Yes, Trump Really Is Dangerously Dehumanizing Migrants

Contrary to some headlines, Donald Trump didn’t threaten immigrants with a “bloodbath.” But he did say some immigrants are “not people” — and the last five months in Gaza have shown us where this kind of rhetoric about “human animals” can lead.

Donald Trump speaking during a rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on March 16, 2024. (Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP via Getty Images)

In a speech last Saturday in Ohio, Donald Trump used the word “bloodbath.” This was played up in the initial media coverage of the speech. The New York Times, for example, ran the story under the headline, “Trump Says Some Migrants are ‘Not People’ and Predicts a ‘Bloodbath’ If He Loses.” The Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign upped the ante, suggesting that Trump had not only “predicted” but “threatened” such violence.

Trump’s defenders pointed out that he’d been talking about the auto industry when he used the word and that in context it’s plausible that what he meant was that competition from Chinese companies building factories in Mexico would lead to a “bloodbath” for the industry. There was a feeding frenzy about this alleged misrepresentation, ranging from YouTube supercuts of Trump-hating liberals using the word in similarly innocuous contexts to a high-brow article by Matthew Schmitz in Compact magazine defending the substance of Trump’s views on trade. By the end of Sunday night, “the bloodbath hoax” was the story on right-wing Twitter.

The Right’s view of the matter isn’t entirely wrong — although Trump’s wording left more ambiguity than his defenders suggest. He also muttered something about how the bloodbath for the industry would be “the least of it” because there would also be a “bloodbath for the country.” But Trump really was talking about the auto industry both immediately before and immediately after he used the word.

The problem is that this isn’t all he said. Take away the “bloodbath” bit and you still have chillingly dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants.

If I had prisons that were teeming with MS13 and all sorts of people that they’ve got to take care of for the next 50 years, right? Young people, they’re in jail for years and — if you call them people. I don’t know if you call them people. In some cases, they’re not people in my opinion but I’m not allowed to say that because the radical left says that’s a terrible thing to say. They say, ‘You have to vote against him because did you hear what he said about the humanity . . .’ I’ve seen the humanity and the humanity . . . these are bad . . . these are animals, ok?

Trump went on to say these unnamed countries, presumably in Latin America, were “emptying” their prisons and “driving” all the convicts to Mexico’s border with the United States. There’s a reason that conservative media wasn’t full of defenses of those claims: Trump pulled them out of thin air.

Similarly, Trump’s insinuation that asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants are more likely to be violent criminals than native-born Americans isn’t based on any kind of statistical evidence. In fact, what evidence there is shows the opposite.
Of course, Trump lies all the time, about both important subjects and trivial ones. “Trump makes things up” is hardly breaking news. What’s genuinely alarming here is Trump saying that some of the migrants coming to America’s borders are “not people” but actually “animals.”

To get a sense of what states can justify with rhetoric like that, take a long look at what’s been going on for the last five months in Gaza. On October 9, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that Israel was fighting “human animals” and would “act accordingly.” In the same statement, he announced a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip. He was as good as his word. In Gaza, 1.9 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes since he made that statement. Tens of thousands have been killed — mostly women and children. Right now, well over a million Gazans are facing “catastrophic hunger.”

At the time, Gallant’s defenders insisted that he was only calling Hamas “human animals,” not Gaza’s millions of Palestinian civilians. Similarly, the few Trump apologists who’ve bothered to defend the “animals” part of the Ohio speech have half-heartedly suggested that he was only calling the mythical truck-loads of MS13 members being freed from prison and driven to the Mexican border “not people.” But the connection between writing part of a group out of the human race and justifying atrocities against the group as a whole is painfully clear — especially when the dehumanizing rhetoric comes with a strong suggestion that we have no way of knowing which members of the group are regular humans and which are “animals” not deserving of the protections we extend to our members of our species.

The available statistics tell us that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s total number of “encounters” (the DHS’s term for arrests of) with migrants was far greater during Biden’s first two years in office than Trump’s first two years and that a greater percentage of those “encountered” were deported under Biden. Immigration hawks point out that many people are allowed to stay in the United States for years while their asylum cases are being processed, but even there the idea the Right’s portrayal of Biden as a border dove is out of step with the reality of his record. He championed a bipartisan border bill that would have shredded asylum seekers’ due process rights in order to more rapidly evict them from the country.

Despite all this, Trump and his followers still portray Biden as throwing the borders wide open during an “invasion” of migrants. So, what do they want to do to migrants?

In January, Texas’s extreme right-wing governor, Greg Abbott, dropped a hint. He told an interviewer, “The only thing that we’re not doing is we’re not shooting people who come across the border, because of course, the Biden administration would charge us with murder.”

From his words alone, we can’t be certain what Trump would do to immigrants if he gets a second term. In his first term, after all, he failed to deliver on many things — both good and bad — that he’d promised to do in 2016. But his apocalyptic rhetoric about hordes of not-quite-human foreigners “invading” the country and bringing death and destruction to native-born Americans raises an obvious and disturbing question: What is Trump giving himself permission to do?