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Poison in a Perfume Bottle:
Donald Trump’s Speech to Congress

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Listening to Donald Trump’s 2/28/2017 address to the joint session of Congress, one could easily anticipate what the reactions would be. The speech was well written and well read - not what we normally expect from Mr. Trump. It was bound to be praised widely, if only for that.

The effusive praise pundits gave the speech only obscured the fact that there was nothing new in it, and that what was not new was presented in singularly dangerous fashion.

Others have commented extensively on Trump’s shameless exploitation of a widow’s grief so I won’t belabor that here. I will just preface my main point with some observations on Trump’s vacuous statements about health care.

Once again Trump boosted his ratings by telling people what they want to hear rather than the truth. He will reduce tax rates on companies and on the middle class (and especially on the wealthy even though he did not mention them explicitly). He is going to eliminate the individual mandate to buy health insurance, while still ensuring coverage of preexisting conditions. He is going to help Americans buy health insurance with tax credits and health savings accounts. In other words, he is going to give us something for nothing.

Tax subsidies and the individual mandate are what make universal coverage possible. Without the universal requirement to purchase health insurance only the sick would go for it and the system would collapse. And without tax support, premiums and deductibles would skyrocket. But at least the wealthy will get whatever care they need. And of course we will get tax credits, of hardly any use to those whose jobs pay them so little that they don’t have much taxes from which to make those deductions. That has always been Republican policy: more care and support for those who need it least, and less for everyone else.

A party that blames poor people for their poverty can hardly be expected to care about them. Amazingly, the Republican Party has turned public anger against the so-called “elites” while engineering policies to benefit millionaires and billionaires at the expense of the poor. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the real meaning of “elites.”

How do Republicans, and Donald Trump most of all, get away with this? By using the oldest trick in the political handbook: focusing public hatred on an identified enemy to distract the public from what they are really doing. Autocratic regimes do this all the time. Throughout history Jews have perhaps been the most popular target for this purpose, from Nazi Germany to the former Soviet Union to dysfunctional Arab governments even today. Other regimes have targeted other minorities. In the United States we have identified a new favorite target: “illegal immigrants,” especially if they are Mexican or Muslim. A government that successfully directs public fear and anger against these groups can hope to escape becoming a focal point for well-deserved rage against its own exploitive policies.

This is where Trump’s speech truly becomes poisonous. In his speech he announced the creation of a new office within Homeland Security called VOICE - Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. This new office will mark immigrant communities as supposed hotbeds of crime.

Trump mentioned four victims of serious crime by illegal immigrants, but as tragic as these situations are, four cases hardly justify deliberately singling out immigrants as the primary source of evil in this country. A number of studies have shown that immigrants are responsible for significantly less crime than native-born Americans:

The perception that immigration adversely affects crime rates led to legislation in the 1990s that particularly increased punishment of criminal aliens. In fact, immigrants have much lower institutionalization (incarceration) rates than the native born - on the order of one-fifth the rate of natives.(1)

Increased prevalence of immigrants is associated with lower crime rates - the opposite of what many Americans fear.(2)

But most Americans, particularly those living in states that heavily went for Trump, have likely never met an immigrant and almost certainly not an undocumented one. Like Jews in other societies, precisely because they are so little known, undocumented immigrants serve as a convenient outlet for the resentment of those who feel that life has treated them badly. Undocumented immigrants are supposedly cutting in line, stealing jobs, soaking up services meant for Americans, and perpetrating the ruin of this country.

The fact is that a huge number of those immigrants who have the determination to come here despite the risks involved are far more hard-working than many of their American detractors. And they are not trying to “cut in line”: a great many fled persecution and gang violence in their home countries and would not have survived the several years’ wait required to process the paperwork for legal residency.

The members of this community now live in terror. Many, including even legal residents, are now afraid to leave their homes for fear of being stopped or caught in a roundup. A petty crime could end up disrupting people’s lives - or even no crime at all. A traffic ticket can destroy a family. “In a significant break from his predecessor, Mr. Trump is directing immigration agents to go after virtually anyone who is in the United States illegally, ending the reprieve for people who had not been considered priorities.”(3)

Many families have already been torn apart and devastated. Where are the hypocrites who so zealously defend the rights of unborn children but are silent when very large numbers of children now in this world have had their parents suddenly wrenched away from them? Or are children worth caring about only before they are born?

While every group, including native-born Americans, has its share of antisocial actors, immigrants legal and otherwise make great contributions to our society that would be difficult to supply without them. But perhaps their greatest contribution today is to serve as scapegoats absorbing the people’s wrath so that it does not hit Donald Trump when the “millions of jobs” he promised to bring back fail to materialize.

How good are Donald Trump’s promises? Here’s one he made in that speech: “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.” Barely three days after uttering those words he took to his Twitter account and called for an investigation of Senator Charles Schumer for appearing in a public publicity picture with Vladimir Putin! His next target was Nancy Pelosi, for sitting at a rather large dinner table at which many others were present including a Russian envoy. There was nothing secret about those “meetings” (if you can even call them that), and certainly no cloud of suspicion about election-fixing. But to Donald Trump it’s all the same. Right after finally managing to read a speech he obviously didn’t write himself and seeming presidential to many just because he didn't sound like a maniac, he reverted to his usual mode of conduct with all the maturity and emotional intelligence of “So’s your old man.”

One may certainly agree or disagree with some of Trump’s policies. But directing his fire particularly at people who cannot fight back - the immigrant population - in order to consolidate his power crosses the line into evil and threatens to tear our society apart. “Illegal immigrant” is not an abstraction that people can love to hate without consequence. The term refers to real people, good people, family people, many of whom lead productive lives and pay taxes. I believe they deserve a path to legal residence. You may not. But let us at least agree that their humanity is as sacred as ours. They are not symbols. They are human beings. Just what has this country become, and what are we now doing to real people?


(1) Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, Why Are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates So Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2007), Abstract.

(2) Chris Jennewein, “Major Study Finds Immigrants Less Likely Criminals Than Native-Born(Times of San Diego, September 27, 2015).

(3) Vivian Yee, “Migrants Confront Judgment Day o ver Old Deportation Orders,” New York Times, March 4, 2017.

March 2017