It’s easy to dismiss Jeanine Pirro as a joke -- for the last few decades, that’s exactly what she’s been. A third-tier New York political figure turned fourth-tier media commentator, her eponymous Fox News program, Justice with Judge Jeanine, calls back to her two-year term as an elected county court judge a quarter-century ago. Pirro’s show is a poorly-produced mishmash, combining her opening monologue diatribes lionizing the president and hammering his enemies; interviews with conservative commentators and politicians who often have trouble following her rambling questions; and inanities like January’s “Street Justice” segment after the 2016 elections, in which she wandered the town of Chappaqua, NY, and the surrounding woods in search of Hillary Clinton. In her latest book, she accidentally calls herself an idiot.
But the ascension of President Donald Trump has scrambled the ranks of the relevant, as the motley collection of fools and crooks willing to support him rise in influence. And so Pirro has become a thought leader, riding a decades-long personal friendship with the president and a willingness to propagandize on his behalf to the top of the ratings charts and best-seller lists. Because her Fox audience of roughly two million viewers includes the president, she gets top-tier Republican guests, including White House officials who book themselves on the program in order to communicate directly with Trump. Off air, she advises the president in the Oval Office and at his Mar-a-Lago resort; he, in turn, has considered her for senior positions in his administration. In the age of Trump, the idiots reign.
Pirro, an intrinsically ridiculous person, now occupies a position of influence. The way commentators respond to her televised rants often depends on how they weigh those attributes. On Saturday night, for example, I tweeted a clip of Pirro describing the president’s political opposition as “Demon-rats”:
In the hours that followed, some commentators treated Pirro’s statement as simply “kooky” nonsense, a bizarre remark from an unhinged but powerless cable news host. But others warned that something far more worrisome was happening:
Viewed through the lens of history, what some considered Pirro’s goofy comment takes on darker implications. The 20th century, in particular, saw waves of political unrest and atrocity fueled by the willingness of authoritarian governments and nationalist groups to declare particular groups of people subhuman. Philosophy professor David Livingstone Smith, who wrote a book on the subject, described that process as follows:
The dehumanized person is imagined as a human-looking creature with a subhuman essence. They are inferior animals misleadingly dressed up as human beings. This is how European colonists conceived of Native Americans, and how slave owners conceived of their human chattel. This is how the Nazis conceived of Jews, and how Rwandan Hutus conceived of their Tutsi neighbors. This way of thinking is reflected in dehumanizing epithets-referring to whole populations as lice, flies, rats, bacilli, dogs, wolves, monsters, and so on.
Dehumanization has the function of decommissioning our moral sentiments. In dehumanizing others, we exclude them from the circle of moral obligation. We can then kill, oppress, and enslave them with impunity. Taking the life of a dehumanized person becomes of no greater consequence than crushing an insect under one's boot.
To be sure, Pirro has not called for violence against the people she has literally demonized. Nonetheless, using such terminology undermines basic political norms and courts peril. Even if broad delegitimization of political opposition doesn't result in genocide, it still eats away at social cohesion and makes compromise impossible.
Pirro is not alone in seeking to dehumanize the president’s political opponents. Lou Dobbs, another has-been who resurrected his career by turning his show into a daily dose of Trump propaganda, has regularly referred to the Democratic Party as the “Dimms” since the beginning of the Trump administration.
As with Pirro’s effort to make “Demon-rats” catch on, Dobbs’ moniker seems childish. But his feverish support for the president has given him the highest-rated show in business news. Trump himself is a regular viewer. And, as with Pirro, Dobbs has been able to parlay his personal relationship into a role advising the White House. He’s a buffoon, but a buffoon with a big audience and a fan in the Oval Office. His rhetoric matters.
It’s no coincidence that Trump’s propagandists have landed on dehumanization as a rhetorical strategy. Dehumanization is a hallmark of the president’s own speech, at times used to target broad groups of people such as immigrants. As William Donohue, a professor of communication at Michigan State University, told The New Republic of Trump’s use of words like “animal” and “infest” to describe migrants: “Any time you use any of those metaphors, it’s meant to try to reduce sympathy for a particular group, so people see that group as not deserving of compassion. It’s a kind of objectification.” Trump has also frequently deployed that device on his critics -- his campaign-style rally on Friday night, just minutes before Pirro’s “Demon-rats” comment, featured a false riff that the “real name” of the Democratic Party is the “Democrat Party,” before he segued to calling it “the party of crime.”
This sort of dehumanization shifts the political environment, and with it the bounds of the possible. We don’t yet know where this trend will end. But considering the results of such campaigns in the past, this isn’t a good omen.