Trump’s Rhetorical Tradition

Amir Ahmadi Arian

Donald Trump’s tone may be unprecedented in American politics, but his policies aren’t. Barack Obama restricted the movement of citizens from the seven Muslim countries that ended up on Trump’s travel ban list. The wall that Trump wants to build along the Mexican border is an extension of Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper. Trump’s rampaging deportation machine was bequeathed to him by previous administrations, including Obama’s. And Trump is hardly America’s first racist president.

Even his ‘shithole countries’ comment is not new. Associating certain countries and people with human waste and sewage has a considerable pedigree in the history of imperialism, from the 18th century to today. Katie Hopkins, writing in the Sun in 2015, described refugees from war-torn African and Middle Eastern countries as ‘cockroaches’. In 2007, the Columbus Dispatch (published in Ohio since 1871) ran a cartoon that depicted Iranians as cockroaches crawling out of a sewer. In 2003, Oriana Fallaci wrote that ‘the sons of Allah are multiplying like rats’ – another underground, sewer-dwelling species. In September 2015, the Daily Mail published a cartoon that showed rats crossing a border along with Muslim immigrants and refugees, disturbingly reminiscent of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda.

As Marcus Rediker says in The Slave Ship: A Human History, white slave-hunters in Africa in the early 18th century referred to the Africans they killed and failed to take on board ship as human ‘wastage’. Those who were taken on board were locked up below decks for days on end in accumulating excrement.

Pears soap ran an advertising campaign in the 19th century implying that blackness was something that could be scrubbed off the skin and washed down into the sewers. The notion that cleanness was related to whiteness was popular among advertisers; French companies had their own versions of it. And it still persists: Unilever has twice in recent years produced adverts that appeared to show black women turning white after using its Dove products.

The derogatory terminology isn’t exclusively racist: there’s a long history of white people using it of other white people, as Nancy Isenberg shows in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Richard Hakluyt argued in the 16th century that the ‘waste people’ of England belonged in the ‘waste land’ of North America.

According to Julia Kristeva, faeces, urine, vomit and other excreta repel us precisely because they are part of our bodies. They challenge the boundary between self and other that human subjectivity is founded on. You could say something similar applies to imperialism: the empire wants to imagine itself as clean and pure, but the mere existence of its victims challenges that self-image, exposing its hypocrisy. The rhetoric of repulsion follows: comparing people to cockroaches, rats and waste; calling their countries shitholes.

Trump’s language is a reminder of a not too distant past, when the Europeans and Americans who went uninvited to far-off lands didn’t see the need for rhetorical somersaults to disguise their true feelings about the invaded.


  • 23 January 2018 at 10:47pm
    semitone says:
    Oh, look! Another blog post with a first paragraph suggesting moral equivalence of Trump and the Centre-Left. What's next: there are good and bad people on both sides?

    • 24 January 2018 at 2:47am
      Puddle says: @ semitone
      Struggling to see anything false in that first paragraph. Must we forget the shortcomings of the recent Democrat (or "centre-left", if you prefer) presidents because the incumbent is so preposterous?

    • 24 January 2018 at 8:58am
      JamesBaldwin says: @ semitone
      The author doesn't suggest that there is a moral equivalence. He just says that there are precedents for many of Trump's racist and discriminatory policies, which is undeniably true. Trump didn't emerge out of nowhere, he drew on, amplified and exaggerated long-standing features of American politics.

      What's so frustrating about this is that Trump is proof of how dangerous it was for people to turn a blind eye to the more egregiously illiberal policies employed by otherwise liberal policies. Even if you thought that it was OK for Obama to expand the drone war and targeted assassination of US citizens, because you trusted that Obama would use these powers responsibly (for the record, I didn't think this), you should still have realized that once established these powers would be available for any future president, no matter how horrific his policies. And even if you didn't realize this, *lots of Obama's critics told you this at the time*!

      Obama, along with almost every other contemporary politician in the US and the UK, was infected with the "end of politics" fantasy: the idea that his election represented the ultimate victory of the political trend he represented, the final victory in the culture wars. So he could establish whatever powers he wanted, safe in the knowledge that the racists of the bad old days were defeated and would never come back. He was wrong: they inevitably did come back, and now they have all the powers he created. We see the same conceit with the Republicans now, as they toy with abolishing the filibuster, we saw it with Margaret Thatcher destroying local government so that it couldn't resist central government, we saw it with Tony Blair packing the House of Lords with supporters. We seem to have lost the recognition by politicians that even if they have the upper hand now, they'll almost certainly be in opposition in a decade: without this recognition governments never support constitutional restraints.

  • 24 January 2018 at 5:27am
    Joe Morison says:
    Pardon my prosaism, but I’d have thought that the reason ‘faeces, urine, vomit and other excreta repel us’ is not because they ‘challenge the boundary between self and other that human subjectivity is founded on.’ Rather, it’s because they are poisonous (which is why they were excreted in the first place) and so we have evolved to find them repellent.

    • 24 January 2018 at 8:55am
      philip proust says: @ Joe Morison
      Joe, you might have walked past oleander bushes many times; they may even grow in your garden. They are highly toxic - much more so than urine; however, it would be very odd to experience disgust on seeing such a bush.

