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.