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Trump and the Legend of General Pershing

The Folklore That Emerged From the War on Terror

U.S. soldiers battling the Moro rebels in the Philippines. Wikimedia

On February 19, 2016, while boasting about his unrivaled toughness at a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina, Donald Trump suggested that he had a simple way to eradicate terrorism. “You know, I read a story, it’s a terrible story, but I’ll tell you,” he said to a crowd of supporters, before raising his voice and teasing, “Should I tell you, or should I not?” The audience cheered. Trump proceeded. In the last century, he said, U.S. General John J. Pershing—a “rough guy, rough guy”—had a “terrorism problem.” Trump didn’t mention where the story took place or say outright who the terrorists were, but he managed to make their identity clear. He referenced “swine and animals and pigs,” and said, “You know the story, OK? They don’t like that.”     

What Pershing did, he explained, was have his men line up 50 captured terrorists who had done “tremendous damage and killed many people” and shoot 49 of them with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. To the sole survivor, Pershing then said, “You go back to your people and you tell them what happened.” The crowd roared. Trump drove home his point. “For 25 years, there wasn’t a problem, OK?" he said. "So we better start getting tough, and we better start getting vigilant, and we better start using our heads, or we’re not going to have a country, folks.”

Trump retold the legend many times afterward, always with the same message: the enemy obeys no law, so the United States must be ruthless, stretching or disregarding the rules, or be defeated and humiliated. As he took the story on the road, Trump began mentioning that it took place in the Philippines. But the tale’s other details shifted a bit in transit. Sometimes Pershing’s men dumped rather than dipped the bullets into sliced-open pigs; sometimes they splashed blood around. Usually, Pershing would hand the fiftieth bullet to the spared terrorist, as a token of his provisional

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