This article is part of the Dangerous Speech Project’s research brief series, “Examples of Dangerous Speech.”
Over and over at political rallies, Donald Trump read the lyrics of a song which he turned into dangerous speech by giving it an entirely new meaning. “The Snake” describes a woman who rescues a half-frozen serpent, only to have it betray her kindness with a lethal bite. Trump frames it as a warning that foreigners pose a mortal threat to Americans. At a September 2016 rally in Florida, during his first presidential campaign, as always he introduced the song by talking ominously about “people coming into our country” to behave like the snake. His frightening message was especially potent on this occasion since three bombs had exploded, and more were found undetonated, a few days earlier in New York and New Jersey, and on the morning of the rally an Afghan immigrant named Ahmad Khan Rahimi had been arrested for planting the bombs. Trump uses the song’s words to turn his audiences not only against immigrants, but also against Americans who are sympathetic to them, like the kind woman who naively befriends a snake. This message fits neatly with white supremacist rhetoric: both teach that Muslims, Jews, liberal Democrats, and other perceived outsiders pose a mortal threat to their audiences.
This is only one of many examples of dangerous speech from Trump, before and during his presidency. Clearly, it inspired people to threaten, condone, and commit violence. In one month following his election in November 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 1,094 reports of hate and harassment of women, Muslims, and other groups Trump had disparaged. More than one third directly referred to Trump or his rhetoric, and more were aimed at immigrants than any other group. Other Trump supporters went beyond speaking to, or about, the people they had learned to despise. In 2018 Cesar Sayoc mailed 16 pipe bombs to journalists, prominent Democrats and other public figures whom Trump had publicly derided. Sayoc’s lawyer later said in court, “The president’s rhetoric contributed to Mr. Sayoc’s behavior.” And in 2019 the Guardian newspaper cataloged 52 cases of violence or threats of violence that the president’s supporters had committed “in the name of Trump.” On January 6, 2021, a crowd of enraged Trump supporters famously stormed the U.S. Capitol, shouting that they wanted to kill leading legislators who were Trump’s political opponents, and even some members of his own government including Vice President Mike Pence, whom they saw as insufficiently obedient to Trump.
September 19, 2016
Trump read The Snake at least a dozen times, at rallies and gatherings of his supporters, from the start of his first campaign for president until Nov 1, 2020, just two days before his second presidential campaign ended. Repeating a message tends to make it more persuasive, whether it’s true or not.
Near Fort Myers, Florida, USA
“The Snake” was written in 1963 by the singer and civil rights activist Oscar Brown Jr., who was likely inspired by the Aesop’s fable “The Farmer and the Viper.”  In 1968, Al Wilson turned it into a hit single. It says nothing about immigrants, but since early 2016 when Trump began reading it aloud, he always begins by speaking about immigrants or the U.S.-Mexico border, which he said he would try to seal with a 2,000 mile wall. “Think of this in terms of the people coming into the country, especially coming in from Syria,” Trump says, or “think of our border. Think of the people that we are letting in by the thousands.” His interpretation of the song is likely not at all what its author, a civil rights activist, intended. We do not know exactly what Brown meant for the song to mean, but according to his daughters, their father would have opposed Trump’s anti-immigrant message. “The elephant in the room is that Trump is the living embodiment of the snake that my father wrote about in that song,” one said.
During the rally in Florida, Trump said “So this is called ‘The Snake,’ and this has to do with people coming into our country, and I think you’ll enjoy it. Let’s see. And more important than enjoy, I think it will make a point.” He then read all the lyrics, interrupting them only to drive home his assertion that Americans are taking a mortal risk by allowing foreigners to enter the country:
On her way to work one morning
Down the path along the lake
A tender-hearted woman saw a poor half-frozen snake
His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew
“Oh well,” she cried, “I’ll take you in” – like we’re doing – “and I’ll take care of you”
“Take me in oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in oh tender woman,” sighed the broken snake
She wrapped him up all cozy in a curvature of silk
And then laid him by the fireside with some honey and some milk
She hurried home from work that night and soon as she arrived
She found that pretty snake she’d taken in had been revived
“Take me in, oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in oh tender woman,” sighed the broken snake
Now she clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you, you certainly might have died”
She stroked his pretty skin and then she kissed and held him tight
But instead of saying thank you, that snake gave her a vicious bite
“Take me in, oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in oh tender woman,” sighed the vicious snake
“I saved you,” cried that woman
“And you’ve bitten me even, heavens why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in!
This example contains the dangerous speech hallmark of dehumanization, since Trump compares foreigners or immigrants to venomous, lethal snakes. Dehumanization is a classic hallmark of dangerous speech. By describing other groups of people as something other than human, speakers can make violence against their targets seem less significant, useful, or even necessary.
