This piece originally appeared on NBCNews.com.
There were numerous memorable moments in the first and only vice presidential debate. But one phrase stole the show and will live in perpetuity in the annals of political memes -“That Mexican Thing” or the complete version – “Whipping out that Mexican thing again.”
After more than 20 years in politics Democratic vice presidential candidateTim Kaine has surely been accused of many things, but “whipping out that Mexican thing” was not one of them, at least until the vice presidential debate.
Kaine, a U.S. senator from Virginia and former governor, was recounting offensive statements made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, to which Indiana Gov. Mike Pence responded with the now infamous meme.
The double entendre of “whipping out that Mexican thing” is irresistible and really quite funny. After the silly giggle moment, then there’s the realization that this is a platter of red meat for the base that thinks that Democrats are whiners and obsessed with multi-culti kumbaya fuzziness.
But scratch below the surface and Pence’s remark is a profound statement about the foundational aspect of the Trump-Pence campaign. The GOP presidential campaign is one that has been built upon “otherization” — driving a wedge among people.
Mexicans, and by extension Latinos and immigrants, are not objects. They are not “things.” They are human beings. No human being is illegal. One’s status can be illegal or one can be in a country illegally, but a human being cannot be illegal just as a human cannot be a thing.
Language is an incredibly powerful force and the Trump campaign is well aware of this. The framing of Mexicans, immigrants, and others who do not fit within a white Anglo Saxon classification is intentional.
The GOP presidential candidate has been practicing the strategy of wedging out the other for a long time. In 2011, Trump entered the political scene making use of such divisiveness. At a CPAC meeting he announced that he was mulling over a presidential run and at the same time established his belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
The Birther Movement, a movement that questioned the citizenship of our first black president, was Donald Trump’s political calling card. That is, until 2015, when he officially announced his candidacy. At that point, Trump’s new political calling card was the otherization of Mexicans.
In his speech announcing his candidacy, Donald Trump railed against Mexicans, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Over the last 15 months Trump has continued to speak about Mexicans and immigrants in a degrading manner. Along the way he has also looped in divisive and insulting language about Muslims.
Trump’s running mate, Pence, is also no stranger to the divide and conquer political strategy. Pence has become the poster child of the anti-gay movement in supporting his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act that essentially said it was OK for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ persons.
The Trump-Pence presidential ticket is one that appeals to a base human tendency of Us vs. Them. Yes, it’s true that as humans, we automatically classify groups as either in-group or out-group and we have an innate cognitive in-group bias – it’s just how our mind works. But interaction, socialization, and education allows us to see past this primal stereotypic reaction and see cross-group commonalities.
Just a couple of years ago, the GOP in its 2012 election autopsy reportspoke about the need to foster these cross-group commonalities. The report wanted to bring in the others – blacks, Latinos, the LGBTQ community. That idea did not last long. The short-sighted strategy of stoking stereotypes and driving a wedge among people was just to easy to pass up.
Trump assures us he can make America Great Again. All that is needed is to divide out the good things and bad things, namely the Mexicans things, the Muslim things, and the gay things. The question is, in the end, what are we left with as a country once we get rid of all of the things Trump and Pence don’t approve of?