On June 21st, 2018, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit an immigration detention center in Texas holding immigrant children who were separated from their families. Melania Trump’s supposed reason for the visit was to see the facilities for herself after she had lobbied her husband, then President Donald Trump, to change his policy on family separation at the border. However, news headlines in the hours and days after the event focused only on one thing, Trump’s $39 Zara jacket that stated “I really don’t care, do u?” in huge, white letters on the back. While Melania Trump argued that the media was reading into the jacket and that she hadn’t worn the jacket into the facility, only on the journey to and from, her message reverberated around the country. In the aftermath, Donald Trump took to Twitter– where else?– to clarify what Melania does not care about– the fake news media. This strange (comical? ironic?) intersection between rhetorics of care and fake news media represents one way into understanding how conventional understandings of care are manipulated to legitimize rhetorics of American exceptionalism. In this post, I argue that US political discourse uses caring, specifically caring for women and children, as a way to justify violence in other parts of the world. Caring, in these instances, acts as a form of intentionally misleading the public, or a form of disinformation, to enforce ideas about American exceptionalism in public memory.
The impetus for this post stems primarily from two sources: Didier Fassin’s “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life” and Sara Farris’s In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. In the interest of space and remaining transparent, I posit the two quotes that I used in much of the theoretical background in this piece here as a preface to the argument. I recognize that the threads laid out in this post are worthy of a much longer discussion with a more fleshed-out bibliography, but my hope for this post is to begin tracing how we can recognize and acknowledge how post-9/11, neoliberal ideologies, and colonial tropes come together in contemporary social discourses.
“Humanitarian intervention is a biopolitics insofar as it sets up and manages refugee camps, establishes protected corridors in order to gain access to war casualties, develops statistical tools to measure malnutrition, and makes use of communication media to bear witness to injustice in the world…Humanitarian intervention…presupposes not only leaving other causes aside but also producing public representations of the human beings to be defend (e.g., by showing them as victims rather than combatants and by displaying their condition in terms of suffering rather than the geopolitical situation)” (Fassin 501).
I encountered these quotes in the context of a graduate class when I became interested in understanding and tracing how the sentiment expressed in each text was reflected in the rhetoric circulating around U.S.-Mexico immigration and care rhetorics.
“In the Name of Women’s Rights thus suggests that the double standard applied to Muslim and non-western migrant women in the public imaginary as individuals in need of special attention, and even ‘rescue,’ operates as an ideological tool that is strictly connected to their key role in the reproduction of the material conditions of social reproduction” Farris (16-17).
With this in mind, I’m interested in using the space below to think through how arguments specifically about post 9/11 US ideology, anti-muslim rhetoric, and neoliberal security discourses extend to other parts of the world and manifest in other ideologies and frames of reference, specifically, I’m interested in how the “saving Muslim women” trope is carried into other spaces.
In the infamous speech that launched the campaign of Donald Trump, in a bizarre and lengthy tangent that attempts to hit upon every xenophobic, racist trope Trump can conjure, Trump tells his audience that “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He followed up his speech with the tweet above, cementing the xenophobic and racist foundation of Trump’s campaign. Trump’s racist dog whistles worked because they played upon already existing ideas and narratives about Mexicans and about immigrants, in fact, in the moments following Trump’s assertions about drug dealers and rapists, he argues that “Mexico has our jobs.”
Trump’s speech accomplishes two things through his reconjuring of old colonial tropes about the foreign “Other.” On the one hand, Trump situates migrants from the Global South, Mexicans specifically– noticeably, here, he does not specify illegal immigrants as he does in later tweets and speeches– as violent and criminal, specifically juxtaposing the foreign “others” criminality and violent tendencies with Americans– “They’re not sending you.” This positioning works to frame the US against barbaric countries who want to hurt the nation-state, intentionally hierarchizing US citizens’ morals and values above those of migrants coming from the border. On the other hand, Trump reinforces the need for security and stricter immigration policies by framing the US as in danger from migrants. Effectively, through reconjuring the myth of the barbaric Colonial “Other,” Trump legitimates the need to secure the border while also specifically masculinizing the Colonial “Other” that Americans need to fear. The Colonial “Other” is a drug dealer or a rapist. The jobs they are stealing are the blue-collar jobs that Trump’s base holds. Trump’s masculinization of the Colonial “Other” functions similarly to Farris’s framing of the double standard in anti-Muslim rhetoric. By specifically gendering immigration and who must be kept out of the US, Trump creates space to save migrant women and children. A call that republicans under democratic administrations take up repeatedly.
Ted Cruz does just this in a tweet in November 2021. Specifically employing the word “care,” Cruz argues that “Democratic Senators don’t care.” This marks an interesting reversal from uses of care in 2018 in reference to immigration; in 2018, under a Republican president intent on legitimizing racist, hardline immigration policies, there’s no need for an illusion of care; instead, the focus is on seeing how far you can push explicitly racist immigration policies– family separation was apparently the line in the sand for Melania and Ivanka Trump. In 2021, under a democratic administration, Republicans reversed who “does not care” in an attempt to appeal to their base through divisive rhetoric and the conjuring of colonial tropes; specifically, Cruz’s rhetoric plays upon rhetorics of American exceptionalism. The creation of the Colonial “Other” by Trump positions America as a moral and ethical exception to other foreign countries, specifically in the Global South. Through this rhetoric, Cruz can build off this conception to situate America– specifically, white people because who else does the conservative Right see as American?– as prepared to “care” for women and children from the Global South.
In Rupal Oza’s “Contrapuntal geographies of threat and security: the United States, India, and Israel,” they argue, “In the construction of the United States as the embodiment of universal good its authority to lead in the mission of ‘freedom’s triumph remains unquestioned as is its position as the civilized nation against barbaric uncivilized terrorists” (12). Cruz’s tweets and rhetoric situate constructions of the US as the exception; and in turn, as the embodiment of universal good, the US is justified in creating the Colonial “Other” and protecting itself against the Colonial “Other.” But, moreover, Cruz’s tweet positions America– real Americans anyway– as a caring nation.
Within Cruz’s tweet, Democrats, in their disavowal of care, are positioned as an obstacle to American exceptionalism, Cruz’s humanitarianism is positioned as the antidote. Recalling Fassin’s quote, humanitarianism here– or in the words of Cruz, “care”– functions to police and “Other” men or men-identifying migrants attempting to cross the border while creating space to argue that the US needs to save women and children because it is an exceptional country that must extend a helping hand to others (should we refer to this as a helping hand or a parental fist coming down? Either way, paternalism is ever-present) (Fassin 501). As Fassin notes, this savior rhetoric relies on the construction of the gendered Colonial “Other” to justify performative American appeals for care for women and children, notably differentiating between migrant men who are labeled as terrorists, drug dealers, and rapists. This demarcation of “lives to be saved and lives to be risked” (Fassin 501) functions through what Farris identifies in the “saving Muslim women” trope as the continuation of 18th-century ideals about women, reproduction, and domesticity (Farris 73). This is important because it not only creates space to “save” and reposition those who constitute the Colonial “Other,” but it also speaks to commodifications of care and the exploitation of care as labor as migrant women from the Global South typically come to the US and perform much of the domestic work of white women to enable them to work outside of the home– feminism, amirite?
Throughout this post, I specifically employed screenshots from Twitter and memes to situate us within contemporary sites where conjured colonial tropes circulate through a new time, space, and medium. We can see the necessity of understanding new media and ways of recirculating older colonial myths when confronted with following the genealogy of Trump’s claims about migrants from the Global South– Trump expressed the sentiment first in a campaign speech before it made its way into many of Trump’s future tweets. On the other hand, in 2019, Cruz’s tweet represents the immediacy of this circulation most clearly, as it features a Youtube clip with Cruz’s xenophobic rhetoric along with a recapitulation of that rhetoric in his tweet. The conservative right in the US repeatedly and successfully employs social media to circulate its message, evoke colonial imaginaries, and organize, as evidenced most clearly by the FBI’s apparent inability to recognize white supremacist groups organizing to overtake the capitol building on January 6, 2021. I suppose my point here, or at least one of my points, is that we need to remain attentive to the new ways in which colonial imaginaries circulate in the present. The conservative right in the US has capitalized on social media as a tool in circulating its racist rhetoric; therefore, it’s imperative that we pay close attention to how social media continues to shape public opinion and hegemonic thought.
