If you are reading this, the odds are high that you are a member of the animal kingdom: phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, species Homo sapiens. We all know this, even if we’ve forgotten our high school biology. So why did so many people get so angry when President Trump said “These are animals” in response to a remark about a gang called MS-13?
Obviously, because he wasn’t just stating a simple fact; he was using those words to demote those people from the human race. And by the transitive property, to demote immigrants from the empathy and consideration that decent people extend to other human beings. If A equals B, and B equals C . . .
Trump supporters dispute this interpretation. They say it’s clear, in context, that he was talking about the gang, not Hispanics or immigrants. And that given the savagery of MS-13’s violence, it’s hardly unreasonable to call its members inhuman.
These defenders have half a point; there is a plausible reading of Trump’s words that refers to the gang, or similar criminals, not to immigrants in general. But in light of Trump’s history, that surface reading isn’t enough.
In that broader context, those words are loathsomely loaded and coded. Not least because Trump’s remark did not come in response to a question about gangs — it launched from a glancing reference to MS-13 during a more general statement by a local law enforcement officer about the difficulty of reconciling federal immigration enforcement with state and local sanctuary policies. And in the succeeding days, he has seemed obsessed with repeating the word “animals” every time the social media storm threatened to die down.
It’s instructive to compare Trump’s harsh language about immigrant “animals” with his response to a direct question about a different group of people behaving badly. After white nationalists staged marches in Charlottesville, culminating in a death, Trump was at pains to distinguish the Nazis from the “people in that group that were there to innocently protest.”