Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people—these are animals.”

That was President Trump earlier this week, when, according to The New York Times, he “lashed out at undocumented immigrants” during a meeting on so-called sanctuary cities. Democratic politicians seized the opportunity to criticize the president, accusing him of attacking many or most immigrants. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted: “When all of our great-great-grandparents came to America they weren’t ‘animals,’ and these people aren’t either.”

Except, according to the White House, that wasn’t the entire story. “I’m referring, and you know I’m referring, to the MS-13 gangs that are coming in,” Trump said on Thursday.

According to a transcript of the meeting, Trump’s comments came in response to a remark from Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims about the gang. But his phrasing was undoubtedly vague. Facing blowback—including allegations from Trump that they “purposely” misrepresented his comments—some news organizations deleted tweets or clarified their stories. A bipartisan set of commentators also joined the president in criticizing media outlets’ coverage of his remarks. “Was this not about gang members?” tweeted Eric Weinstein, the managing director for an investment firm founded by Trump ally Peter Thiel.

The real question is: Why does it matter?

So far, Trump and critics of the media’s coverage have leaned on a simple defense: that dehumanizing MS-13 members is warranted by their crimes. In previous comments, Trump has utilized a graphic litany of offenses committed by gang members—from rapes to beheadings—in order to justify his hardline stance on immigration. Speaking for the president on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders expanded on that theme.

“It took an animal to stab a man 100 times and decapitate him and rip his heart out,” Sanders said, referring to the case of an unidentified man killed in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in 2017. “Frankly I think the term ‘animal’ doesn’t go far enough, and I think that the president should continue to use his platform and everything he can do under the law to stop these types of horrible, horrible disgusting people.”

There’s a certain moral clarity to these kinds of comments that allows them to be wielded as incredibly effective weapons, both in mobilizing support and in kneecapping opponents. People who oppose this straightforward moral assessment are cast as either misconstruing the speaker or choosing to defend monsters. In this brutally simplistic worldview, one must either side with the “animals” or the humans sent to contain them.

But the real world is, of course, more complicated than that, and there are policy and human-rights implications to what the president says and does. Dehumanizing rhetoric is a powerful real-world tool, especially when it’s coming from the president of the United States.

On the campaign trail, Trump deployed similarly callous language when he talked about immigration. “What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States,” Trump said in a statement in 2015. “They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” A year later, in his speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump said that “nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” and he bemoaned the release of “tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.”

As president, he’s regularly continued the practice. “You’ve seen the stories about some of these animals,” the president said at a 2017 rally, where he issued particularly graphic denunciations. “They don’t want to use guns because it’s too fast and it’s not painful enough. So they’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die.”

As with his remarks on Wednesday, it’s unclear whether Trump was referring specifically to gang members or to undocumented immigrants as a whole. This ambiguity could perhaps be chalked up to the president’s imprecise speech, but it’s connected to real policy. This unclarity is a key mechanism in the federal government’s targeting of immigrants across the country.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for much of the country’s enforcement actions against unauthorized immigrants, is well-known for using flimsy pretenses to connect young immigrants to gang activity. In 2017, ICE arrested and detained Daniel Ramirez Medina, a young undocumented immigrant who’d been shielded from deportation by enrolling in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. ICE tried to strip him of his protected status and deport him, all because they claimed a tattoo of his birthplace proved his affiliation with a gang. According to criminal-justice and immigration advocates, the number of MS-13 arrests is inflated by these flimsy cases. In the Ramirez case, a federal judge criticized ICE for lying even in the court of law about Ramirez’s affiliation, saying the “agency [offered] no evidence to this Court to support its assertions.”

According to The Marshall Project, immigrants only have to meet some very loose criteria in order to fall into the gang dragnet, including hanging out where gang members usually frequent or being labeled as a gang member by a “reliable source,” such as a teacher.

None of those criteria have much to do with the kinds of heinous crimes often ready for listing by the president and his allies. But the treatment of individuals caught up in the dragnet—from frigid detention centers to the separation of mothers from children—certainly still resembles what might be reserved for animals.

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It would be a mistake to think that this recent episode of dehumanization is unique, or that Trump’s sloppiness with speaking is a new addition to American racial and immigrant relations. Indeed, the combination of draconian rhetoric and the elision of nuance between real and perceived criminal elements is a crux of how racism has worked for centuries in this country and around the world.

A startlingly similar incident in recent American history is the coinage of “superpredator” in the mid-1990s. According to Princeton University professor John DiIulio, who first used the term in 1996, “a superpredator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought.” This designation was wielded primarily against black teenagers, often against those suspected of gang activity and often under thin pretenses. It used the same kind of dehumanization—“superpredator” originates as a zoological term for apex predatory animals—to mobilize massive public support for new criminal-justice policies and provide a moral high ground to marginalize any opponents.

An entire generation of policymakers fell sway to the seductive othering that the superpredator construct allowed. In the process, they implemented increasingly punitive sentencing and policing laws that often treated kids as adults and incentivized incarceration. Trump’s Democratic opponent in 2016 was part of that cohort of lawmakers. “They are often connected to big drug cartels, they are not just gangs of kids anymore,” Hillary Clinton said in 1996. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators’—no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.”

Some of the extraordinary juvenile-justice measures passed in that era are no longer enforced—they’ve been repealed, walked back, or declared unconstitutional. But any reasonable assessment of mass incarceration in black America will show that the damage has long been done. In Illinois, for example, over 80 percent of juveniles sentenced to life without parole under the superpredator dragnet were minorities. Driven to bloodlust against an ill-defined population of black youths made to be less than human, America strained against the Constitution and the basic precepts of human rights to stamp out a threat—based on a theory that has since been discredited.

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The true peril of Trump’s comments on Wednesday is this: that the state will be further empowered to suspend human rights. Dehumanization is not just a buzzword, but a descriptor of a specific and well-known psychological and sociological process, by which people are conditioned to accept inflicting increasingly inhumane conditions and punishments on other people. Taking from the well-worn lessons of American racism, dehumanization means both a broadening of what’s acceptable and just who is unacceptable.

The dangers of that broadening were evident in another recent viral moment. In a video clip that made the rounds on social media, 42-year-old New York lawyer Aaron Schlossberg was seen ranting to a restaurant employee and customer for speaking Spanish to each other. With no evidence that anyone present was an unauthorized immigrant—or that a crime was taking place—Schlossberg threatened to call ICE against the employees and the restaurant. Given what is known about the routine processes of ICE arrest and detention, this was at best a threat of disruption, and at worst a threat of violence.

The most likely outcome of Trump’s “animals” rhetoric isn’t a return to some mythological Pax Americana, as his supporters might suggest. Quite the opposite: It could fuel more informing on neighbors, more regular harassment for people of color, a deeper and wider dragnet, and an increased acceptance of brutality and extralegal practices. That’s what happens when people stop being people.

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