Justice  /  Antecedent

Trump Revives a Shameful Tradition: Targeting a Minority Group with Crime Reports

The president's executive orders and inflammatory rhetoric follow a predictable path.
Library of Congress

The history of atrocity is littered with the corpses of scapegoats. When it comes to convincing people that their problems have a simple answer, few narratives have been as effective as assigning responsibility for society’s ills to a vulnerable minority group. Yet to succeed, vilification requires effort.

A year and a half ago, Donald Trump declared his candidacy in a speech accusing Mexicans crossing the border of “bringing drugs … bringing crime” and being “rapists.” During his first week in office, President Trump took additional steps to make the image of dangerous aliens stick, signing an executive order on public safety on January 25. Receiving less attention than the order barring immigrants and nonimmigrants from seven countries that arrived two days later, the earlier decree called on the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to publish a weekly crime report detailing “a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens.”

Trump’s crime report is only the latest in a long history of a particular kind of institutionalized minority-bashing that goes back more than five hundred years. This history of scapegoating sheds light on how we got where we are today and gives some indication of what might happen next.

Two years after receiving authorization from the pope, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I launched the Spanish Inquisition in 1480 with an order establishing tribunals for “heretical depravity,” specifically listing unfaithful Jewish converts as targets. Authorities tracked suspects, drummed up witnesses, and tried more than a hundred thousand people, leading to the torture and execution of thousands.