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
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.”
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.
Today on The Enemies List, Rick is joined by former Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger. Together, they explore Kinzinger's journey from GOP member to a renegade figure in the party, his involvement in the January 6 hearings, and the insights shared in his book, "Renegade: Defending Democracy and Liberty in Our Divided Country." This conversation offers a compelling glimpse into our tumultuous political landscape and its implications.
"Trump’s staff has quasi-denied that his fascist turn of phrase is actually fascist—they did it with a wink by threatening fascist violence. We’re once again debating whether or not Trump is literally or figuratively Hitler. Don’t debate that," writes Dr. Jen Mercieca.
With a cast of GOP primary characters like Pence, DeSantis, Christie, Haley, and Ramaswamy, can anyone derail the Trump Train on its way to the general election? Rick Wilson and Niall Stanage, associate editor of The Hill, analyze the challengers’ strategies and just how slim to none their chances of beating Trump are.