If an autocrat from another nation toured America and recommended that the US president use the power of the state to punish his perceived enemies and root out the supposed socialists and communists and other “vermin,” we’d consider him a ridiculous figure who doesn’t understand our country — and marvel at his antidemocratic buffoonery.
If an aspiring strongman embarked on those pernicious practices in his own nation, we’d worry that despotism was taking root in that benighted land. But we’d reassure ourselves that it could never happen here.
Yet it is now being advocated here. Former president Donald Trump has crossed a red line into championing what we’d recognize as full-flung fascism if it came from the mouth of a foreign leader. It demonstrates just how inured we’ve become to Trump’s despicable despotic rhetoric that he’s not ostracized or treated like a renegade to the US Constitution and American democracy. Instead, he remains the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
In that role, he obviously feels comfortable espousing views that go well beyond anything he said in his 2016 or 2020 campaigns.
“I think what he is trying to do is normalize this,” John Dean, Watergate whistleblower and author, with Bob Altemeyer, of “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers,” said in an interview. “It is such abnormal and radical behavior that I think the media is doing a great disservice when they don’t explain that. The media should be calling it out.”
Consider the divisive demagoguery Trump spouted in a Saturday speech in New Hampshire. “Today, especially, in honor of our great veterans on Veterans Day, 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 and will do anything possible — they’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream,” he said.
This is abject nonsense. It was Trump and his auto-coup cabal, of course, who tried to purloin the 2020 election, starting with the enormous falsehood about the presidential election having been stolen from him.
Trump’s language is obviously designed to appeal to Americans with an authoritarian inclination, which, sadly, is not at all uncommon in America. As Dean notes, authoritarianism has been widely studied since World War II.
An authoritarian inclination is in part an inherited aspect of personality, with as much as a third of the population having those tendencies, according to political psychologist Karen Stenner, author of “The Authoritarian Dynamic.” Followers of authoritarians are distressed by differences, diversity, and discord, and favor norms that reinforce shared values and underscore unity and conformity. Because they perceive multiple threats on the horizon, they are easily rallied to the banner of an aspiring autarch who promises to protect them from those feared menaces.
A skilled demagogue, Trump knows how to manipulate those fears. Thus his 2015 claim that those crossing the southern border illegally are “criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” Or his recent claims that countries are “emptying out their prisons and . . . their mental institutions” and sending those former inmates and occupants to the United States, where they are “poisoning the blood of our country.”
As historians have noted, Trump’s use of terms like “vermin” and his assertion that our national bloodstream is being poisoned echo Adolf Hitler.
But it’s important to note this new change in Trump’s rhetoric. As he readies plans to go after his enemies should he be reelected, Trump has shifted his emphasis from alleged outside threats to alleged internal enemies.
“The real threat is not from the radical right; the real threat is from the radical left, and it’s growing every day, every single day. The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within,” he said.
Is there an epiphanic antidote to Trump’s poisoning of our political dialogue, some way to make a significant percentage of Trump followers realize what they’ve gotten swept up in? Probably not, sadly. Indeed, at least according to polls, much of MAGA would stay with him even if Trump were to be convicted of federal felonies.
Yet there is a larger solution: the rest of us.
“If there’s a straight up and down vote, I don’t believe that Americans want to have a dictatorship,” said Dean. But as he notes, pro-democracy Americans need to turn out in big numbers, which they don’t always do. “So that’s the risk and that’s the problem — and we have to come to grips with it,” Dean said.
And how do you do that?
“You vote them out of power,” said Dean. “You keep them out of power.”