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Trump is a clear and present danger

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump hold up signs as he delivers remarks at a campaign event on Nov. 11, 2023 in Claremont, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
A supporter of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump hold up signs as he delivers remarks at a campaign event on Nov. 11, 2023 in Claremont, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Donald Trump faces 91 criminal counts in four different jurisdictions, and a civil fraud case that may put him out of business. So how has the former president — that bastion of rational thought and decorum — responded?

By saying the following, both at a rally and online:

We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections.

When reporters reached out to the Trump campaign to see if he might want to walk back this statement, with its clear echoes of fascism, the response was about as subtle as a Nazi salute. A spokesman named Steven Cheung pledged that Trump’s critics would “be crushed” once he returns to the White House.

It doesn’t take an expert linguist to recognize what’s called “eliminationist rhetoric.” As the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes, “calling people ‘vermin’ was used effectively by Hitler and Mussolini to dehumanize people and encourage their followers to engage in violence.”

That’s not the only sign that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are now lurching toward fascism. Beyond his harsh words are stark and clear plans, outlined in policy papers and slavishly described by allies, to place the Justice Department and other independent federal agencies under control of a Trump White House. If reelected, Trump would seek to use the military to quell protests against him. In short: he would use the powers of the state to persecute his perceived enemies, or anyone he considers disloyal — civil rights be damned.

Trump’s escalation into openly fascistic rhetoric is not just some new ploy for attention ... It is a calculated effort to activate the violent fantasies of a population that is already primed to do so.

His vision of governance boils down to his core belief that “I have the right to do whatever I want as president” — the precise mindset of a dictator.

Just a few days ago, more detailed plans leaked for a second Trump term, including the construction of camps for millions of immigrants and the use of the military to conduct mass raids and deportations of undocumented workers.

Trump, who launched his campaign by accusing Mexicans of being “rapists” is now telling right-wing websites that migrants who come to America to work are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

You might expect GOP stalwarts — at least those who are Jewish, or first- and second-generation immigrants — to stand up at this point and declare Trump too dangerous and unhinged to run for office.

But having by now excused the violent mob that raged through the Capitol at Trump’s behest three years ago, and the coup he attempted to orchestrate with his band of traitorous legal loons, the vast majority of Republicans will simply ignore the elephant in the room — even if it is now wrapped in a swastika.

One question worth asking is this: Why is Trump embracing fascist language? As the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nomination, shouldn’t he be appealing to suburban moderates rather than white supremacists?

Part of the answer is that Trump is a revenge candidate; like all demagogues, he tells his supporters whom to hate rather than what he’s going to do to improve their lives.

So yes, he’s clearly trying to intimidate his enemies. But he’s mostly trying to rile up his conservative base, many of whom have been using this kind of fascistic language for years.

I know this first-hand, because back in 2010, I started receiving emails from conservatives in response to my left-leaning editorials. One correspondent said that the picture of my infant daughter on my website “looked like a maggot.” Another declared (in all capital letters): “YOU HAVE NO RIGHT LIVING HERE UNDER THE PROTECTION OF MEN AND WOMEN OF HONOR AND RESPECTABILITY WHILE YOU ARE NOTHING BUT A LOWLY, COWARDLY, INSECT!!”

Still another suggested that if “you liberals get your way and let others take down our country I wouldn’t be sorry at all that you would end up in a work camp.”

I was so struck by the extremism of this language that I compiled these notes into a book called “Letters from People Who Hate Me.”

I’ve thought about the men who wrote these words a lot over the past few days. Because it’s important that Americans understand what’s happening here.

Trump’s escalation into openly fascistic rhetoric is not just some new ploy for attention: It’s not just Trump being Trump. It is a calculated effort to activate the violent fantasies of a population that is already primed to do so.

The Fourth Estate has a role to play here, as well. As in 2016 and 2020, mainstream media outlets have thus far fixated on horse race journalism: poll numbers, Joe Biden’s age, the alleged crimes and relentless trolling of our petulant ex-president. But they haven’t made Trump’s radical plans to transform our democracy central to their reporting. It’s on institutions like the New York Times and CNN and NPR to help their audiences — American voters — understand what’s at stake in the 2024 election.

The longer Trump remains the central figure in our realpolitik, the more lonely, aggrieved, heavily-armed Americans may decide that bloodshed is a vital and necessary political tool. Trumpism has the potential to make the McCarthyism of the 1950s look like child’s play, to render the riot on January 6 as prologue to an era of permanent civil unrest.

Ask yourself a few simple questions:

What will happen if Trump loses a close presidential election next year? Will he accept the results? What will he urge his followers to do? How many of them will use violence to exact revenge on fellow Americans whom they regard as sub-human?

Now ask yourself one more question: What if Trump wins?

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Instagram .

Related:

Headshot of Steve Almond

Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond’s new book, “Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow” will be out in 2024.

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