The way Trump talks about immigration is a textbook authoritarian technique for consolidating power

The picture Trump paints of immigrants.
The picture Trump paints of immigrants.
Image: Reuters/Jose Cabezas
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US president Donald Trump has trumpeted the huge drop in the number of undocumented crossers as one of his biggest accomplishments. So why, then, is the president’s fixation with illegal immigration seemingly growing?

In recent weeks, he and his administration have honed in on the issue, linking it to the brutal, primarily El Salvadoran MS-13 gang. He’s also been tweeting a lot more about the border, immigrants, and his wall proposal. Since mid-April, Trump has posted 14 tweets on those topics, twice as many as in the previous two months.

In April, Trump doubled down on his more incendiary rhetoric by revisiting a staple from his presidential campaign: the 1960s song “The Snake.” In the past, he’s twisted the tale of a woman killed by the snake she rescued into a simplistic warning about taking in Syrian refugees. At a Pennsylvania rally on April 29, he dedicated it to immigration enforcement agents and their boss, Homeland Security secretary John Kelly, “for doing such an incredible job.”

To language experts, it’s obvious why Trump continues to use “The Snake” and other inflammatory rhetoric targeting immigrants even as fewer of them breach the border. Pitting one group against another is a standard technique that’s been repeatedly used by authoritarian leaders around the world to boost their followers’ support. Beset by a string of setbacks, from low approval ratings to Congress ignoring his spending priorities, Trump needs a boost in popular support as he ventures into his second 100 days.

The Protester

Trump has cultivated a distinct persona when talking about immigration, according to an analysis by scenarioDNA, a consulting firm that specializes in reading cultural change.

The New York-based company assessed Trump’s tweets from his @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS accounts during the first 100 days of his administration, classifying them by archetype. According to scenarioDNA, most prevalent mode of Trump’s tweeted speech is “The Publicist,” with which he tries to position himself as an assured expert. “The Philosopher,” a category of speech Trump rarely utilizes, channels faith and nostalgia for the way things were done in the past. “The Policy Maker” is a speech pattern based on command and control.

“The Protester,” the archetype Trump drew from the most during his presidential campaign, “consistently makes declarations of dissent and disapproval,” per scenarioDNA’s description. “There is no counting to 10. Objections are posted immediately. This particular ideology is driven by the codes of revolt and wrath.”

Trump is most often in “The Protester” mode when he tweets about immigration. He reverts to other less hostile archetypes when speaking about other topics, such as healthcare and foreign policy. That’s probably because these other topics don’t have the same potential to fire up his followers. Immigration “is an issue that gets a quick response rate,” says Tim Stock, managing partner at scenarioDNA. “The least effort, for the greatest response.”

Textbook propaganda

Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University and the author of How Propaganda Works, classifies the president’s combative immigration speech as “standard strongman dictator stuff.” Trump employs classic techniques used by authoritarians to convince others to accept their value system of law and order.

Since the US’s current reality doesn’t call for law and order, Trump must find ways to distort it. Immigration was at historically low levels even before Trump took office. So are crime rates, as fact checkers keep pointing out. Furthermore, research shows there’s no connection between the two. Yet in his speech leading up to the November election, Trump described an America under attack from criminal immigrants pouring in through the border—bad hombres, rapists, and drug traffickers.

Given the sharp drop in border apprehensions during his first months as president, however, Trump’s had to tweak his narrative a bit lately. It’s now drugs that are pouring in through the border, not rapists. And instead of a general warning against foreign criminals, he and others in his administration have singled out MS-13 as a top threat to Americans. (Specific examples, says Stanley, make for more effective propaganda than vague terms such as “criminals.”)

The gang, which ironically was exported from the US to Central America through the deportation of its affiliates, is indeed active in the US. And the viciousness of its crimes requires no embellishment; MS-13’s characteristic brutality has been widely covered by the media.

But the gang’s US membership, which is believed to be around 10,000, is tiny compared to the 11 million people estimated to be in the country illegally. The vast majority of these undocumented immigrants are more likely to be MS-13 victims than perpetrators. Reversing the roles of victim and victimizer is another textbook propaganda strategy.

Trump’s rendering of “The Snake” is yet another proven authoritarian tactic, which Stanley describes as “essentializing.” In the key line of the song, which is based on an Aesop fable, the snake tells his savior it’s her fault it bit her. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”

“The snake can’t change its nature,” he says. And although Trump is not directly calling immigrants snakes, that’s how he wants his supporters to see them, as dangerous by nature and unable to change. The term snake, Stanley points out, was also what Hutu extremists in Rwanda called Tutsis ahead of their 1994 genocide.

Fertile ground

To be sure, the US is not 1994 Rwanda. But like the Hutu extremists who harnessed an existing, deep-seated resentment against Tutsis to fulfill their goals, Trump is exploiting existing anxieties some Americans feel about immigrants and other minorities to secure their open-ended support. By likening them to snakes and cold-blooded criminals, he’s telling his supporters, many of whom are white, that they are right to feel threatened by the growing number of non-whites in the US, says Stanley.

Now, Trump is testing how far he can take that loaded language, injecting it into debates that have little to do with immigration. For example, to discredit a Democratic candidate in a key congressional race, he accused the aspiring Congressman of being soft on border security.

Trump later attempted to make federal budget negotiations about immigration, initially signaling he might reject a spending bill that didn’t contain funding for his border wall.

Does this approach work? It didn’t for the spending bill. Trump had to back off his wall demand when Democrats—and some Republicans—in Congress balked at it.

Some polls also indicate that his hardline approach to immigration is losing popularity. An April Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that 60% of Americans see immigration as beneficial, up 6 points from September 2016. The proportion of Republicans who hold that view is also growing—up 9 points to 37% since the end of 2015.

Still, more than half of Republicans consider immigration to be harmful, per the poll, and with his fiery soundbites, Trump may be further inflaming that sentiment. “Trump’s supporters have mainly not responded with violence so far, but he has increased the suspicion and fear that many Americans feel towards outsiders,” says Susan Benesch, director of the Dangerous Speech Project, which studies dangerous speech and ways to counteract it.