The Rhetoric of Dehumanization

The random chants of “Lock Her Up!” were disturbing enough, but the moment I heard Donald Trump start comparing people to animals, a new achievement level of rhetorical discourse had been unlocked. Like Pandora’s Box, I fear we’re going to need to dig very deep to find the hope at the bottom before we close it.

I remain an unapologetic Progressive, but my friend and I walked straight into the Merrill Auditorium prepared to see for ourselves what a Donald Trump speech looked and felt like. While my Facebook Live followers were concerned for my safety, I felt relatively safe - but only because I’m white. My Jewish friend donned jeans and a flannel shirt, lest his dark hair, brown eyes and metro glasses give him away as someone who didn’t quite fit in. We both glanced around nervously, hoping he’d succeeded. The irony of my friend’s heritage was not lost on either of us given what we were prepared to watch.

On some level, the meteoric reputation was so large as to feel hyperbolic. Had we just been spoon fed a handful of comments, or was Donald Trump genuinely that frightening? We were there to find out.

He was introduced by Maine Governor Paul LePage. As one of first acts as Governor of my state, LePage told the Maine NAACP to ‘kiss my butt” after refusing to speak at their annual breakfast celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. His rhetoric has continued to escalate in a spectacle of ongoing racial slurs and derogatory comments to the point that we all have LePage fatigue at this point. Headlines about his so-called “gaffes” were once reliable click-bait for news outlets, but are now just a blip in a long line of embarrassing statements and “apologies.”

In this hall, hidden in plain sight in one of the most progressive cities in the country, Paul LePage was beloved. Not by the people of Portland, Maine, but by the people who had flocked from Friendship, Maine, New Hampshire and even from Washington, DC to see The Donald tell them how he was going to Make America Great Again. For them, people like LePage and Trump “tell it like it is.” In reality, they play on our latent prejudices to divide us and create hatred of folks who look or sound different.

It’s easier to blame someone who looks different than you, than to blame an amorphous system you can’t see for economic challenges. When the American Dream has become so difficult to achieve for everyone, it becomes that much easier to believe the stereotypes of “the other,” stereotypes that are ultimately designed to keep all everyday people from organizing together for a better life.

It’s here where Donald Trump hit his most sour - and in that audience, revered - note. In a city where so many of our friends and neighbors have fled African countries to become refugees here, Trump specifically called out by name the Somali community as another example of what’s wrong with our immigration policy. “We’ve just seen many, many crimes, getting worse all the time. And as Maine knows – a major destination for Somali refugees,” he said.”They’re coming from among the most dangerous territories or countries anywhere in the world.”

I felt the ice cold of this new reality take hold of my neck and creep its way down my spine. Was this the feeling people got in Germany, long before anyone understood what SS really stood for? It’s a shiver that has yet to warm up over a day later.

To our right, a relatively handsome, fit guy - the kind you’d trust picking up your kids at school - sat fully forward with his hands nestled under his chin, hanging on every word. He would later jump up and yell, “We love you Donald!” Proudly from New Hampshire, he could tell my friend and I weren’t part of the Donald train and would smile nervously when he looked our way. But this message equating immigrants with terrorism; it wasn’t for us.

This message was for him.

At a time when elected leaders should be working to lift all boats, people like Trump are instead accelerating their divisive and dangerous rhetoric, effectively lighting a spark next to a powder keg of rage and frustration. The “us vs. them” debate paradigm is far more convenient than the real conversation that Bernie Sanders has brought to the forefront about economic inequality.

So long as we are fighting racial and gender battles, we will never be able to unify to fight the oppression of everyday working people of all colors. Stoking religious, sexist and racist flames prevent us from seeing our brothers and sisters as allies in a fight for full economic participation. It’s very point is to keep the class system in place, to keep the “top 1/10 of 1%” (as Bernie would say) hidden away in gated communities while the rest of us fight for scraps.

While minorities and women have been trying to explain coded “dog whistle” language for generations, we are now seeing it blatantly placed before us in presidential debates and headline news. While this should be a victory - Finally! They see it! - it’s a hollow one because it has become the new norm. We have replaced coded language with social acceptability, continuing the oppression in unexpected ways. That’s precisely why extreme rhetoric like we are seeing from the Donald Trumps and Paul LePages of the world are so dangerous.

By dehumanizing others, we are also dehumanizing ourselves. By associating certain people with “animals,” as Trump did, we are making atrocities against those people that much easier to stomach. We can rationalize harassment, brutality, torture and homicide, leading to vigilantism or worse - laws that codify such treatment of minorities.

Today, I was proud to stand with hundreds of community members and elected leaders in our great city to denounce the comments of Donald Trump and to stand in solidarity with our Somali and immigrant friends and neighbors. US Senator Susan Collins sent remarks denouncing Trump’s attacks on our immigrant communities, but she stopped short of pulling her endorsement.Maine is the state of Margaret Chase Smith who stood alone against the hatred of Senator Joseph McCarthy in her revered Crisis of Conscience speech. She lost her next election for standing up, but she won the hearts and minds of history for doing the right thing.

It is long past time for national Republicans to not just oppose his dehumanizing rhetoric, but to outright pull their endorsements full stop. Our World War II veterans gave their lives fighting to end genocide. Let’s do everything in our power to stop it from ever happening again.

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