Donald Trump’s attempt to dehumanise migrants is a chilling example of how the world is heading towards barbarity, says Joyce McMillan
This month, the 3,000-seat Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh is doing terrific business with the blockbuster musical Wicked. As keen observers of popular culture will know, Wicked is a 21st century prequel to the 1930s film classic The Wizard Of Oz; and despite some overblown songs, it tells a subtle and unconventional tale, built around the complex friendship between two female leading characters, the green-hued Elphaba – who becomes the Wicked Witch Of The West – and the lovely blonde Glinda, who becomes Glinda the Good.
The point of the story is that Elphaba is not really wicked at all, but a dissident who won’t tolerate the noisy but morally empty rule of the Wizard of Oz. For her, the breaking-point comes when she realises that he is bolstering his power by whipping up hate and violence against a vulnerable group, Oz’s kindly speaking animals; whereas her friend Glinda takes a more conventional path, into the high places of political power.
Like the original Wizard of Oz film, in other words, Wicked is a show full of messages about contemporary politics; not least a forceful reminder of how third-rate leaders tend to reinforce their own power by inciting hate against some enemy group or other. If any student of history can outline the theory of hate-mongering, though, it’s rare to see any leader putting it into practice more clearly and shamelessly than Donald Trump, who this week told a discussion session in Washington that in his view, some illegal migrants in the United States, now allegedly being hunted down and deported, were “not human beings. They’re animals.”
This is language to which we are accustomed, of course, from some sections of the media. From the foul-mouthed British columnist Katie Hopkins, infamous for describing all refugees in the Mediterranean as “cockroaches”, to the shrieking headlines about “animals” and “monsters” that often accompany reports of violent crime, we know this line of argument well. And we are likely to hear more of it in Scotland in coming weeks, as the Scottish Parliament considers how to comply with the European Court of Human Rights ruling which suggests that in general, convicted prisoners serving their sentences should be allowed to vote.
Yet still, to hear such language from the elected President of a once-great democracy is chilling. It’s not the first time President Trump has used similar language, of course. Both on the campaign trail and elsewhere, he has taken visible pleasure in reading aloud with great relish the lyrics of Al Wilson’s 1968 song The Snake, about a “silly woman” who takes in a snake, and is surprised when it bites her. For Trump, the snake of the song represents migrants seeking a home in the US; and he uses Wilson’s lines ruthlessly to arouse fear and hatred against them.
Now admittedly, it takes some nerve to use such a vicious analogy in a nation almost entirely composed of migrants and descendants of migrants; by any rational measure, Trump’s anti-migrant rhetoric is ridiculous. Once the bandwagon of hate starts to roll, though, all those who object to it on any grounds – rational or otherwise – can easily be dismissed as enemies of the people; and this is the fate of Elphaba, scapegoated and cast out as Wicked Witch of the West, as it has been the real-life fate of thousands throughout history who have tried to stand up for justice, truth, and the basic dignity of persons, against the juggernaut of hate-filled group-think.
For of course, we do know where this kind of movement ends. The young Israeli soldiers guarding the Gaza border could not raise their powerful weapons against poorly armed crowds including women, children and disabled people, if they had not become convinced, in some part of themselves, that these demonstrators are not fully human. The state of Israel itself is founded on the backlash against the fascist idea that the Jews of Europe were somehow less than human, and had no legitimate rights – a fact which adds an extra layer of bitter irony to Israel’s current policy towards the Palestinian people.
And here in relatively genteel Britain, a Commons Committee sat in shamed silence this week, as it listened to the testimony of two Windrush-generation migrants, people in their 70s whose basic human rights in the UK had all but vanished thanks to Theresa May’s “hostile environment” towards those suspected of being illegal migrants. Manhandled from their homes, dismissed as liars by immigration officials paid to bully and abuse, and imprisoned in one of the UK’s notorious immigration detention centres, these two people had felt on their skin, in Britain today, the danger that lies behind the dehumanising rhetoric of hate, and its insistent demands for migrants to be summarily deported, without any due process at all.
What is ever clearer, in other words, is that any fool can accord full human rights to someone he or she likes, or empathises with, or does not perceive as a problem. The test of civilisation has always lain in our ability to accord fundamental human dignity and basic rights to those whose presence we fear, and whom we even suspect of serious crimes. The law is there to protect us against those moments when empathy fails; and when governments begin to breach or ignore the law, then nothing much stands between us and the complete barbarity of a survival-of-the-fittest world where might is right, and the weak go to the wall.
Eventually, of course, such savage injustice always breeds its own fierce and implacable backlash, as it has done in Gaza and the West Bank. But for now, the brutal language of Donald Trump holds sway, and is not even denounced by his own party in Congress; we are to admire brute strength, and spit on the law which would accord equal rights to all. It remains true, though, that the politics of hate represents a short, familiar path to a bloody destination; and it’s to be hoped that each time we walk that path, a larger number of us will recognise the landscape, and set about campaigning for a change in direction, before it is too late.