Why ‘Vermin’ Can’t Be Tolerated - Word&Way

Why ‘Vermin’ Can’t Be Tolerated

Earlier this month during a Veteran’s Day speech in New Hampshire, Donald Trump promised that if he was re-elected, his opponents — “communists, Marxists, fascists, and radical left thugs that live like vermin” — would be “rooted out.”

Rodney Kennedy

Having spent my entire life attempting to use words deliberately, rationally, and meaningfully, I am in somewhat of a conundrum. From across all the mediums that analyze persona and events, almost every writer and speaker since this incident has argued that Trump’s use of “vermin” and “root out” is the final nail in the fascist coffin. Ah, the Hitler comparison.

Tom Nichols, in The Atlantic, has been the only holdout that I have found. Nichols has long hesitated to call Trump a “fascist,” and even now he suggests reasons for not doing so.

I join Nichols in a dissent that is as much theological as rhetorical. Trump has shown a fondness for Hitler-like rhetoric and I have argued in my previous work, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, that Trump’s rhetoric does have Hitler parallels. Ta Nehisi Coates has insisted that Trump is a white supremacist. Robert I. Ivie has shown Trump to be a pretend-Populist while actually being an old white guy defending the rich and the market. Nichols sees him as more of a “wannabe caudillo, the kind of Latin American strongman who cared little about what people believed so long as they feared him and left him in power.” Jennifer Mercieca, Texas A & M, professor of communication, labels Trump a demagogue.

None of these categorizations are in doubt. But perhaps we should “hold the Hitler horses.” Rhetorical scholar Patricia Roberts-Miller warns that “Godwin’s Law states that, as an internet argument goes on, the chances of Hitler being invoked rise, and someone saying ‘HITLER DID THAT TOO’ is notoriously a sign that the disagreement has gotten caught in a nasty back eddy of anger and contempt. Argumentation theorists call it the fallacy of argumentum ad Hilterlerum, when someone tries to discredit a policy, argument, or opponent by accusing them of being just like Hitler.”

In Western movies, there’s always the ubiquitous gunslinger teaching a young man, “Never draw that gun unless you intend to use it.” Never call a politician “Hitler,” or “like Hitler” unless you are deadly serious, and you have the evidence to back your play.

As a preacher and a poet, I am attempting to engage in an act of imagination. As Robert Duncan put it, “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil but to imagine it.” Whether or not Trump is like Hitler is not the primary argument. The use of the words “root out vermin” stands alone as an act of rhetorical evil.

Eighty-four years ago, Kenneth Burke warned America “to find all available ways of making the Hitlerite distortions of religion apparent, in order that politicians of his kind in America be unable to perform a similar swindle.” Burke, aware of the power of words, argued that people must inspect Hitler’s words in order to prevent the rise of fascism in America. The words “root out vermin” are such words and deserve serious investigation.

I argue that we are not dealing with a Hitler issue but with a human issue. Hitler didn’t invent the term “vermin,” nor did he originate genocide.

The road to “vermin” contains rhetorical markers. It begins with rhetorical performance. People always talk about violence before they commit violence. The language appears in advance of a military attack. The pre-battle speech is a species of rhetoric.

There is always a progression in the use of transgressive rhetoric. For instance, the rhetorical progression of Trump’s transgressive rhetoric demonstrates how he has gone from juvenile name-calling to declaring that liberals are vermin.

Trump disguised his personal attacks on other candidates as a game he played, a sort of reality television game show where the object was to pick the most popular nickname for each opponent. Trump’s “nicknames” have been clearly documented and represent the first mile marker on the road to violence.

Trump’s personal attacks extended to women. He claimed the New York Times columnist Gail Collins had “The face of a dog.” He said of Pelosi, “I think she’s an animal.” Maxine Waters, according to Trump, is “crazy.”

Trump then escalated his personal name-calling to entire nations and races. He claimed undocumented immigrants were “bringing drugs” and “crime” into the country and that some were “rapists.” Trump would prohibit Muslims from immigrating to America. Now, he is saying that he will have deportation squads if re-elected in 2024.

Another rhetorical marker of Trump’s escalating transgressive rhetoric is the way he refers to minorities. He calls them “the Blacks,” “the Hispanics,” “the Mexicans,” and “the Muslims.”

At this juncture, Trump already has traveled more than halfway down the road that leads to “vermin”.

An unspoken word that provides the energy for violent rhetoric is the creation of an enemy. The “enemy” is a primary rhetorical marker in the full-blown arrival of tropes of violence. A study of Trump’s speeches reveals that he created a vast, implacable, dangerous, and almost invulnerable array of enemies — liberals, Big Tech, and the media — in cahoots to destroy America.

