from Trump.

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