Immigrants As Snakes

On Donald Trump’s Vile Eliminationist Rhetoric

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

When a person shows you who they really are you had best pay heed, especially if that person is seeking to gain power.

Several weeks ago the Daily Mail reported that at a rally in Ohio, Donald Trump “appeared to compare immigrants to venomous snakes”—by reciting a sixties soul song that tells the story of a woman who takes in an injured venomous snake and cares for it before it bites her. The final line of the song is, “You knew damn well I was a snake before you let me in.”

It was a cheap appropriation of a song recorded by Al Wilson, but it wasn’t the first time Donald Trump has compared immigrants to snakes. Over the last few months, he has made similar comments at events in Iowa, Florida, and Illinois.

In the aftermath of the ISIS bombings in Brussels, Trump has doubled down on his belief that immigration (especially by Muslims) should be restricted and mosques should be spied on. He also reiterated his support for torturing suspected “terrorists.”

Trump’s comparison of immigrants to snakes is eliminationist speech—a type of language that endorses genocide and other types of mass violence against a given group of people. It’s speech that turns the dominant group against an out group, which by its very presence in the body politic is identified as a pollutant to be expunged and destroyed.

During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, for example, similar words were piped out across the radio waves. Orders to murder were given. The Hutus were told to kill the Tutsis, who were described as “cockroaches.”

“We must finish with them, exterminate them, sweep them from the whole country,” was one line of widely quoted radio propaganda that the dominant group used to encourage ethnic violence.

Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf contains similar rhetoric about the Jews and others who are “pollutants” in what should be a “pure” Aryan empire:

Here he stops at nothing, and in his vileness he becomes so gigantic that no one need be surprised if among our people the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.

As part of their concerted effort to legitimate genocide, the Nazis repeatedly compared Jews to animals, including snakes. For example, Holocaust scholar Mary Mills has highlighted how such hatred was even taught to children in books such as Der Pudelmopsdachelpinscher (The Poodle-Pug-Dachshund-Pincher), a picture book published in 1940:

Like the cuckoo, Jews are depicted as stealing other people’s homes. They are the foreigners who threaten to displace the Germans from Germany. As hyenas strike disabled animals, Jews are portrayed as praying upon disadvantaged Germans/Christians. Other animals included in these comparisons are the chameleon (the great deceiver), the locust (the scourge of God), the bedbug (the blood sucker), the sparrow (good-for-nothings), the poodle-mops-dachshund-pincher (an inferior race created by cross-breeding various types of races), the poisonous snake . . . Finally, Jews are compared to a deadly bacteria . . . Just as a deadly bacteria must be eliminated, so the Jews must be exterminated.   

Hitler’s 1,000-year Reich would last 12 years. It was the banality of evil that visited destruction on almost every corner of the world. And that evil began with eliminationist speech.

Again, people will show you who they really are. The most important task is to pay attention and listen closely.

So when Trump talks about snakes it should not be dismissed. And it shouldn’t be surprising that Trump has attracted supporters already familiar with a racist, eliminationist vernacular.

On a recent episode of the PBS NewsHour, a white supremacist was interviewed as she did voter outreach for Trump. Her Nazi tattoos were clearly visible in the frame. She offered no apologies or embarrassment for her white supremacist beliefs. The host offered no comment on the offensive tattoos.

This woman’s support for Trump is part of a larger pattern.

Ku Klux Klan leaders such as David Duke have endorsed Trump. White supremacists online and in other spaces claim him as their champion. White supremacists have infiltrated Trump’s rallies, and in turn, attacked black and brown protesters. Trump evades, dodges, bobs, weaves, and twists about as he claims to not know of the likes of David Duke, simultaneously disavowing them, while also sending out their messages to millions of people on Twitter and other social media.

In Chicago, Barack Obama attended a church where a pastor engaged in the most modest and basic of truth-telling about the United States and its history of racism and militarism. For making that choice Senator Obama was pilloried, and his 2008 presidential campaign almost derailed by false charges that he and Reverend Jeremiah Wright were “anti-white” and “racists.”

By comparison, Donald Trump is supported by avowed white supremacists, endorses their vile racism, gins up violence against protesters at his rallies, wallows in the worst sort of right-wing xenophobia, and is every week closer to winning the Republican presidential nomination.

Donald Trump’s eliminationist rhetoric (and other hate speech) is not an outlier or aberration. It is the lingua franca of the right-wing news-entertainment-hate media, and a Republican Party where conservatism and racism are now one and the same thing. As David Neiwert has argued in his book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and similar outlets routinely describe liberals and progressives as being subhuman, evil, insects, animals, and monsters.

These are the seeds and encouragement for stochastic terrorism and other acts of violence by the American Right. When such violence occurs at Planned Parenthood clinics, doctors’ offices, religious gathering places, and elsewhere, right-wing hate merchants such as Bill O’Reilly look away and feign innocence and ignorance about how such a thing could have possibly taken place.

Moreover, Trump’s eliminationist rhetoric and racism toward “Arabs,” “Muslims,” Hispanics, and blacks is a reflection of the attitudes held by many, if not most, Republicans. Trump is channeling the consensus beliefs held by American conservatives in the Age of Obama.

The Republican Party is in chaos because it is wedded to an electoral strategy of overt racism and “dog whistle” politics that pays dividends in the near term, but is unsustainable in the long- to mid-term, given America’s changing racial, ethnic, and political demographics.

Like the authoritarian governments in the Middle East that were overthrown during the Arab Spring, the Republican Party looked strong from the outside, but once kicked, was revealed to be rotting on the inside.

It is tempting to engage in a moment of liberal schadenfreude as Republicans fight against their own political monster in the form of Trump, and wonder about how their “hate the government” ethos and the disinformation machine at Fox News and right-wing talk radio created such a beast.

But it was the Republican Party that made Trump possible. And the beast is the base. If Trump prevails at the convention this summer in Cleveland, its elites and rank and file will likely fall in behind him in order to prevent further chaos within the party. Unchecked, the bigotry promoted by Donald Trump will only become worse, because the conservative-authoritarian followers in the party’s base believe him to be right. As long as the base controls the party, racism will undergird the GOP platform.

Chauncey DeVega is an essayist, cultural critic, and host of “The Chauncey DeVega Show” podcast.