Donald Trump supporters are not just passionate about his anti-immigrant rhetoric; they’re also living out his outrage in real-time.
A man spat in an immigrant activist’s face during a campaign rally for the Republican presidential candidate in Richmond, Virginia on Wednesday night. The incident occurred soon after immigrant activists briefly interrupted the Republican presidential candidate as Trump launched into an anti-immigrant tirade about giving “free stuff” to “illegal immigrants.”
During his speech, Trump referenced this week’s Democratic presidential debate, when candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders discussed their positions on providing services to undocumented immigrants. “They just couldn’t give away things fast enough,” Trump said. “They want heath care for illegal immigrants. They want drivers licenses for illegal immigrants. They want, listen to this, Social Security for illegal immigrants.”
At that point, progressive activists began loudly protesting, but a small group of Trump supporters drowned them out. Local CBS reporter Garrett Haake recorded an encounter in which a blue-shirted Trump supporter repeatedly shouted “Fuck you” to the activists and spat in the face of one man before walking away.
— Garrett Haake (@GarrettHaake) October 14, 2015
Since June, when Trump first launched his campaign by suggesting that Mexican immigrants are rapists, criminals, or drug dealers, he has consistently generated the most applause from broadly condemning the immigrant community. But his charged political rhetoric is having real-life consequences.
By now, incidents like this at Trump rallies are becoming routine. In fact, his supporters have spit on immigrant activists in the past.
Trump supporters have told immigrant activists to “clean my hotel room, bitch;” shouted “if it ain’t white, it ain’t right” while ripping up posters; told Latino U.S. citizens to “go home” while grabbing their hair and spitting on them; told prominent journalist and U.S. citizen Jorge Ramos to “get out of my country;” joked “you can shoot all the people you want that cross illegally;” and beat up and urinated on the homeless. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of incidents against Latinos.
There’s some evidence to back up this phenomenon. A slew of behavioral psychology studies have found that xenophobic rhetoric can and will embolden supporters to normalize racism.
A 1980 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study found that when participants were given favorable and unfavorable information about in-group and out-group members, they were more likely to remember the unfavorable information about the out-group members. A 2001 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study found that when people consider others as part of a general group, rather than as individuals, they may have greater feelings of fear and lower levels of trust in their interactions with them. And a 2004 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study found that exposure to “disparagement humor” that denigrates, belittles, or maligns an individual or social group “increases tolerance of discriminatory events for people high in prejudice toward the disparaged group.” The study also found that it “expands the bounds of appropriate conduct, creating a norm of tolerance of discrimination.”
And even if science hasn’t done enough to prove that xenophobic rhetoric can change attitudes about immigrants, there’s always historical evidence. It happened when right-wing extremism emerged in eastern Germany. It happened when Japan failed to acknowledge its role in the genocide and forced prostitution that took place during World War II. And now it appears that Trump’s rhetoric is making it acceptable for supporters to feel justified in treating immigrant advocates with vehemence.