Conservatives have spent the last day or so insisting that Trump would never dehumanize undocumented immigrants and that he was clearly referring to gang members. Liberals have spent the past day or so pushing back on Trump’s xenophobia and humanizing the immigrant experience. In a world where the number of hate crimes is increasing, ICE is out of control, and racists feel unhinged, this is necessary. But in terms of what Trump actually said? It’s complicated. And that’s a part of the problem.
When you read the transcript, it’s not entirely clear. The entire conversation is centered around ICE, immigration policy, and an impending lawsuit. Margaret Mims, Fresno County Sheriff, comments about a hypothetical situation involving a gang member. That’s when Trump launches into his tirade. Here’s the relevant part:
Mims: “There could be an MS-13 gang member I know about — if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.”
Trump: “We have people coming into the country, 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. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.”
At best, Trump is being inarticulate. He makes no mention of gangs or of MS-13, nor does he use a pronoun that would refer to the hypothetical person in Mims’ comment. At worst, of course, Trump is being a bigot.
This isn’t the first time he’s done this nonsense. The first speech of his 2016 campaign started with his infamous, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” speech. He was vitriolic enough to send shivers down the legs of nationalists, but enough wiggle room to argue that he wasn’t talking about all immigrants. This is Trumpism 101.