    • 25 January 2018 at 6:04am
      Joe Morison says: @ philip proust
      As a species, we have not evolved side by side with oleander bushes. If we had, as with excreta and rotten food, we would likely be repelled by them. If approaching an oleander bush was dangerous then, as with snakes and heights, we would probably be frightened of them - it’s why, like most people, I can happily stand far nearer the edge of train platform with a lethal electric charge running through the rails than I can to the edge of a precipice. (Incidentally, piss, which is not poisonous, is not considered repellent by most people - certainly not to the degree that shit is, even though it ‘challenges the boundary between self and other that human subjectivity is founded on’ just as much as shit.)

    • 25 January 2018 at 7:26am
      philip proust says: @ Joe Morison
      It was you, Joe, in your 24 January post who conceded that piss was poisonous. Have a read of your post again. Humankind has evolved with poisonous substances and very dangerous animals: neither disgust us. When you stand on the precipice what you feel is not disgust. Aligning fear with disgust just does not wash. You cannot do any better than 'faeces, urine, vomit and other excreta repel us’ because they ‘challenge the boundary between self and other that human subjectivity is founded on.’ Homophobes experience disgust when they witness homosexual acts, such as men kissing, even when the images are strongly mediated by the silver screen. Men kissing is not actually dangerous to the viewer. Disgust has to be taught, apparently; a baby, for example, is not naturally repelled by its own vomit, and neither are many parents.

    • 26 January 2018 at 5:24am
      Joe Morison says: @ philip proust
      Piss has to pass through the body a number of times before it’s dangerous, so I guess it’s poison-ish; which is why we tend to dislike it but not as much as we dislike shit. Both fear and disgust are responses evolution has built into us to avoid, respectively, going near things or eating them (I did say that if approaching oleander plants was dangerous might we have evolved fear of them); those responses are also elicited by things conditioned into us: the latter does not invalidate the former. Babies vomit the whole time; if they are still breast feeding, it can’t be because they have eaten something poisonous so it makes sense for them to eat/drink the milk again if they can - if food is scarce, it may be essential. I doubt their shit has any nutritional value at this stage but I don’t think it’s dangerous, it certainly smells sweet; but the moment they start on solids, and the shit could contain poisons, it’s hold your nose when you change the nappy.

    • 29 January 2018 at 6:51am
      Sal Scilicet says: @ Joe Morison
      Aren’t you missing the whole point of the colourful expletive? To dismiss someone as a rat, is no reflection on the genus ratus ratus – right up there with the cockroach as a great evolutionary survivor. Arabic is renown for its admirable lexicon of imaginative pejoratives. To defame someone as smelling like the northern end of a south-bound camel is marvellously ambiguous, coming from someone whose livelihood depends utterly on those ‘ships of the desert’. Whereas, to “walk a mile for a camel” has sadly lost much of its catchy cachet.

    • 29 January 2018 at 7:10am
      Sal Scilicet says: @ Joe Morison
      Another thing. Offensive language depends absolutely for its highly desirable offensive effect on the context. Hence, the delicious paradox of the “F-word”. Literally the verb for what every person on the planet at any time and any where would rather be doing. We have Dorothy Parker, God bless ‘er, to forever remind us that “too f***ing busy, or vice versa” owed its timeless vintage to the dazzling panache, the exquisite vulgarity, not the explicit vocabulary.

  • 24 January 2018 at 9:07am
    JamesBaldwin says:
    The first paragraph makes a really important point. I can't count the number of times I saw "liberal" US pundits go on and on about the alleged "irrationality" of the countries included in Trump's travel ban, and the fact that it didn't include Saudi Arabia because the Saudis had cosied up to Trump.

    They never mentioned that Trump copied the list directly from the "special immigration measures" list used by the Obama administration. This subjected immigrants and visitors from those countries not only to additional hurdles to obtain a visa, but also to intrusive monitoring while they were in the US. Clearly, the Trump administration intentionally copied Obama's list in an attempt to make the travel ban legally sound: they anticipated the accusation that the list of countries was arbitrary, and by using an existing list hoped to avoid that charge by saying there is a clear precedent for special attention to these countries. (In fact, Trump actually removed one country from the list - Iraq - after lobbying from the Iraqi government which is now a key US ally in the war against ISIS).

    The list, and the special immigration measures for the countries on it, was created by the Bush administration as part of the response to 9/11, but Obama continued this policy throughout his presidency, as he continued or expanded most of the so-called war on terror, despite his early rhetoric.

  • 31 January 2018 at 6:31pm
    Q.H.Flack says:
    But tHe tone, if this is the right term, is central. No US President has made public pronouncements with the crude vulgarity of Trump, during the election many of my US colleagues sent their children out of the room when Trump was speaking on TV. Which world leaders have spoken of ‘shitholes’? This kind of supposed blue collar language strangely does not seem to repel Christian voters, but anyone who could wash Trump’s mouth out with soap would be doing more for the Republican Party than Mrs Clinton achieved. And as to the analogy with Europeans abroad, remember Montaigne, and Swift’s justifiable preference for horses over humans.

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