How Did We Get Here? (Part 1): How Trump Cultivated an Enemy Image of Latinx and Hispanic people

**Content Warning: Instances of explicit, dehumanizing hatespeech targeted at Latinx and Hispanic people, as well as undocumented persons, will be examined in this essay.**


“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you, they’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

-Donald J. Trump, Presidential Campaign Announcement Speech on June 16, 2015


Three years ago, while announcing his candidacy for President of the United States, Trump told us exactly who he is and what his plans were. He didn’t even dog-whistle. With this declaration, he began a seemingly never-ending spew of dehumanizing language that led us right into children in cages and attempts to suspend the basic rights of undocumented people. Frustratingly, this was all tiredly predictable and many voices were diagnosing the problem, predicting the dangerous path it would lead us down. And this is where we have arrived, all the same.

I think it might be fruitful to take a step back, consider how we came to be here, and attempt to understand more fully what we’re dealing with. After all, if we wish to put out the fire, we need to understand what is feeding it and where it is spreading. For this reason, in this essay, the first in a series I intend to write over the next few months, I am going to start with one of the social processes that led us here. Due to its immediate and ever-present salience, I am going to examine how Trump’s rhetoric and policies have cultivated an “enemy image” to justify violence against Latinx and Hispanic people in the United States.

Imagining the Enemy

“The first thing that caught my attention was that all nations use basically the same visual metaphors, the same hostile clichés, to characterize and dehumanize their enemies. It was like all these propaganda artists had gone to the same art school.”

-Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy (1987)

A key study for our current understanding of how we create and use enemy images comes from a qualitative study conducted by Sam Keen, entitled Faces of the Enemy (1991). He collected propaganda images from dozens of countries spanning decades of conflict, and found several consistent motifs and themes. Tellingly, he found these same elements in the propaganda of cultures on opposite sides of conflicts and in conflicts and regions completely removed from each other, suggesting that these represented a general, underlying process that stretched across cultures and eras.

In almost every case, a nation will portray themselves as a victim or as someone endangered, with the group they are in conflict with being framed as a danger or aggressor. This appears to be done to prepare a community to do violence against this targeted group by creating justifications for violence, and dehumanizing the “enemy” in order to mute their communities empathy towards them. Beyond this, there are several elements in how the image of the enemy is framed, three of which are particularly relevant in the case of Trump’s rhetoric. I will link to a whole pile of images in this discussion, and I encourage you to examine them for yourself and ask yourself what you see in all these images.

First, we present the targeted group of people as subhuman, especially using the imagery of animals. The Nazis presented the Jewish people as vermin. The Hutus of Rwanda called Tutsis “cockroaches.” Americans portrayed the Japanese as rodents. The Japanese and the British drew cartoons of the Russian octopus stretching its tentacles across Asia. The Germans painted the picture of a British spider weaving its tangled webs across Europe. It has always been easier for people to kill animals than other human beings, and by ensuring your community sees the chosen enemy as a animal you can mute their empathy, which might otherwise make it harder for them to do direct violence against them. Additionally, if a dangerous animal is threatening you, you cannot reason with it, you can only exterminate it if you wish to protect yourself and your family.

Second, the enemy is always shown to be inherently more dangerous or vicious than members of your own group. The enemy is violent, aggressive, and unreasonable. They are greedy and ravenous, wanting to devour the entire world. They are rapists, murderers, and criminals. They are not defending themselves, they are invading and stealing from others. If we attempt to be reasonable or peaceful, they will take advantage of us and harm us. So, even though we are virtuous, we must be vicious ourselves and take extraordinary measure to protect our community.

Third, seemingly in contradiction to the first point, our enemies are more powerful and dangerous than any mere individual human. They are a demon, a monster, or a supernatural spirit. The enemy is involved in a worldspanning conspiracy, and they are everywhere at once. We can’t rely on conventional diplomacy or tactics to protect ourselves – after all, guns don’t kill vampires or demons.

Quite often, our enemy is all of these things at once, such as in this famous image of a German King-Kong-sized gorilla who is preparing to rape a woman, while under the armor of “militarism” and having bludgeoned someone with his violent club of “kultur.” Each of these pieces adds up, each muting a bit more empathy and creating a bit more of a justification for violence. This is necessary if you want people to harm a targeted group because most people are reluctant to commit direct violence against actual human beings. While there is debate over whether or not humans are “naturally” violent, there is significant evidence that the vast majority of us are not good at engaging in direct violence. This is not only born out by our everyday experience where most of people we encounter do not commit violence most of the time, but also by a famous set of US military studies that found that soldiers who encounter an enemy soldier will not fire their weapons most of the time, and when they do, they tend to fire randomly rather than aiming directly.

