In courses I taught on the politics of fear, I always showed Sam Keen’s 1987 documentary Faces of the Enemy: Justifying the Inhumanity of War. Of all the shocking examples of war propaganda in the film, the ones that stayed with me and many of my students were the cartoons and films that portrayed the enemy as animals. The1938 Nazi film “The Eternal Jew” flicks between actual footage of rats and Jewish people, arguing that both spread disease and need to be exterminated. U.S. war propaganda depicted the Japanese as monkeys and apes.
Portraying the enemy as lower creatures, the film argues, encourages society en masse to participate in acts of violence or to accept the “collateral damage” of massive civilian casualties without so much as a moral blink of the eye. One commentator suggests that the demonization of the foe on both sides was part of the reason the U.S. and Japan couldn’t end the war in the Pacific through diplomatic means.
On November 1, Trump called Sayfullo Saipov, the perpetrator of the New York truck attack, “this animal” on national TV. The day before, he described Saipov as “a sick and deranged person.” It took less than 24 hours for the enemy to be transformed from a person into “this animal,” an animal that Trump was eager to lock up in a Guantanamo cage.
"We need to expose and fight Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, not just in terms of domestic policies but international as well."
This discursive shift was no doubt strategic. Trump used the occasion to urge a crackdown on immigrants, through ending the diversity visa program (he mispronounced diversity several times) and stopping what he calls “chain migration,” in essence attacking family reunification. The animal metaphor was useful because it allowed Trump to insinuate that the 23 people he claims Saipov brought into the country belong to the same species of dangerous (Muslim) animal, rather than being individual human beings in search of a better life.
Trump’s other objective was to undermine legal procedures and protections for terrorism suspects. “We have to come up with punishment that’s far greater than the punishments these animals are getting right now,” he said.
Trump has used the term “animal” before. As journalist Esther Yu His Lee writes, this summer he called on law enforcement to be “rough” with suspected immigrant gang members whom he referred to as “animals” terrorizing communities. Lee points out that so far Trump has reserved the designation for immigrants or people of color. Homegrown white killers are still people.
In the heat of tragedies like the recent attack in Manhattan, it is a normal human response to lash out at the perpetrator, to call him or her names. But to call Saipov an animal in the privacy of our homes or among friends is very different from the President publicly encouraging dehumanization of the enemy as an intentional strategy to mobilize his base for further attacks on immigrant rights and the rule of law.
We need to expose and fight Trump’s dangerous rhetoric, not just in terms of domestic policies but international as well. As tensions with North Korea escalate, and Trump and Kim Jong-un throw bombastic threats back and forth, I think back to Faces of the Enemy and to the failure of a diplomatic solution between the U.S. and Japan, a failure that helped lead to the dropping of the atomic bomb. Many fear that Trump in his craziness could push the nuclear button. Cooler heads on both sides will hopefully prevail, but in the meantime we should remain vigilant to the strategies the administration is likely to use to make the North Korean people seem less than human and therefore expendable.