Trump’s Rhetoric and Frogs in Warming Water

Princeton University Press has begun an “Election 2016: Hot Button Issues” series at its blog and its inaugural post, “Donald Trump and Mass Incarceration” is by Jason Stanley (Yale). In the post, Stanley argues that Trump’s articulation of xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, and harshly retributivist views is problematic not only because his campaign success so far reveals that a large portion of the public agrees with him, but because it “legitimizes these ideologies in the public domain.” The dehumanizing ideologies animating Trump’s remarks are usually disguised or coded, but Trump himself doesn’t hide his beliefs. Stanley writes, “Donald Trump’s support is in large part due to the fact that he gives explicit voice to ideologies that are outside the bounds of public respectability.”

Stanley uses as an analogy the harsh “public discourse about US criminal justice practices from the late 1980s through the 1990s,” during which “dehumanizing vocabulary targeting those caught up in the criminal justice system was commonplace” and “criminal justice practices became harshly retributive as a consequence…” He writes:

Trump’s candidacy is focused on policy debates whose structure parallels that of the criminal justice debate, where there is a clear “friend/enemy” distinction exploitable for political gain, such as immigration and terrorism. His rhetoric emulates the dehumanizing tropes of the late 1980s and 1990s criminal justice debate.

Trump’s rhetoric has been getting increasingly extreme, with no flagging in his public support. Stanley notes:

Trump is also increasingly experimenting with the most extreme dehumanizing representations, ones that have pre-genocidal associations. His first national advertisement, released this week, showed Mexican immigrants as insects scurrying and scattering like an infestation. It would be nice to dismiss such representations as unlikely to affect public debate. History suggests that this is wishful thinking. The representation of targeted groups as insects or vermin is a theme in Nazi propaganda about Jews; in the buildup to the Rwandan genocide, Hutu ethnic radio pride radio stations began calling Tutsi, “inyenzi”, meaning “cockroach”. Recent US history with the criminal justice debate suggests we may even be particularly vulnerable.

There’s the old myth about frogs and boiling water. They’ll quickly jump out if tossed into a pot of boiling water, supposedly, but will sit contentedly in a pot of slowly warming water until it boils, killing them.

How warm is the water, philosophers? How are we supposed to go about figuring that out? Analyses like Stanley’s suggest that the water is pretty hot. If it is, what should we do?


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