One way that I’ve asked students to engage with social media rhetorics is through a longer project on research methods and post-truth rhetorics. I ask students to identify a conspiracy theory or piece of disinformation/misinformation that they will trace throughout the semester. Students must first attempt to explain the theory or information in their own words; then, they move to analyze and interrogate various primary and secondary sources they identify as associated with the conspiracy or piece of information. I intentionally ask students to utilize at least one social media source that demonstrates how their conspiracy or piece of information circulates online. What’s important to me in this assignment is that students grapple with why people identify with certain conspiracies and pieces of disinformation or misinformation. I intentionally encourage students to understand the ideological underpinnings and situated knowledge of various forms of conspiracy or disinformation and how that ideology and knowledge circulates in different genres and mediums. I stress to students that understanding the ideological underpinnings of information will enable them to better reach towards understanding those who hold a different opinion and enable them to effectively engage with those they disagree with. This activity functions as a way to help students understand why people hold certain beliefs and how those beliefs are tied to deeper ideological framings or situated knowledges; moreover, it encourages students to understand how/why certain narratives are constructed. For instance, students can look at how the ideological underpinnings of saving Mexican women and children function as a performative humanizing mission that benefits white women in the US through the domestic work that migrant women perform.
While I acknowledge that this isn’t a perfect tracing or mapping of how the U.S.-Mexico immigration rhetoric maps onto the “saving Muslim women” trope, it remains important to understand how rhetorics of care and humanitarianism function to operationalize rhetorics of American exceptionalism. As neoliberal ideologies call for further increased security and femonationalism extends to other regions of the world, scholar-activists must continue to demystify these discourses to demonstrate the ways that rhetorics of American exceptionalism justify and legitimize wars, violence, US intervention, and control. Even more importantly, it’s necessary for instructors to point out the ways that mainstream and popular discourses featured on social media conjure colonial tropes and narratives that continually reposition America as savior and exception. When instructors ignore how these narratives show up in contemporary discourses on new technology platforms, they are missing an opportunity to demonstrate to students how colonialism and imperialism are reflected in contemporary discourses through the circulation of these new technologies.
Bors, Matt. “Straw Man Argument.” The Nib, 25 June 2019, https://thenib.com/concentration-confusion/. Accessed 13 December 2021.
Cruz, Ted [@Tedcruz]. “Democrat Senators don’t care about the catastrophe at the border. They don’t care about the kids in the cages or the illegal immigrants being released with COVID. If they did, they’d go and see the Biden cages and demand answers from POTUS. #Verdict name]. “Democrat Senators don’t care about the catastrophe at the border.They don’t care about the kids in the cages or the illegal immigrants being released with COVID. If they did, they’d go and see the Biden cages and demand answers from POTUS. #Verdict.” Twitter, 18 November, 2021, https://twitter.com/tedcruz/status/1461491328416628738
Farris, Sara R. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Duke University Press, 2017.
Fassin, D. “Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life.” Public Culture, vol. 19, no. 3, Oct. 2007, pp. 499–520. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2007-007.
Robbins, Ted. “What’s Up With Melania Trump’s ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?’ Jacket?” NPR, 21 June 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/06/21/622410485/whats-up-with-melania-trump-s-i…. Accessed 13 December 2021.
Trump, Donald. TTA – Search, https://www.thetrumparchive.com/. Accessed 13 December 2021.
Trump, Donald. “Election 2016: Transcript – Donald Trump announces presidential candidacy.” CBS News, 16 June 2015, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-donald-trump-announces-his-presi…. Accessed 13 December 2021.
Oza, Rupal. “Contrapuntal Geographies of Threat and Security: The United States, India, and Israel.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 25, no. 1, Feb. 2007, pp. 9–32. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1068/d1404.