Foreigners and migrants, especially those from Latin America and/or who are Muslim, and Americans who are sympathetic to them.
Trump was exceptionally influential when he read “The Snake” to the crowd in September 2016, even for a U.S. presidential candidate who would win two months later. Before he sought one of the world’s most powerful jobs, Trump was well-known as a New York real estate developer and a celebrity perceived by his fans as an aggressive, successful businessman thanks to playing that role in a “reality” television show called The Apprentice, and to having owned casinos, the Miss Universe Organization, and a football team.
His public profile was further magnified by the fact that he received far more media coverage in the 2016 campaign than any other candidate ever had – about $2 billion worth or “about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history.  Also, Trump’s coarse way of talking made him more influential with certain Americans who, far from being put off, found it a refreshing change from the language of other politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of whom Trump said scornfully,“[T]hey have put political correctness above common sense, above your safety, and above all else. I refuse to be politically correct.” He insisted, in other words, that he was the only one willing to tell the blunt truth. This rhetorical style is one reason why large numbers of people believe Trump even when he repeats notorious falsehoods, such as his claim that he won the 2020 presidential election.
When Trump reads “The Snake,” he is what we at the Dangerous Speech Project call a “second speaker:” someone who takes a message created by someone else and makes it dangerous by distributing it more widely, often after altering or reframing it.
About 8,000 people attended the rally in Florida, and many more watched it online or on television, where it was broadcast live. Trump supporters are disproportionately white, older, male, and less likely to have gone to college than other American voters. In 2016 many of them were also primed to accept Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and to be frightened by it. They were already suspicious of immigrants, especially undocumented ones, blaming them for taking American jobs, and seeing them as criminals, as Trump often intimates, so his speech built on beliefs they already had. Many of them felt beleaguered, threatened, and ignored by U.S. liberal elites, who seemed more interested in protecting and welcoming foreigners, than in helping poor U.S.-born whites. This view was widely promoted by Trump supporters and the conservative media.
Though the United States is famously a country of immigrants and descendants of immigrants, the country also has a long history of xenophobic politics, rhetoric, and sentiment. Such feelings surged in some quarters after the September 11 attacks, which were carried out by foreigners who had been living quietly in the United States.
As a political candidate, Trump relentlessly described foreigners inside U.S. borders as a threat, suggesting that Mexican immigrants are criminals and “rapists,” tweeting that Syrian refugees were “pouring into” the country and “could be ISIS,” and promising to build a border wall to prevent migrants from crossing.
Trump read “The Snake” at many rallies and meetings, but the context of the Florida rally made it especially inflammatory. The rally was Trump’s first speech after the bombings in New York and New Jersey where 31 people were wounded when three bombs exploded, and several more were found undetonated. On the morning of Trump’s Florida rally Ahmad Khan Rahimi, an Afghan immigrant, was arrested for the attack. During the rally, Trump said “There have been Islamic terrorist attacks in Minnesota and New York City and in New Jersey. These attacks and many others were made possible because of our extremely open immigration system, which fails to properly vet and screen the individuals and families coming into our country. Got to be careful.”
During his campaign, Donald Trump frequently mentioned crimes committed by immigrants and by people associated with foreign extremism, such as the shooters in the 2015 San Bernardino and the 2016 Orlando nightclub attacks. At the 2016 Republican National Convention, the parents of three people killed by undocumented immigrants told their stories and expressed their support for Trump. The consistent characterization of immigrants as criminals who pose a mortal threat created a context in which dehumanizing messages like “The Snake” can move people toward condoning or committing violence.
Trump read the lyrics of “The Snake” during his speech at a campaign rally, delivering the message in person to those present. It was also broadcast live on the local Fox television station (Fox4) as well as on the station’s website and Facebook page, where it reached receptive audiences, since Fox viewers are disproportionately conservative and sympathetic to Trump.
Also, political rallies present opportunities to leverage the power of a crowd. When Trump performed the lyrics in Florida, like on every other occasion, he got raucous applause. People in the audience may have been swayed not only by what he said, but also by the response of those around them.
