How the White House suckered liberals by calling MS-13 gang members “animals”

Photo: Jose Cabezas, Reuters

The White House web site’s announcement about the MS-13 gang called them “animals” ten times in 439 words. This is master-level trolling — it drove the Web crazy, just as planned. Let’s examine what’s really going on here.

Calling people, even gang members, “animals” is provocative to say the least. Dehumanizing people can be a prelude to crushing them: the Nazis called Jews rats, and in the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu called Tutsis “cockroaches.”

Here’s what the White House website published. I’ve highlighted the word “animals” and words referring to violence in bold, to make the repetition clearer. I wouldn’t normally have to provide a content warning for a White House release, but please be aware this statement describes graphic violence in terms designed to shock you; if you don’t want graphic violence with your morning coffee, I recommend that you skip it.

What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13

WHAT: The violent animals of MS-13 have committed heinous, violent attacks in communities across America.

Too many innocent Americans have fallen victim to the unthinkable violence of MS-13’s animals.

At the State of the Union in January 2018, President Trump brought as his guests Elizabeth Alvarado, Robert Mickens, Evelyn Rodriguez, and Freddy Cuevas, the parents of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas. Police believe these young girls were chased down and brutally murdered by MS-13 gang members on Long Island, New York, in 2016. Suffolk County Police Commissioner stated that the “murders show a level of brutality that is close to unmatched.”

In Maryland, MS-13’s animals are accused of stabbing a man more than 100 times and then decapitating him, dismembering him, and ripping his heart out of his body. Police believe MS-13 members in Maryland also savagely beat a 15-year-old human trafficking victim. The MS-13 animals used a bat and took turns beating her nearly 30 times in total.

In Houston, Texas, two MS-13 members were charged after kidnapping and sexually assaulting one girl and murdering another. The two MS-13 animals laughed, smiled, and waved for cameras in court as they faced the charges.

New York communities have suffered tremendously from the abhorrent violence of MS-13. Nearly 40 percent of all murders in Suffolk County, New York between January 2016 and June 2017 were tied to MS-13.

In January 2017, MS-13 members were charged with killing and hacking up a teenager in Nassau County. MS-13’s animals reportedly saw the murder as a way to boost their standing in the gang. In April 2017, police believe four young men were brutally murdered by MS-13 animals on Long Island. One victim was a young man in town visiting family during an Easter week vacation. Just last month, in April 2018, MS-13 reportedly called for its members on Long Island to kill a cop for the sake of making a statement.

WHY: MS-13 is a transnational gang which follows the motto of “kill, rape, control” by committing shocking acts of violence in an attempt to instill fear and gain control.

MS-13 is a transnational gang that has brought violence, fear, and suffering to American communities. MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, commits shocking acts of violence to instill fear, including machete attacks, executions, gang rape, human trafficking, and more. In their motto, the animals of MS-13 make clear their goal is to “kill, rape, control.” The gang has more than 10,000 members in the United States spreading violence and suffering.

Recent investigations have revealed MS-13 gang leaders based in El Salvador have been sending representatives into the United States illegally to connect the leaders with local gang members. These foreign-based gang leaders direct local members to become even more violent in an effort to control more territory.

President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.

Analyzing the language in this document

By normal journalistic or PR standards, this is poorly written article. It meanders all over the place, going from Trump’s state of the Union to a repetitive description of incidents, and lacks a strong logical thread or conclusion. The main message is “MS-13 is bad.” There is no indication of details on the details of how “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice,” a statement that’s manifestly false (surely some members of the administration are working on tariffs, spinning policy on cable news, or reducing regulatory burdens on coal miners rather than investigating gang activity).

While this piece is written in simple and direct prose, it’s unsophisticated writing; Flesch-Kincaid puts it at a seventh-grade reading level. And it is repetitive: in addition to using the word “animals” ten times, it uses “violence” or “violent” 11 times and forms of the word “brutal” three times.

On the other hand, the extremely high density of violent words and descriptions does create an impression. This writing is aimed directly at the amygdala. It is supposed to make you afraid. It’s the writing equivalent of a snuff film. I doubt anything like this has ever appeared in an official White House communication before.

