President Trump has harsh words for the undocumented immigrants he’s deporting. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” Trump fumed in front of cameras last week. “These aren’t people. These are animals.” Trump later said he was talking about MS-13, a criminal gang, and aides repeated his message. In a statement on Monday, the White House described how members of MS-13 use kidnappings, beatings, rapes, stabbings, mutilations, and decapitations to “instill fear and gain control.” Ten times, the statement called them “animals.”
On Wednesday, Trump was back at it. Visiting Long Island for a roundtable on immigration, he scorned Democrats for “trying to defend MS-13 gang members. I called them ‘animals’ the other day, and I was met with rebuke. [Democrats] said they’re people. They’re not people. These are animals.”
Trump wants this fight. He wants liberals to protest that he’s dehumanizing criminals. He knows he’ll win that fight, because viscerally, arguments for the rights of the accused are no match for our hatred of killers. What Trump doesn’t want to talk about is the fraudulence of his outrage. He loves killers. They just have to control more than a neighborhood. They have to control a country.
Take Vladimir Putin, who rules Russia by murder and massacre. His henchmen have poisoned defectors, assassinated dissidents and journalists, shot down passenger planes, bombed apartment buildings, and slaughtered Chechen and Syrian civilians. Trump doesn’t care. As a candidate, he brushed aside questions about Putin’s killings. “At least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country,” said Trump. Last year, Bill O’Reilly reminded Trump, “Putin is a killer.” Trump shot back, “We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, runs a bloody, indiscriminate war on drugs. It has killed about 12,000 people, including children, according to Human Rights Watch. “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews,” Duterte said two years ago. “There’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” President Obama refused to meet formally with Duterte, but Trump gladly met with him last year. In a phone call, Trump told Duterte that Obama “did not understand“ the importance of Duterte’s brutal measures. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” said Trump.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a coup five years ago. Since then, according to Human Rights Watch, Egyptian authorities have “disappeared” hundreds of people, “handed down preliminary death sentences to hundreds more, tried thousands of civilians in military courts,” and tortured hundreds of detainees, killing dozens. Last year, Trump invited Sisi to the Oval Office. “We are very much behind President el-Sisi,” Trump declared. “He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Three years ago, Mohammed Bin Salman, who was then the Saudi defense minister, launched a military campaign in neighboring Yemen. The war has killed more than 5,000 civilians. Last year, the U.S. State Department noted that according to the United Nations and human rights organizations, Saudi-led airstrikes had killed many innocent people, including refugees and children. But this year, Trump welcomed Salman, now the Saudi crown prince, to the White House to discuss arms sales. “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation,” said Trump. “And they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world.”
Xi Jinping, the president of China, runs a government that ruthlessly suppresses dissent. It executes prisoners without due process, according to a 2017 State Department report, and Chinese activists and nuns have died in state custody, in some cases with signs of torture. The report also notes that China has never accounted for citizens “killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations.” Last year, after Xi consolidated power, Trump congratulated him on his “great political victory,” called him a “very special man,” touted their “great chemistry,” and thanked Xi for a “magnificent“ military parade. This year, after the Communist Party removed term limits so Xi can rule indefinitely, Trump joked to Republican donors that he wished he too could be “president for life.”
Trump also admires genocidal tyrants of the past. Two years ago, at a campaign rally, he belittled Iraq’s 1988 chemical massacre of Kurds. “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas. Everyone goes crazy. ‘Oh, he’s using gas!’ ” Trump jeered. In a debate, Trump lamented the demise of Libyan butcher Muammar Qaddafi: “We would be so much better off if Qaddafi were in charge.” Benito Mussolini, the infamous Italian fascist, bombed Ethiopian villages with mustard gas, explicitly ordered the “extermination“ of the population, and headed a puppet regime that deported nearly one-quarter of Italy’s Jews, many to death camps. But in 2016, Trump retweeted a Mussolini quote (“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”) and shrugged off criticism. “What difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?” Trump asked.
Trump’s latest crush is North Korean despot Kim Jong-un. Last year, a report by the International Bar Association, based on interviews and satellite images, detailed the North Korean regime’s record of “systematic murder (including infanticide), torture … rape, forced abortions, starvation and overwork leading to countless deaths.” The report described, among other things, a baby being fed to dogs. But last month, Trump called Kim “very honorable.” A commemorative coin, designed by the White House for an upcoming Trump–Kim summit, reverently depicts “Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.”
By the standards Trump applies to MS-13, these men are “animals.” They’ve presided over kidnappings, rapes, beatings, stabbings, mutilations, and decapitations. They’ve deployed instruments of state power—bombs, gas, prisons, labor camps—to torture and kill people in far greater numbers. And they’ve used violence for the same reason MS-13 uses it: to instill fear and gain control, as the White House puts it. But Trump doesn’t call these men animals. He calls them “strong,” “honorable,” and “fantastic.” He offers to sell them more weapons.
Trump doesn’t attack MS-13 because it’s ruthless and violent. He attacks it because it’s an opportune target. It’s too small to help or hurt him, and it’s Hispanic. By playing it up as a menace, Trump connects his anti-immigration agenda to public fear of crime. If MS-13 controlled the government of El Salvador and served U.S. interests—or if it served Trump’s political or financial interests, as his allies in Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia have done—he’d ignore its atrocities.
Trump’s moral sickness isn’t that he thinks men who rely on torture, rape, and murder are animals. His sickness is that he admires and assists these killers, as long as they’re useful and ingratiating. The people Trump treats as animals are their victims: the gassed Kurd, the tortured Egyptian, the Korean who dies facedown in the mud. To a president empty of humanity, these people are nothing.
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus