Here's How Decades of Paranoid Urban Legends About Gang Violence Led Voters to Believe Trump's MS-13 Lies
President Donald Trump appears to have settled on a campaign strategy to defeat Democrats in the 2018 midterms and to justify his escalating efforts to kick out every non-white immigrant he can. He's told his base of aging white suburbanites and rural residents that a gang called MS-13 has overrun the country. It's unsafe even for white people to leave their homes, the president implies, lest they get murdered by roving bands of marauding Latino immigrants.
"A vote for the Democrats in November is a vote to let MS-13 run wild in our communities," Trump claimed in one of his who-are-you-calling-a-fascist rallies last week in Montana.
Despite this, the president doubled down on Friday, insisting on Twitter, "Every day, the brave men and women of ICE are liberating communities from savage gangs like MS-13."
In reality, there are about 10,000 members of this gang in the United States, a number that falls far short of the invading army that Trump suggests has conquered hundreds of American communities. And while Trump wants his followers to believe this alleged army of Latino gang members is murdering white folks left and right, the reality is that the people targeted by the gang for violence are nearly all Latino immigrants themselves.
Why is it, then, that so many white Americans are lapping up Trump's lies? They can open up their doors and see for themselves that their communities are not being occupied by MS-13. If they're still unsure, they can read their own paper and discover that the mass murders their president suggests are happening are nowhere to be seen.
Well, one major reason that many white conservatives are so ready to swallow these falsehoods is the decades-long hysteria over gang violence, which waxes and wanes but never really disappears. Through email forwards, gossip mills and social media posts, white people have traded lurid but false urban legends about how a cousin's friend's friend's sister heard about random gang violence aimed at strangers.
The website Snopes has been tracking urban legends about gangs — stories, typically false, that are passed by word of mouth — for decades now.
Brooke Binkowski, a researcher for Snopes, said when she first started out, the urban legends about gang violence had racial elements, but by and larger still functioned more as warnings, like, "Don’t stay out too late, otherwise the gang members will get you." Now, she says, the versions of the tales they gather have become more explicitly racist.
“All of the contemporary legends mentioning gang initiations contain several similar elements," folklorist Gail de Vos writes in her 2012 book "What Happens Next? Contemporary Urban Legends and Popular Culture." Those include "demands that the initiates commit violence against random strangers; the victims are most often women or children; the violence seems pointless and its only purpose is to fulfil the demands of the initiation rite; and gang members are frequently identified as members of ethnic minorities while their victims, implicitly if not explicitly, belong to the white majority.”
For instance, Snopes has collected email forwards claiming that gangs use dolls in car seats as bait to catch women as murder victims, that they set a quota of 31 women to kill on Halloween night, that they flash their headlights at random people and kill whoever flashes back, and many other stories in this vein. Many tales go back decades and resurface periodically in updated versions and different communities. Details change from telling to telling, but the basic parameters stay the same.
“It’s remarkable how little the stories change. It’s always about the ‘other’ bringing in disease and violence," Binkowski said.
One thing that does change, Binkowski said, is which specific racial or ethnic group is being accused of the violence. Right now, the gangs haunting white imaginations are primarily assumed to be Latino. In the past, the paranoia was primarily directed at African-Americans or, going back far enough, Chinese immigrants, who were subject to similar accusations of preying on white women in the 19th century.
There urban legends are ludicrous, free of any factual evidence and easily debunked by, but the very fact that they are spread by word of mouth is what gives them so much power. People are far more likely to trust in information they hear from friends and relatives than what they gather from supposedly neutral or objective sources.
When I was in high school myself, there was a national panic over gang warfare that reached levels of silliness rivaling the nonsense Trump spouts on the regular. To be clear, gangs were a problem in the 1990s in some communities, but the stories about them roaming suburban malls preying on white women were just as fanciful then as they are now. The hysteria got so out of control that my high school in rural Texas, which had fewer than 400 students, even got caught up in claims that "gang violence" was going on that we somehow weren't personally witnessing.
In 2008, Snopes noted another escalation of panic about gangs, which the site attributed to "a change in national leadership looming just over the horizon," a gentle way of suggesting that white people where panicking at the idea of a black president. Barack Obama and his family have since been targeted by a number of urban legends linking them to gangs, including a 2017 rumor that Malia Obama had been arrested "when she decided to join a gang of thugs in Chicago for a day of drinking, drugs and dogfighting at a public park in Chicago."
(Needless to say, this did not happen.)
Urban legends about gangs frequently get support from the right-wing media, directly or otherwise. Sites like Breitbart and Drudge reliably whip up hysteria about gangs, misleading their readers into thinking that they are in immediate danger from these groups. Over the years, Fox News has run stories falsely claiming, for instance, that young black people were randomly punching white people in an effort to knock them out, echoing urban legends about violent "gang initiation" practices.
Binkowski suggests that these racist urban legends are reinforced in a couple of key ways. First, there are TV and movies "where you rarely have a Latino character" that isn't portrayed as some kind of violent gangster. Then there are active propaganda efforts, conducted by the president himself as well as right-wing groups like the Remembrance Project that try to provide evidence that the urban legends are true.
One of Trump's favorite tactics is to flank himself with groups of mostly white people whose have had a family member killed by an undocumented immigrant. He did this, for instance, as a rebuttal to those who criticized his policy of separating parents and children at the border. These white people offer what appears to be visual proof that the urban legends are right, and MS-13 is killing random white people for sport. But digging into their unquestionably tragic stories, it quickly becomes evident that most have no real relationship to gang violence — some of them are literally accidents. It bears repeating that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native-born citizens, and that most murder victims are killed by someone they know.
In contrast, a large percentage of the people who are detained and treated like violent criminals for crossing the border without papers are genuinely victims of MS-13 and other gangs, and are trying to reach the United States to escape them. In that light, Trump is actually a great friend to MS-13: His crackdown on refugees is making it easier for the gang to terrorize people in Central America, where, unlike in small-town Montana or Iowa, gangs have real power.
Urban legends have been a part of human culture for centuries, and are frequently used to reinforce ugly social prejudices that can't be justified by facts. Under Trump's presidency, however, the situation has grown worse, as he is able to use his power and the bully pulpit to give credibility to stories that have no basis in reality. So millions of white people have become convinced, even in an era of historically low rates of violent crime in America, that their sleepy little suburbs are being invaded and controlled by invisible and imaginary gangs.