Enemies of the Paranoid

It is valuable to note the parallels between Keen’s findings and Richard Hofstadter’s observations in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964), which I discussed last year in reference to Trump’s politics. Rather than studying propaganda images, Hofstadter did a deep dive into American texts across hundreds of years of history, and found the cyclical reemergence of a “paranoid style” of politics and rhetoric. In fact, he predicted that this would likely continue to occur roughly every fifty years, given the pattern up until then. Once more, he found that it always begins with a specific belief: we are now a persecuted group, being victimized by some malevolent entity, and our entire way of life is threatened.

Each time a new target would be chosen by society, such as Freemasons, Illuminati, Catholics, Mormons, and Communists, but the rhetoric and politics around them were always the same. They were both subhuman and capable of things no human being could do. They were involved in vast conspiracies that ranged from local government to the United Nations. Members of the targeted group practiced secret and inhuman ritual violence against people. Once more, we can imagine an enemy as less than human, more than human, or both at once – just as long as they are anything but human. This is important, as it is telling that two independent scholars, using different methods and different data, came to the same conclusions.

The Art of Dealing Enemies

This brings us back to where we started, Trump’s announcement he would campaign to teach us to see undocumented people, especially Latinx and Hispanic people, as our enemies. During his June 16, 2015 speech, when he announced he would be running for president of the United States, he laid out a textbook enemy image in the paranoid style of politics. While many of you likely remember the quote at the top of the page, you may not remember the full context, which might shock you in retrospect.

He began his speech by complimenting the crowd and throwing some insults at the other Republican presidential candidates, suggesting that because they were not savvy about how they presented themselves for the TV they couldn’t “beat ISIS.” From there, he immediately jumped into presenting a vision of a persecuted United States:

Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them.

This led to a quick comment about “losing” on trade deals with China and Japan, and how he could help us win again. After building this sense of persecution with more innocuous examples, he then launches fully into his target: Mexico.

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.

The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.

Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Take a moment to consider the elements of enemy images and paranoid politics that we discussed above, what elements do you see here?

Mexico is “beating” and “killing” us, invoking a violent nature through analogy. Also, this is not an accident, but intentional persecution. Once more, we are being victimized by other people “dumping” their “problems” on us. What are those problems? Rapists, drug traffickers, and criminals, who are being intentionally sent across our border by the nation of Mexico.

Later in the speech, he reiterates this point again, this time clarifying that it is not just Mexico, but “all over South and Latin America.” He also goes on to craft enemy images of Muslims and people of the Middle-East, but that’s a topic for a later post. The key here is that he laid out his thesis: the US is a victim, being intentionally targeted by the nations of Latin America, and the means by which they are harming us are undocumented people they are “sending” across the border who are imagined to be mostly rapists, drug-dealers, and criminals. In roughly two paragraphs, Trump has created an image of a violent, immoral, rapacious enemy that is taking advantage of us right now and endangering our communities.

This was just the beginning, as we have seen him use the term “animal” more than once in discussions conflating undocumented migrants with MS13. He calls the places undocumented people of color come from “shithole countries.” And he constantly employs verbs that imply that migrants are subhuman, such as “breeding” and “infestation,” or are a violent enemy “invading” our country. He equivocates constantly as to who he is referring to when discussing immigration, often suggesting all undocumented migrants are “MS13 thugs.” He also regularly adopts terms used by others that suggest undocumented migrants, especially those from Latin American countries, are animals, such as “catch and release,” which we usually use to refer to a fishing practice. And he encapsulates it all within conspiracy theories, suggesting that there is an inhumanly powerful force infiltrating our communities.

So there it is, right in front of us. Undocumented people from Latin American countries are at once both less than human, as infesting animals, and more than human, being part of a conspiracy to persecute American communities. They are violent criminals and thugs who want to rape American women. We are being invaded and we must stop the enemy at all costs.

We should not dismiss the harm that this does either. A recent study by Kteily and Burneau (2017) found that this rhetoric had actually dehumanized American perceptions of Mexican immigrants and Muslims, leading them to be seen as less “evolved,” similar to animals. These also led to increased support for the exact policies Trump has been enacting against Latinx and Hispanic people in the United States, including detention and expulsion. The danger is demonstrable, having happened again and again in our history.

In a future essay, I will discuss strategies for working against dehumanization, but one of the best resources on these topics can be found at Beyond Intractability, including a straightforward article on humanization. Before we do that though, there is another feature of Trump’s enemy-image-making that I want to explore, which are the rhetorical strategies of ambiguity and equivocation that he uses to enable audiences to conflate undocumented people and violent criminals, as well as the cognitive biases which facilitate this conflation.

Next Up: How Did We Get Here? (Part 2): Conflating Latinx and Hispanic People with Criminals




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