ROAM analysis reveals the true objective of this statement

In a normal piece of writing, you can do a ROAM analysis to evaluate the transparent goal and objective of the piece. If you try that on this piece, here’s what you find:

Readers: Trump voters and supporters; legislators.

Objective: Gain support for action against violent gangs.

Action: Justify actions that immigration officials take against gang members; encourage lawmakers to change immigration laws to more easily enable such action.

iMpression: The Trump Administration is tough on gangs.

By this obvious analysis, the piece is a failure. The poor and repetitive writing and lack of a logical conclusion don’t actually seem likely to accomplish the objective, generate action, or leave any impression other than incoherence.

But this analysis is completely wrong, because it assumes an overt objective. Assume, for a moment, that the real purpose is to make liberals look weak and soft. You get a very different ROAM analysis:

Readers: Media.

Objective: Get media figures and liberals to become outraged.

Action: Generate media pieces criticizing Trump; enable Trump administration figures to describe liberals as favoring the rights of gangs.

iMpression: The Trump Administration is tough, while liberals are wimps.

By this analysis, this poorly written statement is a masterpiece that has succeeded brilliantly. There are hundreds of articles on this topic. In the Washington Post, Philip Bump wrote about “The slippery slope of the Trump administration’s political embrace of calling MS-13 ‘animals’.” Quartz wrote “The White House really wants you, too, to call immigrants ‘animals’.” The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized about “Trump’s dangerous rants about immigrants as ‘animals’ .” It seems like every media site has a piece about this, and most of them agree that calling people “animals” is reprehensible.

Put your outrage aside for a moment. (Really, put it aside. This is one of a thousand things to get outraged about, and Trump and his supporters don’t care what you think.) Look at this as politics.

Trump’s White House has now successfully manipulated liberals into defending gang members.

Yes, I know it’s more subtle than that — all people, even brutal gang members, are people, and no one should describe another human being as an animal. No one is actually defending the actions of gang members.

But to the person who is not paying much attention (that is, most of the electorate), the outcome of this writing and all the talk about it is that Trump positions himself as tough on gangs — so tough that he calls them animals — while liberals and media are defending the rights of the people in the gangs.

While all this was happening, Trump was telling his Justice Department to investigate the actions of his own FBI against his campaign — crossing a line that’s never been crossed in any other administration. (Presidents aren’t supposed to tell the Justice Department what to investigate, especially if it concerns themselves.)

Outrage is fun. There’s so much of it to be had in reacting to the actions of this president. The next time you feel it, though, recognize that you’re being trolled. Your outrage is a tool of the Trump White House. Take a close look at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it — and how people who don’t necessarily feel the way you do are reacting.

Don’t get played.

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  1. This article makes the assumption that the Trump administration is organized enough to have a purpose behind their dialogue. I have seen little evidence of anything but in-the-moment behavior. This plays well with the base, but I’m not convinced it lights a fire big enough to spread to voters in the center. If polls can be trusted, 34 percent approval ratings tell me people are wise to this brand of chaos.

    1. I’m not so sure that there has to be a carefully constructed purpose–read “strategy”–behind White House messaging for us to give credit where credit is due. Trump is an idiot savant in terms of getting the media to serve his purposes, and although this message doesn’t feel like one realDonalsTrump wrote himself (witness the use of, and the correct spelling of, the word “abhorrent”), it certainly feels like something drafted at the master’s feet. I agree with Josh that we get suckered into outrage all the time by this administration, and while we are raging, the shell game continues. I realize that a comment about Twitter is a little off-topic in a commentary about an official White House statement, but for a start I almost wish all the real media outlets–those Trump refers to as “fake news”–would be able to ignore the realDonalTrump Twitter account completely, because that is the source of so much of our rage, and of so much of the administration’s obfuscation.

  2. For once I agree with one of your political analysis!!! Right on. Liberals are busy being outraged by Trump while he is doing other things. Pay attention. You guys have been underestimating him and he gains support at your expense. I’m not his fan, but I’m even less a fan of people who are spending their time self-righteously defending MS-13. I keep asking myself when liberals are going to wake up to the fact they are being expertly played by a man they keep calling stupid.