One of the defining moments in New York City’s struggle against violent crime three decades ago came with the brutal rape and assault of a woman who was jogging through Central Park. Several young black and Hispanic men were arrested for that crime after witnesses said they saw a large group of teenagers assaulting and harassing park patrons before the rape occurred.
Les Payne, a Pulitzer-winning columnist for Newsday, soon noticed a trend in how the young men were described.
“While grieving for the victim, African-Americans also demanded justice for the accused,” he wrote in May 1989. “Lost though they may be, these eight youngsters are their youngsters. Dehumanized by animal labels, painted as a monolith, they now represent all black youngsters in the city.”
He singled out several examples of the rush to condemn the young men, which included descriptions of them as being part of a “wolf pack.” But the example he used immediately after the sentences above is the important one in the moment.
“In full-page ads, Donald Trump seemed to call for nothing short of a pogrom against these youngsters: ‘I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger,'” Payne wrote. “Trump, his bulldozers ever at the ready, called for the death penalty.”
Those full-page ads by Trump that ran in the city’s tabloids included some of the dehumanizing language that Payne was concerned about. Families were afraid to walk in the park, Trump wrote, thanks to “roving bands of wild criminals” roaming through the city.
Five of the young men accused of the rape were convicted — only to be exonerated years later after a serial rapist admitted to the crime.
On Wednesday, now-President Trump again compared alleged criminals to animals during a conversation at the White House.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims was expressing frustration at new restrictions that made it harder for immigration officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to learn about criminal suspects in her jail.
“There could be an MS-13 member I know about—” she said, referring to a brutal criminal gang. “If they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.”
“We have people coming into the country,” Trump replied, “or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
Trump’s equating criminal immigrants to animals struck a chord. The Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez had a thoughtful thread on Twitter explaining why the equivalence was fraught.
“This is a textbook case of how dehumanizing and racist rhetoric works. The question references a hypothetical MS-13 member. Trump immediately pivots to a vaguer ‘people trying to come into the country’ who we’re ‘taking out.'” Sanchez wrote. “The point of that move is precisely to conflate groups: ‘people trying to come in’ —> gang members —> ‘not people, animals.’ Spend five minutes on any racist message board and you’ll find a dozen instances of the trope.”
Sanchez notes that Trump’s comments about some specific people accused of bad acts are more nuanced, like when he addressed the murder of civil rights activist Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in August. Trump was unwilling to call that act terrorism, saying that “the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country” but that using the word “terrorism” in this instance meant that “you get into legal semantics.” The violence of the day, he said, showed that there “was blame on both sides” of the pro-Nazi/anti-Nazi debate.
“[T]hose nebulous ‘people trying to come into the country,'” Sanchez wrote, “don’t require that sort of individualized consideration. We can casually talk about ‘bad people’ and then dispense with the pretense of troubling ourselves about their humanity at all.”
As the Central Park Five example makes clear, though, Trump’s description of specific criminals as nonhuman isn’t unprecedented. It has been a feature of his rhetoric over the course of his campaign and his presidency. But the purpose of doing so has been, as Sanchez notes, to paint large groups with a broad brush.
A month before he declared his candidacy in 2015, Trump described the black killers of two police officers in Mississippi as “deranged animals.” After the terrorist attacks in Paris that November, the terrorists were “animals” taking advantage of what he described as lax gun laws in France. In early December, members of the Islamic State militant group were “a vicious group of animals.”
A few days later, he said that when terrorist “animals” attacked the World Trade Center in 2001, they sent their wives back to Saudi Arabia beforehand and the wives knew what was planned. That is not true.
On the day of the Iowa caucuses, he told a crowd that the Paris attackers were animals. “The press called them ‘masterminds,’ the mastermind,” he said. “They’re not masterminds, they’re animals. We have to stop it. We have to be so tough. We have to be so vigilant.”
“Can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East, that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we’re having a hard problem with waterboarding?” he said during the presidential debate in March 2016.
“An immigrant from Syria, who later applied and received United States citizenship, was accused by federal prosecutors of planning to go to a military base in Texas and kill three or four American soldiers,” he said during a speech in Portland, Maine, in August of that year. “Preferably execution style. We’re dealing with animals.”
Over and over and over. It served his goals on the campaign trail: to present himself as a tough, strong response to the dual threats of terrorism and criminal immigrants that he was simultaneously hyping.
Once he was president, the “animals” descriptor was generally applied to members of MS-13, founded by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
“They don’t like to shoot people,” he said of members of that gang during a speech in Iowa last year. “They like to cut people. They do things that nobody can believe. These are true animals.”
“You’ve seen the stories about some of these animals,” he said in Youngstown in July, telling a story about a killing of a teenage girl. “These are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long.”
“We’re going to have safety,” he said at a rally in Florida in December. “And we have got a lot more now. We are getting rid of the MS-13 animals.” During a Cabinet meeting later that month, it was “we’re decimating those animals. They’re animals.”
“Animals” is so ingrained in his rhetoric about immigrant criminals and terrorists — a group defined in part by themselves being foreigners, as his Charlottesville response makes clear — that he applies it liberally and often.
The most dramatic example came in July, during a speech in front of a group of law enforcement officials on Long Island. This was the speech in which Trump casually suggested that police allow criminal suspects to hit their heads on the doors of police cars as they are being arrested.
Over the course of that speech, Trump’s narrative arc was clear. He was on Long Island because of its population of MS-13 members. He worked his way upward from some anecdotes about criminal acts by those gang members to suggest that all immigrants posed a danger.
First, he disparaged “an open-door policy” for immigrants from Central America under Barack Obama, a policy that was meant to address rising gang violence in that region. As a result, Trump said, “MS-13 surged into the country and scoured, and just absolutely destroyed, so much in front of it.” In the last three years of Obama’s administration, Trump said, “more than 150,000 unaccompanied alien minors arrived at the border and were released all throughout our country into United States’ communities.” Four thousand came to the county where he was speaking — and seven, he said, were “indicted for murder.”
That’s the argument: Seven people indicted for murder is meant to cause concern about all of those immigrants from Central America. To Sanchez’s point, calling them “animals” makes it easier to classify all immigrants as dangerous and more threatening.
On Long Island, Trump said, “[T]hey have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.” “They’re animals.”
“I was reading — one of these animals was caught — in explaining, they like to knife them and cut them, and let them die slowly because that way it’s more painful, and they enjoy watching that much more,” he said at another point. “These are animals.”
The comments of one person, used to vilify 150,000 immigrants. Just as he used the December 2015 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., to call for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. His rhetoric about terrorist animals expanded outward to anyone who putatively shared their religion.
Three days after Trump launched his campaign, Dylan Roof entered a church in Charleston, S.C., and murdered nine black men and women during a prayer group. Trump tweeted about that, too.