In a disturbing continuation of his years-long effort to stoke paranoia and visceral hatred of immigrants, President Donald Trump employed a false and malicious rhetorical attack Tuesday that has been echoed by both Fox News and Nazi propaganda.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump suggested falsely that a border wall could help reduce the non-existent problem of disease outbreaks across the border.
"One of the problems that people don't talk about, you have a tremendous medical problem coming into our country...communicable disease," Trump said. "Tremendous problems. People don't want to talk about it."
This line has been repeated on Fox News, where one contributor baselessly asserted that immigrants were bringing in a range of diseases including smallpox — which has, of course, been eradicated in the wild.
But the whole line of attack is just not true. While there can be cross-border concerns about public health issues, there's absolutely no reason to believe that there's a serious threat of infectious diseases coming into the United States.
"There is no evidence whatsoever that this is so," Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, told Politifact when Trump made a similar claim over the summer. "No study or survey shows this. There is no outbreak or bump in disease attributable to immigrants."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that there can be some transmission of disease across the border. But as Snopes pointed out, this is largely because of authorized border crossings, not the undocumented immigrants that Trump is always bemoaning. (And the best way to fight the spread of these illnesses is vaccination, which Trump has also spread baseless fears about, not a useless border wall.)
Snopes also noted that when undocumented immigrants do experience outbreaks of infectious disease, it is often because of the terrible conditions they are held in by the government when confined. So while Trump argues fighting undocumented immigration is about preventing diseases, it can actually increase the spread of disease. Snopes explained:
In short, while detained populations of people held in close quarters carry a higher risk for the transmission of communicable diseases such as scabies or tuberculosis within that population, no evidence suggests that those populations pose a health risk to the surrounding communities. Efforts on the internet to make that risk appear acute do so by misrepresenting out-of-date figures and by ignoring the epidemiological realities of a world that sees one billion people cross international borders every year.
This form of rhetoric is particularly disturbing for the parallels it has to Nazi propaganda. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum documents the history:
A recurrent theme in Nazi antisemitic propaganda was that Jews spread diseases.
To prevent non-Jews from attempting to enter the ghettos and from seeing the condition of daily life there for themselves, German authorities posted quarantine signs at the entrances, warning of the danger of contagious disease. Since inadequate sanitation and water supplies coupled with starvation rations quickly undermined the health of the Jews in the ghettos, these warnings became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as typhus and other infectious diseases ravaged ghetto populations. Subsequent Nazi propaganda utilized these man-made epidemics to justify isolating the “filthy” Jews from the larger population.
While it's important to not equate present forms of violence and discrimination with the actions of the Nazis, observing the similar trends and parallels between hateful ideologies that baselessly spread fears to alienate, demonize, and dehumanize certain groups is important to avoid repeating the horrifying cruelties of the past. It would go too far to say that Trump's use of rhetoric similar to historical anti-Semitism is a sign that he is putting us on the road to another Holocaust — but going down that road in any amount should be entirely unacceptable.
Watch Trump's comments below: