November 21, 2023 - 9:01 pm
Despite his reputation as a rhetorical bomb-thrower, I believe Donald Trump often chooses his words quite carefully. This is especially true with remarks that are meant to be offensive or incendiary.
Granted, with Trump, that covers a lot of ground.
At a recent rally in New Hampshire, Trump told the crowd that, if re-elected, he would root out left-wing groups that “live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
With antisemitism on the rise in the wake of the monstrous attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza, it’s understandable that many analysts and commentators would — after hearing the word “vermin” — draw comparisons to the language Nazis used to dehumanize Jews.
Nazi propaganda frequently referred to Jews as rats or “vermin” that infested the German homeland, spread disease and needed to be eliminated.
President Joe Biden gets it. During a campaign fundraiser in San Francisco, he noted: “In just the last few days, Trump has said, if he returns (to) office, he’s gonna go after all those who oppose him and wipe out what he called the vermin, quote, the vermin in America.” Biden described the wording as “a specific phrase with a specific meaning” that “echoes language you heard in Nazi Germany in the ’30s.”
Moreover, as Biden noted, the “vermin” slur is just the latest verbal grenade that Trump has tossed into the public discourse as of late.
In a September interview with a right-wing website, Trump said waves of immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”
Today, most immigrants come to the United States from the Caribbean, Asia or Latin America. So it’s easy to draw a racial inference from Trump’s comments. After all, this is the same person who, as president, reportedly asked during a White House meeting why the United States didn’t accept more Norwegians rather than people from “shithole countries.” It’s the same person who, before he even became president, described Mexican immigrants as rapists, criminals and drug traffickers.
With Trump, the lighter your skin, the warmer the welcome. By now, most Americans who pay attention should have a pretty good idea of who Trump is, who he is speaking to and what buttons he’s pushing.
My concern is this: There are millions of Americans who — despite being born in the United States and living here their entire lives — don’t know enough about their country, and its history, to recognize that Trump’s comments are quintessentially American.
The United States has plenty of homegrown examples — both contemporary and historical — of human beings being compared to animals as a way of diminishing them. This is particularly true if the human beings in question are immigrants.
In the mid-19th century, Irish immigrants were portrayed as monkeys or apes in U.S. newspapers. In the lead-up to Congress passing the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, magazines published racist cartoons depicting Chinese immigrants as rats.
In the early 20th century, Jewish and Italian immigrants were the popular targets for nativists. Jews were often depicted as rats or pigs, and Italians were simply referred to as “street filth.”
And today, in the 21st century, it is often Latino immigrants who are dehumanized by being compared to animals or insects.
In 2006, then-Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, proposed putting an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to discourage Mexican immigrants from crossing. King said, “We do that with livestock all the time.”
In 2011, Virgil Peck, a Republican state legislator in Kansas, suggested during a committee hearing that if a state program using helicopters to find and shoot feral hogs was successful, “maybe we have found a (solution) to our illegal immigration problem.”
And in 2018, during a White House meeting, Trump added more heat. According to USA Today, Trump lashed out at undocumented immigrants. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” he said. “These aren’t people. These are animals.”
There are many more examples of immigrants being compared to dogs, insects, farm animals and, yes, vermin. In fact, this is practically an American tradition, one of our uglier ones.
It’s a sad story. But it’s also one that needs to be told, over and over again. Too bad Trump’s critics missed the chance to tell it.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is email@example.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.