Why the Rhetoric of Infestation is Dangerous

Tweeting this morning about immigrants who “pour into and infest our Country,” President Trump crossed an alarming line. He has denigrated foreigners many times before, calling them animals or “the worst of the worst,” but the language of infestation has a special, malevolent power.

It signals a shift from expressing contempt for other human beings, to describing them as dangerous or harmful. This move is all too easy to find in the language of other leaders from many countries, during the years before they presided over mass violence. Nazi rhetoric is one of the most well-documented examples. Pointing out rhetorical similarities is not to suggest that President Trump is like Hitler, nor even a Nazi. It is simply to say that such language can lower the psychological and moral barriers that normally stop people from condoning violence. Such messages are meant to persuade people that they must defend themselves against an existential threat.

Not surprisingly, the language we call Dangerous Speech often compares people to infestations:  vermin, locusts, bacteria, or cancer. These metaphors produce powerful sensations of revulsion and, most importantly, fear. For inspiring violence, fear is more powerful than hatred or even contempt. As Steven Perry explains in an illuminating scholarly article on the infestation metaphor in Hitler’s rhetoric, “Though there was unquestionably a very real current of anti-semitism in central Europe at the time of National Socialism’s rise, the Jews nonetheless were not popularly perceived as enemies of the German nation. Hitler had to shape and channel popular anti-semitism; particularly, he had to explain how it was that the heretofore scorned Jew was actually a dangerous and foreign threat to the very foundations of the German nation.”

President Trump has depicted foreigners as dangerous threats to Americans and to ‘our Country,’ as he tweeted today, before. Since his campaign rallies in 2016, for instance, he has been reading the poem “The Snake” to rapt audiences. The poem describes a ‘tender hearted woman’ who takes in a half-frozen snake and cares for it, until it attacks her with a lethal, venomous bite. “You silly woman,” replies the animal, “you knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” To drive home his message – that foreigners pose a severe threat to Americans and that Americans who treat them with kindness will suffer for their naïveté  – Trump precedes his readings with attacks on immigrants, and follows them with remarks like, “I hope that doesn’t happen here.”

What is happening here, at present, is exceptionally cruel treatment of foreigners, especially children, at the hands of the U.S. Government. The president attempts to justify this by painting foreigners as dangerous, and by describing Americans who are sympathetic to them as foolish or worse. Though his messages may be meant as a political weapon – to protect himself and attack his political  enemies – it may have much more serious consequences. Just as his fellow Republicans have begun to repudiate the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, they must also decry the comparison of human beings to an infestation.