Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump faced off for the last time during last night’s presidential debate. The event was remarkable for a number of reasons, but one of the momenst that led post-debate conversation was Trump’s use of the phrase “bad hombres” to describe Mexican immigrants that he says are guilty of committing a variety of crimes.
“One of my first acts will be to get all of the drug lords. We have some bad, bad people in this country that have to go out,” Trump said. “We'll get them out, secure the border, and once the border is secured at a later date we'll make a determination as to the rest. But we have some bad hombres here and we're going to get them out.”
It could be completely innocuous, right? Maybe the guy who celebrates Cinco de Mayo with a taco bowl is bilingual and just slipped from English to Spanish.
The statement is not very different from the one Trump made when announcing his bid for the presidency, but his specific use of “bad hombres” did leave many scratching their heads. In fact, according to the website for Merriam-Webster, searches for “hombre” spiked 120,000% last night immediately after Trump used the word.
“Hombre,” of course, is the Spanish word for “man,” but according to Webster it has been in use by English speakers since at least the 19th century to refer to a “guy” or “fellow.” Beyond just the basic definition, however, Trump's use of "bad hombre" is what's called a dog whistle in modern politics. Dog whistles are coded language used to communicate something with one group of listeners and something else to others. At the very least, dog whistles offer their speakers plausible deniability when it comes to how their words are received.
Throughout his campaign, Trump has been the anti-dog whistle candidate. Where Republicans in the past obscured their disdain for communities of color with seemingly race-neutral language—welfare, states rights, forced busing—Trump has based his entire campaign on straight talk and being against "political correctness.” Last night, perhaps feeling the need to appear presidential on the debate stage, Trump seemed to decide against calling Mexican immigrants rapists again and threw out a (rather obvious) dog whistle, "bad hombres."
It could be completely innocuous, right? Maybe the guy who celebrates Cinco de Mayo with a taco bowl is bilingual and just slipped from English to Spanish. What seems more likely, though, is that Trump was trying to elicit an image of a criminal Latino man in the minds of Americans while still being able to deny his racism.
The sleight of hand seemed to work for some. After the debate, CNN's panel of talking heads erupted into a shouting match over "bad hombres" with Trump supporter Jeff Lord insisting that it's a familiar, harmless term with no racial or ethnic connotations.
“Oh, come on! I’ve heard that phrase all my life!” Lord shouted at Clinton backer Patti Solis Doyle after she called Trump's use of it “very offensive.” Solis Doyle responded by asking him where he’s heard it; Lord replied, “American television westerns in the 1950s.”
As a man of a certain age, Lord might have heard “bad hombres” a lot growing up and without any context. The phrase was indeed used widely throughout the old American West and showed up in many popular westerns throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. But isn't that all the context any thinking person needs to think it might be offensive?
A phrase created in the Old West, “bad hombres” carries with it all of the history of that period, a history glorified in Westerns. But that history features the diplomatic and military ejection of Mexico from what's now the U.S. West and Southwest, and the subjugation and displacement of Chicanos by white settlers—pretty close to what Trump promises to do through immigration policy if he’s elected president.
Trump likely wanted to conceal his anti-Latino feelings with "bad hombres." It turns out, though, that he couldn't have picked a louder dog whistle.