Trump claimed that Democrats want unauthorized immigrants, “no matter how bad they may be, to pour in and infest our Country.” And Trump’s closing argument leading up to the 2018 midterm election was that Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States constituted “an invasion of our country.” Trump’s rhetoric of dehumanization set the stage for his policy of separating children from their families at the southern border. And it created the conditions that, earlier this year, as Vox’s Aaron Rupar wrote, “turned the idea of shooting migrants and asylum seekers who try to cross the southern border into a punchline.”
At this point only the truly devoted and the truly deceived can deny what is playing out. Donald Trump is doing as president what George Wallace did as governor of Alabama—using words to incite feelings of revulsion and detestation toward “the other,” men and women who are the “wrong” race or the “wrong” ethnicity. For Wallace, the primary targets were black people; for Trump, the primary targets have been both Hispanic and black. (“The two greatest motivators at [Dad’s] rallies were fear and hate,” Wallace’s daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy recently said. “There was no policy solution, just white middle-class anger.” And she hears echoes of that in Trump’s rhetoric."I saw daddy a lot in 2016,” she said, adding that “they both were able to adopt the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters that feel alienated from government.”)
Words have long held a treasured place in American political culture. When Americans call to mind their greatest presidents, they often think less of their policies than their words: Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal”; Abraham Lincoln’s “With malice toward none, with charity for all”; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”; John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”; and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Words can elevate our moral sentiments. They can articulate noble national goals, promote healing and understanding, stir people to stand against injustice, and galvanize the nation behind great causes. We use words to express our deepest longings and great loves. “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word,” the poet Emily Dickinson said.
But words can also wound, degrade, and humiliate. They can cultivate grievances and distort reality. And when words are used to inflame ugly passions, malignant and malicious forces can be unleashed. Even in America.
“This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” said a manifesto that authorities believe was written by the man who gunned down 22 innocent souls in El Paso, and that was posted online 19 minutes before the killing spree began. The author said he was “simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” He added, “The Hispanic population is willing to return to their home countries if given the right incentive. An incentive that myself and many other patriotic Americans will provide.”