In a few taps on a keyboard, President Trump tried to strip the humanity of a whole city. On July 27, he tweeted that Baltimore was, “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and “no human being would want to live there.” Imagine waking up and hearing your president say that you are not a real human?
Ten days earlier, thousands chanted “Send her back! Send her back!” about Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Black Muslim woman, after Trump goaded them at a July 17 rally in North Carolina. He looked smug as they cheered. Afterward a cashier in Illinois told a Mexican-American family that they “need to go back to their country.” No doubt many other incidents of freshly emboldened racism are happening all over the country.
President Trump’s rhetoric of national ethnic cleansing has ushered white supremacy into the mainstream. The Republican Party and right-wing media have consistently tried to launder his racism into excusable bawdy humor or political bloviating. Peel back their lies, and a nightmare becomes visible. Our president has led the nation closer to genocide.
Mass killing does not happen instantly. The ideological groundwork has to be laid. Therefore, we must look at Trump’s rhetoric of “filth,” painting immigrants as both unclean and “criminal.” We must look at his dehumanization of immigrants. If seen through Gregory Stanton’s Stages of Genocide, it is clear that Trump has legitimized the Neo-Nazi ideology that dreams of a Final Solution. It has been obscured because too many think of Europe when they think of genocide. We cannot forget that the United States was founded on genocide. It could end in one.
The Thermometer of Hate
Trump has been issuing blatantly racist comments, using the language of criminality and refuse, since the beginning of his campaign. “When Mexico sends its people,” Donald Trump said at his 2015 campaign launch, “they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Three years later in 2018, he said Democrats “want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.” In July 2019, he tweeted about four Democratic congresswomen of color, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?” Later that same month, he tweeted that Baltimore was a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” that “no human would want to live there.”
Trump’s rhetoric of filth, criminality and dehumanization fits into a long white supremacist tradition that imagines non-whites as dirty foreign elements that must be expelled. Or killed. Comedian Joy Behar on The View quickly connected his imagery to history, “‘Infest,’ I think, is a buzzword. The Nazis used it against the Jews, they said vermin … once you start calling people names about that they’re insects, vermin, that they’re lower than humans — then the murders can begin.” She’s right. The 1940 Nazi film, The Eternal Jew, portrayed Jews as parasites, criminals and rats. Oppressive speech helped make the Holocaust possible.
Genocide and fascism are not highlight reels but are the final phase of a process that has been mapped. The importance is to see it and stop it while the momentum builds, before it becomes too strong. Scholar-activist George Stanton created a tool for tracking this process in Eight Stages of Genocide (which he later revised to include 10 stages).
Each stage is a rise in hostility. First classify an “us” versus “them,” then mark that social divide with symbols. Third is open discrimination. The fourth is dehumanization as hate speech portrays minorities as dangerous non-human things. Fifth is organizing militias to circumvent state responsibility. Sixth is polarization, as groups are torn apart and laws passed to give the state absolute power over minorities. Seventh is prepping elimination as the rhetoric of “racial self-defense” justifies violence. The eighth stage is isolating the targets, and the ninth is extermination. The last part is denial, where perpetuators deny a genocide happened or blame it on the dead.
Trump has pushed our politics from the first to fourth stages, with pieces of the latter stages sometimes flaring up in groups like the Proud Boys or The United Constitutional Patriots. He has been making racist comments from the start of his campaign (and long before), saying “Mexicans are rapists.” He divided the U.S. into an “us” versus “them,” with white citizens on one side and immigrants, Muslims, and Latinx and Black people on the other side. In doing so, he informally “deputized” his ardent followers to openly act on their racism.
Attacks classified as “hate crimes” rose 17 percent in 2017 according to an FBI report, but that may be a big undercount. The FBI usually counts 6,000 to 10,000 hate-based attacks each year, but surveys by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that the true number of such attacks could be a quarter million. These include the Texas man who burned down a mosque or the man who kidnapped and tortured a gender-fluid youth. They include the woman who beat a Latino man with a brick and told him to go back to his country, the Miami Beach man who threatened to burn a building to kill the Jews inside it, and the gunman who killed 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October while yelling “all Jews must die.”
A possible quarter million hate crimes a year. This vigilante violence comes on top of the state violence of Trump promising a wall to keep out undocumented Mexican workers and ordering tear gas to disperse Central American refugees at the border. It comes after separating refugee children from parents and unleashing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to terrify migrant neighborhoods. All this is possible partly because the humanity of many Americans has been short-circuited by Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric.
