The flap over Donald Trump’s “animals” comment wasn’t really about whether it was taken out of context. Just days after CNN, the AP, and others in the mainstream media admitted that Trump had been talking about members of the MS-13 gang and not all immigrants, the same chorus of critics doubled down, insisting that even vicious gang members should not be “dehumanized.” Trump’s appearance at a Long Island event focusing on efforts to combat the violent gang set off another round of criticism, consisting mainly of the media repeating his prior comment.
But by seeking to minimize outrage against an indefensible criminal organization, liberals are missing the point about why Trump has, despite numerous missteps, managed to hold on to the support of those who elected him. A debate over whether it is okay to say bad things about gang members plays right into Trump’s hands.
The “animals” kerfuffle was initially depicted as just the latest in a string of “gotcha” moments that proved the president’s bad character. But after it was made clear, even to some of his most ardent critics, that the comment was obviously a denunciation of MS-13 members, the discussion shifted into whether it was wrong even to characterize them in this manner.
Dissertations on the common humanity of all people, including those capable of the kind of atrocities that are MS-13’s signature, may seem like a fool’s errand, but that’s the place many Trump critics went in order to pursue the argument. They’ve also attacked the focus on MS-13 as nothing but an excuse for immigrant-bashing and a brazen attempt to conflate the crimes of a few with the behavior of all immigrants — legal or illegal.
To be sure, if the label of hate-speech offender sticks to Trump, he has only himself to blame. From the start of his campaign for president he has engaged in a steady stream of blatantly prejudiced comments, such as his claim that a Mexican-American judge couldn’t judge him fairly. Other remarks, such as his claim that some illegal immigrants from Mexico were rapists or drug dealers, were balanced by phrases admitting that not all were criminals — but the negative comments are always the ones that are remembered. Still other utterances, such as his characterization of some countries like Haiti as “sh**holes,” while indicating a desire for more immigrants from places like Norway, are easily interpreted as betraying a negative attitude toward people of color.
But while Trump’s language is always bound to provoke outrage, the attempt to cast any interest in combating MS-13 as racist fails as both policy and politics.
At the risk of stating the obvious, concern over violent criminal gangs isn’t limited to racists. As Politico Magazine noted in its coverage of Trump’s visit to Long Island, the political transformation of New York’s Suffolk County in recent years is due in no small measure to anger about the costs of illegal immigration and the activities of violent groups such as MS-13.
Al Gore carried Suffolk by 11 points in 2000. John Kerry won it in 2004, Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. But Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 8 points in 2016. Representative Lee Zeldin, who represents New York’s first congressional district, in eastern Suffolk, is one of Trump’s biggest fans in the House and used concerns about illegal immigration to defeat a six-term Democratic incumbent in 2014. Two years later he won reelection in a landslide, and despite the consensus that the 2018 midterms will be a disaster for Republicans, few Democrats are optimistic about a challenge to Zeldin this year.
His willingness to talk about the problem — albeit often in a manner that is unbecoming of a president — has persuaded those who felt they were being ignored to stay loyal to him.
So while much of the national press depicted Trump’s event in Bethpage, N.Y. — where victims of MS-13 violence and law-enforcement officials spoke — as nothing but a thinly veiled orgy of immigrant-bashing, Suffolk’s voters saw it as a demonstration that the federal government was paying attention to a serious problem they care about.
This illustrates why, despite Trump’s very real predilection for inflammatory statements about illegal immigration, liberal outrage about his stands is political poison outside of blue strongholds. Focusing on gang violence is exactly what much of the country thinks the federal government ought to be doing, and most of the victims of such gangs are themselves immigrants.
Trump filled a vacuum of governmental indifference to these concerns. His willingness to talk about the problem — albeit often in a manner that is unbecoming of a president — has persuaded those who felt they were being ignored to stay loyal to him despite the ongoing chaos in the White House and the media’s often single-minded focus on his flaws and scandals. In the eyes of Trump voters in Suffolk and elsewhere, the debate over whether murderers should be called “animals” is mere virtue-signaling from liberal elites, and more proof that these elites have lost touch with the concerns of ordinary voters.
Democrats are optimistic about a future in which minorities will make up a larger portion of the electorate. But in 2016, they saw what happens when a party whose support is increasingly limited to minorities and educated whites ignores the concerns of the working class. Democrats’ assumption that Trump’s MS-13 gambit is merely more evidence that he is hurting himself with the voters may be another such mistake.