Last month, a “militia” came upon 200 migrants near the U.S. southern border and detained them at gunpoint. In a widely viewed video of the encounter, heavily armed men loom over huddled women and children, their faces illuminated by wandering flashlights.
Days later, Steven Brant (code name “Viper”) was out on patrol with that same militia, the “United Constitutional Patriots,” when they witnessed another, smaller group of migrants crossing into U.S. territory. In a police report obtained by investigative reporter Ken Klippenstein, Brant described what happened next:
Brant told police that another member, identified as Armando Delgado Gonzalez, then handed him a handgun and ran to his vehicle and grabbed an AR-15.
Brant said he gave Gonzalez back his gun and told him to put the weapons away since they were only to observe and report activity.
Gonzalez (allegedly) begged to differ. “Why are we just apprehending them and not lining them up and shooting them,” he asked Brant, according to the police report. “We have to go back to Hitler days and put them all in a gas chamber.
The president received a similar suggestion at a rally in Panama City, Florida, Wednesday night. Donald Trump was praising the bravery of America’s “border security people” — who, in his telling, are facing down “15,000 people marching up” — when he reminded his audience, “We don’t let them and we can’t let them use weapons. We can’t. Other countries do. We can’t. I would never do that. But how do we stop these people?”
“Shoot them!” one rallygoer shouted in reply.
The crowd exploded in laughter. The president grinned and shook his head. “Only in the panhandle you can get away with that statement, folks,” Trump said to applause.
The president has never explicitly endorsed vigilante violence against asylum seekers who illegally cross the southern border. And in his remarks Wednesday night, he ostensibly disavowed the use of weapons against migrants. But he also made a point of noting that other countries do use weapons in such circumstances, suggested that there might be no other way to “stop these people,” and declined to explicitly condemn the idea that somebody should shoot them.
Meanwhile, long before last night, Trump had already given our nation’s most trigger-happy “patriots” reason to interpret “we can’t use weapons” as “but perhaps you should.”
In fact, the president’s decision to brand the recent wave of Central American asylum seekers as a pack of “very tough fighters,” “unknown Middle Easterners,” and violent criminals perpetrating “an invasion” of the United States has directly inspired the recent upsurge in vigilante patrols at the southern border. As the Washington Post reported in November:
Gun-carrying civilian groups and border vigilantes have heard a call to arms in President Trump’s warnings about threats to American security posed by caravans of Central American migrants moving through Mexico. They’re packing coolers and tents, oiling rifles and tuning up aerial drones, with plans to form caravans of their own and trail American troops to the border.
“We’ll observe and report, and offer aid in any way we can,” said Shannon McGauley, a bail bondsman in the Dallas suburbs who is president of the Texas Minutemen.
Around the same time, Trump advised the troops that he had dispatched to the border to meet any rock throwing from migrants with gunfire. “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back,” Trump told reporters. “I told them to consider it a rifle. When they throw rocks like what they did to the Mexican military and police I say consider it a rifle.” His administration then formally authorized troops to use lethal force against migrants if necessary.
Nonetheless, in March, the president informed Sean Hannity that legal limitations on the government’s authority to use violence against migrants was undermining efforts to beat back the invasion.
“Now we are capturing these people,” Trump said. “We are getting them but we don’t do it like other countries. Other countries stand there with machine guns, ready to fire.”
The president then clarified that he “wouldn’t want to do that” — yet immediately added, “It’s a very effective way of doing it.”
To review: Trump’s decision to brand Central American families fleeing adverse conditions in their home countries as an army of invading criminals has inspired armed vigilantes to flock to the border; these vigilantes have been illegally detaining migrants at gunpoint; some militia members are reportedly contemplating executing detained migrants en masse; and the president nevertheless keeps saying that shooting border crossers would be an effective way of deterring a major threat to the United States — and that he actually cannot think of any other effective means of doing so under our nation’s existing laws.
Three months ago, a Democratic congresswoman suggested that Congress’s attempts to suppress criticism of Israel were “all about” AIPAC’s “Benjamins.” Ilhan Omar did not utter a single disparaging word about “Jews.” She did not lament the influence of Jewish money in politics. She merely accused a lobby that seeks to influence U.S. policy toward Israel — in part, by organizing donor networks that back sympathetic candidates — of being good at its job.
But violent anti-Semites exist. And the notion that Jews control U.S. policy with their money is something that many anti-Semites believe. And so Omar’s decision to (somewhat reductively) attribute all pro-Likud agitation in Congress to a predominately Jewish organization’s money led to front-page news stories, bipartisan censure, and a formal congressional condemnation of anti-Semitism.
On Thursday morning, Trump’s decision to laugh off the suggestion that the only way to stop asylum seekers is to shoot them — at a time when militias are routinely detaining migrants at gunpoint — barely registered as news. The remarks appeared nowhere on the home page of America’s paper of record. Congressional Republicans felt little pressure to disavow the president’s behavior.
Imagine Ilhan Omar told a crowd of supporters, “Palestinians in the West Bank can’t use weapons against the Israeli invaders. Other resistance struggles do. And it’s very effective. But they can’t. I would never want them to. But how do we stop these people?” — and then laughed when a supporter shouted, “Shoot them.”
Would any mainstream commentator, conservative or liberal, insist that these words were harmless because Omar explicitly said she did not want Palestinians to start shooting Israeli settlers? Would congressional Democrats face no significant pressure to condemn her remarks? Would the press treat it as a minor story? What if a group of Palestinians had held 200 Israeli settlers at gunpoint weeks earlier?
One cannot credibly claim that Omar’s remarks about AIPAC endangered Jews more than Trump’s remarks about the migrant “invasion” have endangered Central American asylum seekers. Nor can one describe the former as uniquely insensitive, in light of historical traumas. For one thing, U.S. vigilantes have been committing atrocities against Latin Americans at the southern border since well before that border officially existed; which is to say, since the days when our “patriots” were the literal invaders. For another, promoting violence against those who seek asylum in the U.S. is itself an affront to Jewish historical memory.
And yet, our political class treated Omar’s remarks as a major scandal, and Trump’s as an afterthought. Which suggests that our elected leaders oppose speech that imperils vulnerable minorities — unless the minority in question is so vulnerable and small they lack any meaningful political power.
In that case, a “trope” is just a joke. And “political correctness” is the real intolerance.