Our president has stoked populist rage into a low-level civil war. He made language into what poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan called in a speech, a “death-bringing darkness.” He made cruelty into a joke.
The Killing Fields
“Hail Trump,” said racist “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer, “Hail our people! Hail our victory!” Right after the 2016 election, he gave a speech saying, “America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”
When white nationalists paint the past with the brush of nostalgia, they paint over genocide. The United States emerged from genocidal actions against Native Americans and Africans. In 1948, the U.N. defined genocide as, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Genocide includes killing members or causing bodily or mental harm, making conditions to destroy them, stopping births or taking their children.
When Christopher Columbus planted Spain’s flag on the native island Guanahani that he renamed San Salvador, he began five centuries of colonization that left tens of millions of Indigenous people dead. Twelve million Africans were kidnapped to work plantations and at least 2 million died in the Middle Passage. When the U.S. declared independence in 1776, nearly three centuries later, it continued the mass killings.
The U.S. massacred tribes to clear the way for settlers. It passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 and the army marched Native peoples on a Trail of Tears. Thousands upon thousands died. It was part of the Atlantic Slave Trade until 1808. It maintained official slavery until 1865. Life on plantations led to mass death. It took Native children into boarding schools to forcibly assimilate them. And it sterilized Native and Black women, as well as women in Puerto Rico.
The U.S. was born from colonial genocide and slavery. People of color resisted and forced the violence to decrease but still endured Jim Crow segregation, convict leasing and the creation of Native reservations followed by redlining, a drug war and mass incarceration. Countless lives were destroyed. The terror never really stopped as the criminal punishment system and vigilante mobs maintained the status quo.
Now, more than 500 years after Europeans came as a minority to the New World and committed genocide to conquer it, they face becoming a minority again. In order to portray themselves as victims of a dangerous new majority of color, American white nationalists invoke a version of the Nazi tactic of saying Germany was “stabbed in the back” by civilians who at the end of World War I overthrew the monarchy. Today’s white nationalists say they are being “stabbed in the back” by liberals, cultural Marxists, and of course Jews, who plan “white genocide” or “white replacement” by enlisting people of color as shock troops.
Seeing themselves as victims allows for revenge fantasies. Some dream of genocide openly in music and novels. Others sanitize it in public like when Spencer called for “peaceful, ethnic cleansing.” When Trump uses words like filth and infestation to describe the Black majority city of Baltimore or Mexican immigrants, he popularizes white supremacist ideas of national purity, ethnic cleansing and reversing the mythical “white genocide.” The rhetoric is meant to stoke the rising racial fears to fuel his power grabs.
Faces of the Enemy
“The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram. The retaliation was swift. Republicans castigated her for using the same term associated with the Holocaust. Rep. Liz Cheney tweeted “You demean their memory,” and Sen. Rick Scott also tweeted she demeaned the “millions murdered.”
Yet the harsh treatment directed at migrants is the direct result of Trump’s ethnic-nationalism. He has recycled the dehumanizing and deadly rhetoric of the U.S.’s founding genocide for modern conservatives who refuse to see how the past and present are connected. Children have died in immigration jails. Migrants froze as they slept on the floor. Some have fainted from hunger. The hundreds of thousands who arrived at the border are fleeing life-threatening gang warfare, poverty and hunger. Instead of being welcomed as refugees, they are viewed by the president and his followers as an “infestation.”
Yes, we are further along Stanton’s stages of genocide than is openly admitted. It does not happen in a straight line or in precise sequence. Some stages happen out of order. Some stages happen simultaneously.
The United States is teetering between its best and worst impulses. Some liberal institutions and street activism have thus far held us from descending further down. Republicans lost the House of Representatives. The majority of Americans opposed the child separation policy and the threatened raids. It shows that how wide we draw our circle of empathy determines if we live in the world or live behind a wall afraid of the outside.
With each racist tweet, Trump tries to constrict our empathy, but one of the legacies of the civil rights movement is that generations of people in the U.S. have learned that our future lies in enlarging our collective capacity for care. When Trump slandered Baltimore, it riled up his base, but it also increased the opposition against him. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows that even more now say Trump is racist. The president is digging a grave. Let’s force him to bury his own idea of the U.S. within it.