Last week, the Trump administration moved to revoke the Temporary Protected Status of some 200,000 Salvadorans currently living in the United States. Officially, the TPS designation has permitted non-resident Salvadorans to live in the United States legally ever since the 2001 Salvadoran earthquake. In practice, however, TPS has acted as a de facto asylum program for Salvadorans who fled their country’s brutal civil war (worsened in large part by U.S. dollars and training) in the 1980s. There are currently hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans known to be living in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia region—many of them subject to the TPS designation. The revocation of their protected status will tear apart families, some of whom have lived in the United States for decades, and now generations. It will damage the economy of the D.C. Metropolitan area for years to come, and likely place a terrific burden on the economy of El Salvador if deportations proceed.
Of course, there’s the usual naked racism and paranoid xenophobia that we’ve come to expect from Donald Trump lurking behind the revocation of Salvadoran TPS. But I believe the administration’s prejudiced gaze has turned to the Salvadoran population in particular due to a peculiar confluence of the president’s gluttonous television consumption, and the arresting visual style of El Salvador’s most notorious criminal gang, MS-13.
It’s also a television producer’s dream come true. The sheer abundance of MS-13 nightmare fuel, in the form of photos and videos, means that it is always easy to whack together a sensationalistic 3-minute segment sure to lure in viewers.
Fox News has taken this strategy to the bank. Statistics measuring airtime devoted to gang coverage are not available. But a domain-specific Google search lists approximately 6,000 returns for “MS-13” at FoxNews.com, and a whopping 14,900 at Breitbart.com, compared to 1,580 at msnbc.com and 2,260 at Salon.com. Granted, that’s a thumbnail comparison—larger and older sites will yield higher search results due to sheer volume of content. And centrist and liberal sources like CNN.com and HuffingtonPost also have to answer for their sensational coverage of the gang, especially now that this coverage is impacting the lives of innocent Salvadorans here in the U.S.
Caveats aside, it’s clear that conservative media devotes an inordinate amount of coverage to a gang that poses effectively zero threat to its elderly, white audience. And given that the president watches upwards of eight hours of TV per day, it’s impossible he has not been influenced by these images.
I have sympathy for the photographers who produce this imagery as an aestheticized depiction of gang life. There’s no denying the allure of the outlaw and the demonic—or the human need to confront those qualities artistically. But it’s clear that this art is being exploited toward the goal of stoking fear and racial paranoia, and that our president is happy to play along.