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When Trump calls someone a dog, he’s tapping into ugly history

President Donald Trump talks with reporters during a visit with U.S. Army dog Conan. AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

The news was recently filled with stories about Trump’s praise for Conan, the Belgian Malinois used to hunt Islamic State Group founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, alongside his vivid accounts of al-Baghdadi’s “death like a dog.”

Calling someone a dog is more than a throwaway insult. My scholarship focuses on representations of race and animals in literature and popular culture.

In my view, Trump’s comments echo a troubled history of using dogs as weapons against people of color, as well as pejorative depictions of people of color as animals.

Dogs as weapons

Dogs have long been weaponized against non-Europeans in the interests of Western empire-building.

During the invasion and colonization of the Americas, the Spaniards used their dogs to attack, kill and even eat Native Americans.

In the U.S., slaveholders trained bloodhounds to track and attack escaped enslaved people. The police trained German Shepherds to intimidate and assault African Americans throughout post-Civil War history, perhaps most infamously during the civil rights protests of the 1960s.

Photos released from Abu Ghraib in 2004 showed soldiers setting dogs upon Muslim detainees, making the detainees walk on all fours led by leashes and “hog-tying” them.

Theories about animals

The term “animal” defines beings as objects rather than subjects of moral consideration.

In the late Middle Ages, European enslavers designated themselves as humans in contrast to the Africans they held captive and subjected to gratuitous violence. They saw the indigenous as child-like, primitive and even sub-humans who should naturally be ruled by “superior” whites.

For example, 16th-century philosopher and theologian Juan Ginés de Sepulveda described indigenous Americans as “half-men in whom you will barely find the vestiges of humanity.”

Not only is there is no scientific ground for considering Europeans as human and non-Europeans as sub-human, there is no scientific basis for defining humans as radically different from other species. In the early 20th century, Charles Darwin observed that humans are merely one kind of animal, a category of the strata of great apes.

But Western thinking about animals continues to be informed by the early 17th-century philosophy of René Descartes.

In Descartes’ view, animals are objects without feelings or intelligence, who may be hunted, caged, mutilated and killed, and whose suffering should not elicit empathy or remorse. He argued that the “greatest of all the prejudices we have retained from infancy is that of believing that brutes think.”

One of his most famous experiments involved nailing his wife’s dog to a board and cutting her into pieces. When she cried out and struggled to free herself, Descartes noted that her reaction was akin to the sputtering of a malfunctioning machine.

You can see examples of this sort of violence in everyday English expressions. “Beating a dead horse” is pointless, implying that beating a live one makes sense. It is absurd for a person to walk around “like a chicken with their head cut off,” suggesting that it is permissible to cut off a chicken’s head. “Killing two birds with one stone” and “lining up one’s ducks” are expeditious approaches to problem-solving.

Figures of speech about harming animals, including dogs, are directly connected to the way people treat them. Today, 60,000 dogs are experimented on yearly in U.S. laboratories, while another 670,000 abandoned dogs are killed annually in U.S. shelters.

In this May 3, 1963 file photo, a 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog. AP Photo/Bill Hudson

Trump’s comments

If people think of animals, including dogs, as lesser beings, then it follows that calling someone an animal is a way to denigrate and justify harming them.

None of this is to exculpate al-Baghdadi, but Trump’s glee in describing his excruciating death alongside his three young children exemplifies such contempt.

In his press release on Oct. 27, Trump describes al-Baghdadi “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” like other Islamic State Group leaders who behaved like “frightened puppies” when killed.

Trump casts al-Baghdadi as the antithesis of the civilized West and of the human: a “savage monster” who “died like a dog.”

The expression “die like a dog” means to die brutally, with immense agony and indignity, the implication being that it is acceptable, even natural, for dogs to die in this manner.

Depicting al-Baghdadi as a “thug who … spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread,” Trump weaves anti-black racism into his screed, given how “thug” has evolved in contemporary language as code for the n-word.

People use the term “animal” ruthlessly and unscientifically to condone violence to both non-whites and other species, whether in a tunnel in Syria, an experimentation laboratory or a prison cell. Under no circumstances is it acceptable for someone to “die like a dog,” or to be treated like an animal, no matter what their species.

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