The “rat” metaphor has a long history. The nocturnal rodent is often a symbol for death, corruption, evil, disease, gluttony, greed, infestation, fear, terror, darkness, torture, filth, and pollution. Dreams with rats in them are usually called nightmares.
Rats in Europe came from Central Asia in merchant boats. The rodents carried the fleas that carried the bubonic and pneumonic plague bug that decimated cities from Florence, Italy to London from 1300 well into the late 1600s. Italian Giovanni Boccaccio writes his Decameron in 1348 about Florentines escaping a rat-based plague that wiped out one-third of Europe’s population. French writer Albert Camus follows 600 years later with The Plague about the plight of city dwellers during a fictional and symbolic rat-based epidemic in post-World War II colonial Algeria.
Rats were a universal torture of World War I. Millions of trench rats swarmed defensive tunnels thriving on human waste and detritus. English, French, American, and German soldiers learned everything to know about rat life.
"Break of Day in the Trenches" by Isaac Rosenberg, a British private killed toward the end of the war, expresses “trench rat irony.” At dawn, the poet watches a “queer sardonic rat” “leap my hand.” Rosenberg ponders, “Now you have touched this English hand/You will do the same to a German/Soon…”
Of course, German corporal Adolf Hitler learned the same World War I rat lessons as Rosenberg. So did his colleague Hermann Goering who spent his first year in the war in the trenches before he sickened and turned to the Luftwaffe to resume his military career.
It was easy and common for Hitler and Goering, and their younger propagandist Joseph Goebbels, to associate rats and vermin with disease, corruption, evil, and death. They pinned the imagery on the people they wanted to eliminate or enslave: Jews, Roma, gays, intellectuals, religious figures, enemy military officers from Poland, and Bolshevik Soviets including the peoples of the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Russia. The rat symbol justified murder.
The term “ghetto” comes from Italy where Jews lived in a segregated area in Venice beginning in 1516. Nazis took up ghetto segregation in World War II in cities across Germany and eastern Europe. The Polish ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz were notorious for rat infestations. Nazi administration guaranteed there was an abundance of waste and remains for the rats to feed on.
Some in America characterize the nation’s inner cities as ghettos of rat infestations, as if rats aren’t ubiquitous. It’s this long-lived imagery that President Donald Trump calls on when he twittered about U.S. Congressman Elijah Cummings as representing a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Trump added, “if he (Cummings) spent more time in Baltimore maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”
Certainly ghettos in the U.S. are associated with poor people of color and new immigrants, usually also people of color, from around the world. American ghettos exist in large part because of historical segregation patterns, reinforced by the red lining of post World War II neighborhoods. The urban slang attached to these neighborhoods relies on vermin for its slurs: “ghetto rat,” “hood rat,” and “ratter.” Then there’s “that’s so ghetto.”
Many Americans grow up with these associations. For Trump from New York City, they are deeply embedded. He has spread them. He has ensured that our youngest generation will know them. That much is inescapable.
Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.