 Swaine, Jon and Juweek Adolphe. 2019. “Violence in the Name of Trump.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2019/aug/28/in-the-name-of-trump-supporters-attacks-databae ; Cineas, Fabiola. 2020. “Donald Trump is the Accelerant.” Vox. https://www.vox.com/21506029/trump-violence-tweets-racist-hate-speech
 The list was crowdsourced, though the SPLC tried to verify the reports and debunked a few. Hatewatch Staff. 2016. “Update: 1,094 Bias-Related Incidents in the Month Following the Election.” Southern Poverty Law Center. https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/12/16/update-1094-bias-related-incidents-month-following-election
 Weiser, Benjamin and Ali Watkins. 2019. “Cesar Sayoc, Who Mailed Pipe Bombs to Trump Critics, Is Sentenced to 20 Years.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/nyregion/cesar-sayoc-sentencing-pipe-bombing.html
 Swaine, Jon and Juweek Adolphe. 2019. “Violence in the Name of Trump.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2019/aug/28/in-the-name-of-trump-supporters-attacks-database
 Benesch, Susan. 2021. “Trump Incited the Attack at the U.S. Capitol.” Dangerous Speech Project. https://dangerousspeech.org/its-clear-that-trump-has-incited-violence/
 Other occasions on which Trump recited the song:
- January 12, 2016 – Cedar Falls, IA
- March 12, 2016 – Kansas City, MO
- March 13, 2016 – Bloomington, IL
- March 14, 2016 – Vienna, OH
- April 3, 2016 – West Allis, WI
- April 6, 2016 – Bethpage, NY
- August 12, 2016 – Eire, PA
- April 29, 2017 – Harrisburg, PA
- February 23, 2018 – Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)
- February 11, 2020 – Manchester, NH
- November 1, 2020 – Hickory, N.C.
 “Al Wilson: Expressive Singer of ‘The Snake.’” The Independent, 24 April 2008. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/al-wilson-expressive-singer-of-the-snake-814697.html.
 “The Aesop for Children.” Library of Congress. Available at: http://www.read.gov/aesop/094.html
 Trump Rally in Bethpage, NY, April 6, 2016. https://www.c-span.org/video/?407796-1/donald-trump-campaign-rally-bethpage-york
 Trump Rally in Erie, PA, August 12, 2016. https://www.c-span.org/video/?413909-1/donald-trump-campaigns-erie-pennsylvania
 Cush, Andy. 2018. “Oscar Brown Jr.’s Daughters Want Trump to Stop Using Their Dad’s Lyrics in Anti-Immigration Speeches” Spin. https://www.spin.com/2018/02/trump-oscar-brown-jr-snake/
 Vales, Leinz. 2018. “Trump twisting meaning of ‘The Snake’ lyrics, say Oscar Brown Jr.’s daughters.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/27/politics/the-snake-africa-oscar-brown-jr-daughters-trump-don-lemon-cnntv/index.html
 Trump interjected this italicized comment while reading the lyrics.
 “Al Wilson, the Snake Lyrics.” Genius. https://genius.com/Al-wilson-the-snake-lyrics
 Confessore, Nicholas and Karen Yourish. “$2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump.” The New York Times, 15 March 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/upshot/measuring-donald-trumps-mammoth-advantage-in-free-media.html
 Healy, Patrick and Thomas Kaplan. 2016. “Donald Trump Responds to Orlando Attack by Exploiting Fear, Not Easing It.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/15/us/politics/donald-trump-shooting-response.html
 According to a Fox News Poll, 68% of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump. Fox News. 2020. “Fox News Poll, December 11, 2020.” https://static.foxnews.com/foxnews.com/content/uploads/2020/12/Fox_December-6-9-2020_National_Topline_December-11-Release.pdf
 “Donald Trump speaks at rally near Fort Myers.” September 19, 2016. Fox4. https://www.fox4now.com/news/watch-live-donald-trump-rally-near-fort-myers
 Thompson, Derek. 2016. “Who Are Donald Trump’s Supporters, Really?” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/who-are-donald-trumps-supporters-really/471714/
 Light, Michael T., Jingying He, and Jason P. Robey. 2020. “Comparing crime rates between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born US citizens in Texas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
 Flitter, Emily and Chris Kahn. 2016. “Republicans, Democrats sharply divided over Muslims in America: Reuters/Ipsos poll.” https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-poll-muslims-idUSKCN0ZV20C. See also “On Immigration Policy, Partisan Differences but Also Some Common Ground.” 2016. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2016/08/25/on-immigration-policy-partisan-differences-but-also-some-common-ground/
 Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2018. Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. New York: The New Press.
 Clark, Alex. 2017. “Seven times American elites said immigrants are better than their own people.” Breitbart. https://www.breitbart.com/immigration/2017/07/09/seven-times-american-elites-said-immigrants-better-people/
 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a UN-designated terrorist organization.
 For full transcript, see: “Speech: Donald Trump in Fort Meyers, FL – September 19, 2016.” 2016. https://factba.se/transcript/donald-trump-speech-fort-myers-fl-september-19-2016
 Hopper, Jessica. 2016. “Family of people killed by undocumented immigrants speak out at RNC.” ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/family-people-killed-undocumented-immigrants-speak-gop-convention/story?id=40685407
 “Fox4 to air and stream Trump rally live.” 2016. https://www.fox4now.com/news/crowds-line-up-in-advance-of-trump-rally-in-fort-myers
 See e.g. Gustave LeBon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind; Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power.