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Trump’s immigration metaphors set a divisive tone from the top.

Trump wields demagogic rhetoric like a marketing tool, ramping up prejudicial appeals in the closing days of the election. Chief among his go-to rhetorical devices are immigration metaphors that dehumanize immigrants and militarize policy responses.

Trump’s rhetoric includes many of the same immigration metaphors that Otto Santa Ana (1998, 1999, 2002) identified during the 1994 ballot initiative in California—Proposition 187—that would have denied public services to undocumented workers and required mandatory reporting of immigration status by those administrating such services. These include the immigrant as animal and immigrant as disease metaphors—both invoked when Trump tweets that immigrants “infest our Country.”

Trump’s rhetoric also employs the immigration as dangerous waters metaphor, as when he tweets about “Criminal elements and DRUGS pouring in” and talks about stopping “this large flow of people, INCLUDING MANY CRIMINALS, from entering Mexico to U.S.” (emphasis added).

These metaphors stoke fear precisely because they draw vivid images from a source domain (e.g., war, flood, disease) while ignoring the incongruencies between the metaphorical model and phenomenon being described (i.e., immigration).

If immigrants are dangerous waters that “flow” or “pour” into a country, then the conceptual metaphor that describes the country is nation as container. In their work on foreign policy metaphors, Paul Chilton and George Lakoff (1995) note that “with the emergence of the modern nation-state,” this metaphor has become “so well rooted in the mind that it is difficult to think of the present state-in-a-container system as anything other than a natural and immutable fact.” This is evident not just in Trump’s tweets but also in much reportage that reinforces the idea of “closing” or “sealing” the border as one would a container.

The container metaphor holds important implications for ideas about security. “Security for a state is conceptualized in terms of being inside an overwhelmingly strong container that stops things from getting in or out,” Chilton and Lakoff (1995) write. When applied to immigration, the logical consequence is for the demagogue to peddle a border wall—a barrier to prevent “leaks” into the container.

At the same time, the demagogue must stoke fear and anxiety by exaggerating the danger posed by immigrants entering the nation-as-container. As Trump tweets: “Building a great Border Wall, with drugs (poison) and enemy combatants pouring into our Country, is all about National Defense. Build WALL through M[ilitary]!” (emphasis added).

Notice how the dangerous waters metaphor is frequently collocated with the stereotypical trope of immigrants as criminals. Trump’s frequent allusion to drugs plays upon popular imagery of drug cartels and encourages an association between that imagery and immigrants.

But the predominant metaphor in Trump’s tweets in the final weeks before the 2018 midterm elections is the military metaphor. Trump portrays immigration as war, variously referring to the migrant caravan as an “onslaught,” “invasion,” or “assault” on the nation. Immigrants themselves are correspondingly seen as a military force (immigrants as soldiers), and the nation-as-container concept takes on a militarized dimension (nation as fortress). Trump tweets about the country being “overrun by illegal immigrants” as a military stronghold might be overrun by an invading army.

The problem with the military metaphor is that—in demagogic fashion—it stokes fears of immigrants by falsely equating them with armed soldiers seeking to violently threaten a nation’s sovereignty. Archetypal images of Nazi Germany’s aggressive invasions of neighboring countries during World War II come to mind. But immigration is no more a war than it is a flood or disease. These metaphors stoke fear precisely because they draw vivid images from a source domain (e.g., war, flood, disease) while ignoring the incongruencies between the metaphorical model and phenomenon being described (i.e., immigration).

Moreover, the military metaphor positions immigrants not just as invading soldiers engaged in a type of military conquest, but as dehumanized “enemies” worthy of fear and loathing. This contributes to the stark division between “us” and “them,” eliding the common humanity between us. It turns families desperate to escape violence and poverty into “enemy combatants,” as seen in Trump’s tweet above.

A woman holds a sign at a protest. The sign reads "Give me your tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

Words from the Statue of Liberty convey a very different view of immigration from the one propagated by the Trump administration. Alisdare Hickson / CC-BY-SA-2.0

The demagogue’s vision of immigration is a far cry from the imagery of the immigrant-as-pilgrim celebrated every Thanksgiving across the United States. It’s a far cry from the “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” view of the United States as a nation of immigrants. Trump’s immigration metaphors replace the positive descriptors of immigrants as beacons of hope, sources of new ideas, sowers of innovation, and harbingers of the cultural richness of American life.

When the demagogue takes his metaphors literally, we end up with a decision to “deploy at least 5,200 active-duty troops to the southern border” to counter a so-called “invasion” of families looking for a better life. In his fear-mongering tweets, Trump inveighs, “I am bringing out the military for this National Emergency. They will be stopped!” After all, according to the metaphors he lives by, “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” As Norman Fairclough (1989) points out, “Different metaphors imply different ways of dealing with things.” Trump’s metaphors lead to a show of force (emphasis on “show” since it elevates spectacle over genuine solutions) to placate the anxious voters he has riled up, much like Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Immigration metaphors like these are part of the broader conspiracy-oriented disinformation that has moved from the alt-right fringes to the mainstream through presidential amplification. It should come as no surprise that Trump’s demagogic language can be seen in the social media posts of those who would take this hatred to violent extremes. The man who entered a Pittsburgh synagogue and took the lives of 11 people also spoke of an “infestation” in US society and saw those in the migrant caravan as “invaders.” In a post linking his anti-Semitism and xenophobia, the man impugned a Jewish organization dedicated to helping immigrants and refugees: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in” (emphasis added).

Despite what Trump’s enablers pretend, the words uttered by the US president matter. His immigration metaphors do not constitute “plain speaking,” “strong language,” or “passionate debate,” nor can they be innocently excused as his “own style,” as Vice-President Pence contends. His language is textbook demagoguery, and his immigration metaphors help constitute our current sociopolitical moment. To move beyond this moment requires more US voters to recognize and acknowledge these cheap and invidious demagogic appeals for what they are.

Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality, and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.

Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2018. “A Demagogue’s Words Matter.” Anthropology News website, November 2, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1021