He persuaded millions of Americans that they were God’s good and holy people arrayed against this almost supernatural enemy. He insisted that God was on their side. He also put himself forward as “God’s anointed, chosen” warrior — a Samson who could deliver the people from the hands of the enemy. Trump’s pre-battle speeches came home to roost on January 6, 2021. After a rousing speech from Trump, inciting his supporters to “fight like hell,” Trump’s army invaded the Capitol.

And when the January 6 battle failed, when it was rewritten by Republican supporters as a tour, Trump picked up the script of his pre-battle speech and started again.

When Trump used the word, “vermin,” he arrived at a locked door with a warning sign: BEYOND THIS DOOR GENOCIDE. Would that God had posted “the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard” (Genesis 3:24) at the door.

The use of the word “vermin” is a primary language strategy for dehumanizing others. Dehumanization, according to David Livingston Smith, in Less than Human, is the belief that some beings only appear human, but beneath the surface, where it really counts, they aren’t human at all.

In the New World, Captain John Smith described the Native Americans as “cruell beasts” with “a more unnatural brutishness than beasts.” The poet Christopher Brooke was even more explicit, asserting that the indigenous inhabitants of Virginia were not of the lineage of Adam and Eve but had “Sprung up like vermine of an earthly slime.”

Good Christians joined the multitude of voices calling Native Americans “vermin” and less than human. In King Philip’s War the English settlers burned a Pequot village near Mystic, Connecticut. All of the inhabitants — some 800 to 900 men, women, and children — were killed. Plymouth governor William Bradford encouraged his readers to look forward to the happy day when the American Indians, who were variously described as “flies,” “rats,” “mice,” and “swarms of lice,” would be driven to extinction. During the American Revolution, the Native Americans (who sided with the British) were castigated as “copper Colour’d Vermine” fit to be “massacre[d] to such a degree that [there] may’nt be a pair of them left, to continue the Breed upon the Earth.”

The Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather proclaimed, “Once you have but got the track of those Ravenous howling Wolves, then pursue them vigorously; turn not back till they are consumed.”

I have studied the rhetoric leading up to genocidal occurrences in the last 100 years. In each case, “vermin” is the chosen word. Many researchers into genocide agree that efforts to destroy an entire people are almost always accompanied by the idea that those being annihilated aren’t really people.

The current progression in transgressive rhetoric is not a Trump problem — it is a human problem. And even more disturbing it is a Christian problem. With pastors now playing the role of Puritan divines, there is more violent rhetoric. People who, until recent times, have been brothers and sisters in Christ, are now perceived as enemies of the nation, the church, and of Christians who disagree with them.

For a people who believe in original sin, evangelicals are amazingly nonchalant about the evil that swirls around them. Liberals already often fail to look beyond the symptoms of injustice to see the large tragedy of human sin. Now, evangelicals have adopted the same laissez-faire attitude toward sin. Will Campbell mused, “In a tragedy you really don’t take sides with any satisfaction. Who are you going to blame in all of those things? In a tragedy, by the end of the drama, everyone is involved and may be lying dead on the stage.” All are at some level guilty — none with an easy, clear, good choice.

Humans are always one word away from the next outbreak of genocide. The best way to prevent this unspeakable tragedy is to eliminate even the whispers of hate rhetoric, transgressive rhetoric, and to know that “vermin” is the word that must not be uttered. For it is the secret code word that opens the door to genocide — a harsh reality but one I have felt compelled to expose.

I’m not saying Trump is Hitler. I am not saying that Trump is like Hitler. I have argued that Trump uses language that has a sordid and violent history. I have catalogued a rhetoric that has morphed from petty name-calling to cries for revenge and a word tied closely to genocide.

I call attention to the danger of such escalation in violent rhetoric, pre-battle speeches, because the people who praise the name of Jesus, Lord, and Savior are now attached to a politician who praises Putin, Orban, Xi Jinping, and Erdogan.

Donning my preacher robe and stole, I implore, “Sons and daughters of Almighty God, brothers and sisters of our Savior Jesus Christ, I ask you, ‘How long will you support the vile, hateful, and violent rhetoric of our ex-president? You are called to abhor evil, to not get even, to live in peace and harmony, and yet still you flirt with calling your own brothers and sisters vermin? How long will this evil be allowed to fester in our midst? I beg you to repent of this great evil that threatens the foundations of our church.’”


Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His seventh book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).