The US presidential election cycle has become a hotbed of coded memes and imagery. While the public and the media have proven defenseless against Donald Trump’s barrage of lies — too numerous to count, and by the time you debunk one another three have emerged — this new tactic has been accompanied by the exhausting realization that most voters don’t appear to care about truth, but are content with the reality show drama that is his political campaign. Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton’s campaign even had to publish what was probably a first in presidential history, an explainer about white supremacy and the Pepe meme. But the repulsive Skittles tweet shot out yesterday by Donald Trump Jr. is a new low in a race that has, from the beginning, been mired in reprehensible discourse.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) September 19, 2016
The younger Trump’s tweet rebrands a rather familiar example of what some call the “poisonous M&M fallacy” with a new, racially charged meaning. The logic of the reasoning is flawed, based on an emotional appeal rather than real statistics or facts. As Emil Karlsson, writing on Debunking Denialism — a site “defending science against the forces of irrationality” — explains:
Why is the poisonous M&Ms analogy monstrous?
Because it can be used to prop up any kind of harmful stereotype about groups such genders, ethnicities, religious and political communities without having to engage the objections to unfair generalizations. In reality, the poisonous M&Ms analogy is a more manipulative version of the general tactic known as the “I know not all X are Y, but [flawed generalization]”.
… What sets the “Poisonous M&Ms” formation apart is that it…tries to defend discriminatory stereotypes by pumping intuitions in people who are statistically illiterate rather than to promote overt absurdities that most people already know are erroneous.
The insidiousness of the image is compounded by the added layers of meaning in switching the M&Ms of the now-familiar image to Skittles, which have come to symbolize the injustice faced by Trayvon Martin, and riffing off another popular (and vile) meme, “Trayvoning,” which, as the name suggests, involves recreating the dead teen’s last moments complete with hoodie, Skittles, and Arizona Iced Tea.
The idea at the root of the M&Ms or Skittles imagery is as old as Nazism itself. As Naomi LaChance explains on the Intercept, a 1938 children’s story by a leading Nazi propagandist claims that “a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire nation.”
The layers of meaning beyond those more obvious aspects are harder to decipher. Skittles are being assimilated in a mysterious way into the coded language of white supremacy. In April, an episode of CNN’s United Shades of America featured Black comedian W. Kamau Bell speaking to members of the Ku Klux Klan. During the conversation, he gets this strange story featuring the colorful candy:
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But like I was saying earlier, everybody has a — has a place in this nation. I would just like to see a separate white nation.
If you take a bag of Skittles —
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: — there’s different colors in that bag.
BELL: All right.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can mix the colors —
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: — and it still tastes OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But if you separate the colors and then taste the individual flavors, it’s even better.
BELL: So are you telling me that when you have a bag of Skittles, you separate all the colors before you eat them?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every time.
What do Skittles mean for the white power movement that is slowly emerging into the mainstream? If Donald Trump’s campaign has perfected anything, it’s the ability to mix and match the most nasty cultural refuse with internet-friendly iconography to generate new and insidious images that communicate to a target audience while leaving most others in the dark.
— Seth (@SethAbramovitch) September 20, 2016
The notion that Syrian refugees harbor poison is something that cuts deep into the history of nativist bigotry in this country. On April 20, 1921, US Representative Lucian Walton Parrish of Texas argued for new limitations on immigration. He declared:
Those who are out of sympathy with our Constitution and the spirit of our Government will be here in large numbers, and the true spirit of Americanism left us by our fathers will gradually become poisoned by this uncertain element.
… There can be nothing so dangerous as for us to allow the undesirable foreign element to poison our civilization and thereby threaten the safety of the institutions that our forefathers have established for us.
His words underlined the fear that the unassimilated immigrant threatened this country, and soon enough Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1924, which excluded Asians and other people the country’s elites considered undesirable. It’s not a coincidence that just this week Trump said immigrants “have to love this country. They have to love us.” We can only guess what the repercussions could be.
The facts are that, of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the United States since September 11, 2001, only two Iraqis living in Kentucky (1 in 372,500) have been arrested on terrorist charges (for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq). As a point of comparison, 1 in 20,000 New Yorkers are murdered each year.
As a Syrian, I can’t help but listen to this rhetoric and feel sickened that it has come to this, reducing refugees of all ethnicities, beliefs, and backgrounds to a symbol of fear. As an art critic, I see the imagery of this election and all signs pointing to a volatile result. The images are strangely familiar, but I’ve come to characterize them as corporate meme magic realism: sanitized to be shared on social media, funny enough to feel innocuous, but divorced from facts. This scary language is becoming the lingua franca of an emerging global movement that shields the elites and satiates members of the public who just want to believe they are good enough, smart enough, and that it’s always other people’s fault.