Humanitarianism, Trump Style

“My fellow Americans, tonight I’m speaking to you because there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.” So began Donald Trump’s televised address to the nation, made in an attempt to bring pressure on Congressional Democrats to fund the border wall he had long promised his supporters. “This is a humanitarian crisis,” he continued, “A crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.” Trump’s goal of building a wall on the US-Mexico border needed no explanation, either to his avid supporters or to his eager opponents. But why, only in the two weeks leading up to the speech, had he begun phrasing the need for the wall in terms of a humanitarian crisis, when previously, he had presented it solely as an issue of national security? Why, given his base’s love of his tough-guy stance and his constant accusations that immigrants were rapists, murderers and worse, would he suddenly phrase this as a problem of their welfare? In his ham-handed attempts to invoke the notion of humanitarian crisis, Trump is attempting to justify intervention, to cloak himself in the mantle of innocence, and to blur the distinction between “protection for” and “protection from.” In doing so, he is pushing humanitarian doublespeak to new extremes, using declarations about his intent to provide humanitarian aid to indicate his intent to commit even more violence against asylum seekers at the border.

Humanitarianism is premised on two closely linked notions: the idea of crisis and on the right to interfere (Pandolfi 2001: 371). To declare a humanitarian crisis is to demand that something be done, and done now. This introduces a certain latitude in the scope of possible action: first, precisely what should be done remains unspecific. Doing something is clearly necessary, which often means that anything can be done, because something is better than nothing. (Indeed, “it’s better than nothing” is one of the most common responses to any critique of humanitarian action.) The push to “do something now” also introduces what Calhoun (2004) calls the “emergency imaginary,” a time pressure that seems to justify the abandonment of well-articulated bureaucratic process in favor of speedy action. End runs around the people who plan, regulate, monitor and evaluate humanitarian projects become seemingly necessary, in the name of addressing the emergency. Thus, in labeling migration from Latin America to the United States a “humanitarian crisis,” Trump seeks to grant himself the right to decide what the right solution to the problem is, and the right to unilaterally decide to implement it. The declaration of the sovereign exception has rarely been this explicit in American politics.

Trump could, of course, simply declare himself sole authority. But rather than just ruling by fiat, he seeks to justify his actions in moral terms by appropriating the notion of innocence.   The idea of innocence is part and parcel of humanitarian action: in order to be seen as worthy of aid, humanitarianism’s beneficiaries must appear as entirely passive and entirely blameless (Myers 2011). Trump gestures at innocence when, early on in his speech, he mentions two groups most likely to be seen as innocent: children, who he claims are being exploited by coyotes and traffickers, and women, who he posits as the victims of sexual violence while on the migrant trail. In doing so, Trump is trying to open up a space beyond politics, one in which action is taken on the grounds of moral obligation rather than political self-interest (Ticktin 2016). This might be seen as an attempt to move beyond the partisan politics that led to a stalemate between Democrats and Republicans over funding his proposed border wall, offering a twisted logic in which sealing off the border protects innocent women and children from harm by making the trip north no longer worth the trouble. This leaves aside, of course, the violence that pushes them to leave their homes in the first place and leaves unanswered the question of where people escaping persecution might find safe haven, but these questions are comfortably obscure for Trump’s supporters because they take place so far away from the United States. But the tack to humanitarianism isn’t meant to completely conceal violence. Trump quickly abandons the figure of the innocent migrant and returns to the figure he most often uses at his rallies: the figure of the migrant as criminal. Charging that “thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country” (an assertion that the Washington Post deemed “false”), Trump attempts to turn the asylum seekers, those ostensibly suffering, into perpetrators. Using three anecdotes of Americans killed by undocumented people, Trump posits that the people truly suffering are not the migrants, but the “weeping mothers and …. grief stricken fathers” of the Americans killed by people “who had no right to be in our country.” Writ large, Trump posits that the true victims, the people truly in need of humanitarian aid, are the American people, not the asylum seekers. The beneficiaries of aid, in this logic, can and should be Americans; what happens to people from other countries seeking safety is of little consequence, as long as they are kept away from the American populace.

By blurring the distinction between protection for asylum seekers and protection from asylum seekers, Trump enacts an Orwellian logic. The “humanitarian aid” he is seeking $800 million dollars for is not to protect migrants, but to detain them; not to assist them but to enact violence against them. The Trump Administration has detained over 15,000 children (both children separated from parents and unaccompanied minors), and it has no more money to fund the detainment facilities and camps where they are being kept. Nor does the Administration have funds for the prisons where it is detaining both undocumented border crossers and those who present themselves at ports of entry in full accordance with international law. Incarcerating these people is, in a Trumpian twist of logic, humanitarian–and hence deserves funding for “humanitarian aid.”

Humanitarianism Trump-style brings with it not just the temporality of emergency, but the temporality of pre-emption. The point is not just to prevent people who have committed crimes in the past from entering the United States, but to prevent people who might commit crimes in the future. Trumpian humanitarianism requires not just a wall between Mexico and the United States, but one between the present and some imagined dystopian future, one in which invaders wreak death and destruction on American citizens. Because the logic of preemption does not include foresight about who might commit crimes, violence against anyone with even the remote potential to cause harm is legitimated as humanitarian action. Thus, children fall under the category of migrants to protect the population from, and incarcerating and deporting them falls under the rubric of “humanitarian aid.”

Anthropologists have long argued that humanitarianism blends violence and care, and that this mixture makes it susceptible to being co-opted by militarism (Fassin and Pandolfi 2010). The so-called “humanitarian bombing” of Serbia to protect Kosovar Albanians in 1999, or the bombing of Libya to protect civilians against Gaddafi showed demonstrated how quickly the notion of protection could morph into killing. But Trump puts a new spin on even this warping of the notion of humanitarianism. By mobilizing the idea of innocence, switching the victim, and operating under the logic of preemption, Trump evacuates humanitarianism of one of its other key notions: care for the distant other. The noble mantle of humanitarianism that once came from providing for suffering people far away is now supposed to be granted for taking care of the self.   In that sense, the me-first logic of neoliberalism has come to its logical conclusion: self-preservation, self-protection and self-aggrandizement have all taken on the halo of virtue once bestowed by humanitarianism’s altruistic promise.


Calhoun, Craig. 2004. “A World of Emergencies: Fear, Intervention and the Limits of the Cosmopolitan Order.” Canadian Review of Sociology, 41(4): 373-395.

Fassin, Didier, and Mariella Pandolfi. 2010. Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Humanitarian and Military Interventions. London: Zone Books.

Myers, Diana Tietjens. 2011. “Two Victim Paradigms and the Problem of the Impure Victim.” Humanity 2(2): 255-275.

Pandolfi, Mariella. 2001.   “Contract of Mutual (In)difference: Governance and the Humanitarian Apparatus in Contemporary Albania and Kosovo.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 10:369-381.

Ticktin, Miriam. 2016.   “What’s Wrong With Innocence?” Cultural Anthropology

Leave a Reply