Resolute Square

Trump's Latest Speech Echoes Fascist Rhetoric

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes about Trump's latest speech and his convincing Mussolini and Hitler impressions - dehumanizing his enemies using their tried and true tactics that led to genocide.
Published:November 16, 2023
Share

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Former President Donald Trump REALLY does not want you to call him a Fascist. Being compared to old-school dictators such as Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini makes him and his handlers crazy: he even sued CNN for defamation over this issue (a Trump-appointed judge dismissed the lawsuit). So why is he using Fascist rhetoric?

If you've read the news lately, you'll know that Trump went to New Hampshire on Veterans Day and delivered a news-making speech that included a "pledge" to "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.” 

The demagogue at work. Trump speaks at a campaign event in Hialeah, FL, Nov, 2023. Credit: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

As I argued in a recent Lucid essay, violence is now Trump's brand. To that end, he conjures existential threats to the nation from non-White immigrants and an expanding cast of internal enemies, calls the thugs who are in prison for assaulting the Capitol on Jan. 6 "political prisoners," and praises autocrats such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin who depend on propaganda, corruption, and repression to stay in power.

All of this is part of his effort to re-educate Americans to see violence as justified, patriotic, and even morally righteous.

But to get people to lose their aversion to violence, savvy authoritarians also dehumanize their enemies. That’s what Trump is doing. Hitler used this ploy from the very start, calling Jews the “black parasites of the nation” in a 1920 speech. By the time Hitler got into power in 1933 and translated dehumanizing rhetoric into repressive policies, Germans had heard these messages for over a decade.

As a historian of autocracy with a specialization in Italian Fascism, the use of the "vermin" image got my attention. Mussolini used similar language in his 1927 Ascension Day speech which laid out Fascism's intention to subject leftists and others to "prophylaxis" measures to defend the Italian state and society from their nefarious influences.

By the time Il Duce delivered this landmark address, the dictatorship had been in place for two years, and opposition politicians and the press were in prison or had gone into exile. That did not stop him from talking about killing "rodents who carry infectious diseases from the East: the East that brings us lovely things, such as yellow fever and Bolshevism."

Mussolini loved to make jokes in his speeches to Parliament, and this one elicited laughter —or so says the official transcript. He is speaking about actual rats but, as the Bolshevism comment makes clear, also about Communists. “We remove these individuals from circulation just like a doctor does with an infected person,” he concluded chillingly about leftists and other targeted categories of people.

Trump's recent comment about undocumented immigrants "polluting the blood of our country" is in the same vein, as are the ideas circulating among his 2025 advance team to deport millions of immigrants and "quarantine" others in massive camps.

Typically, Trump and his advisors took exception to being called out for deploying Fascist rhetoric, resorting to threats that simply strengthened the case against them. As the Washington Post reported, Trump's campaign spokesman Steven Cheung had this to say about those (like me) who make such comparisons: "their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House."

Only later did Cheung apparently realize that using Fascist language was unhelpful and claimed that he meant to say their “sad, miserable existence" instead of their “entire existence" —whatever that means.

Some will note that Trump includes Fascists as well as Communists among the "vermin" to be "rooted out" of America. This is classic authoritarian doublespeak. He has to set himself up as the bearer of freedom against all forms of tyranny, even as he signals to left and right-wing autocrats that he will be their staunch ally if he manages to win his "final battle" and return to the White House.

"When two irreducible elements are locked in a struggle, the only solution is force," Mussolini said on Jan. 3, 1925, as he declared the start of dictatorship in Italy. America may never become a one-party state on the classic Fascist model, but Trump and his GOP enablers carry forth this Fascist mentality. We must take their speech seriously as declarations of intent to wreck American democracy and engage in persecution on a large scale as part of that process.

Related

  • From FBI Director to Novelist
    The Enemies List

    Rick Wilson's The Enemies List

    James Comey writes fiction! On the show today, the former FBI Director joins to discuss his latest novel, "Westport." They explore the inspiration behind Comey's second foray into fiction, drawing from his time at a hedge fund and his experiences in law enforcement. The conversation dives into the current political landscape, focusing on the high-profile trials of Donald Trump and their implications for the rule of law. Comey shares his insights on the importance of the DOJ and FBI's independence, the potential consequences of politicizing these institutions, and his outlook on upcoming legal battles.
    May 22, 2024
  • Donald's Imaginary Friends
    Rick Wilson on Trump's love affair with a fictional serial killer: "Lecter is everything Trump isn’t. Brilliant, profoundly worldly, educated, tightly, disciplined, and sophisticated a level Trump would achieve in 1000 years."
    May 15, 2024
  • It’s Just Trump Being Trump
    Lisa Senecal writes, "The problem isn’t that we don’t believe that everything Trump says or does is 'just Trump being Trump,' it’s that we do believe it. It is Trump. It is who he is. All of it. That’s the f*cking problem!"
    May 9, 2024
  • Normalizing the Abnormal: How Trump Has Affected the Mental Health of the United States
    What is the impact of Donald Trump's presidency on the mental health of the United States? Brian Daitzman delves into the psychological bond between Trump and his followers, the mental health diagnoses among QAnon followers, the mental distress caused by Trump's policies, and the societal consequences of divisive politics.
    April 25, 2024
  • The Horror of Trump's Potential Return
    The Enemies List

    Rick Wilson's The Enemies List

    Trump will be the next president, according to today's guest, if we do not learn the lessons of the past. On this episode Rick connects with author of the book "Blowback" and a vocal critic of Donald Trump, Miles Taylor. They dive into the potential dangers of a second Trump presidency, particularly focusing on the drastic changes he could impose on American democracy and government functionality. Taylor elaborates on his concerns about Trump's vindictive use of power, the politicization of civil services, and the shift in foreign policy towards autocratic regimes. The episode serves as a warning and a call to action, urging us to recognize and respond to the threats posed by a possible Trump re-election to our democracy.
    April 24, 2024