By Dr. Jen Mercieca
He vowed to purge the nation of his enemies once he rose to power. He called his opposition “vermin,” “rats,” and “parasites.” He warned the nation that their enemies were corrupt and dangerous cheaters. The nation was humiliated. He was their only hope. He would be their redemption, he promised.
That was how Adolph Hitler campaigned in Germany. It’s also how Donald Trump is campaigning in the United States.
By now, you’ve heard that Trump did a fascism in his Veterans Day speech in Claremont, New Hampshire. You’re probably not terribly surprised that the candidate who has always relied on demagoguery and war rhetoric to gain power is once again using demagoguery and war rhetoric to gain power. This time he added more “oomph” to his attacks by using a little genocidal fascist “infestation” rhetoric: “We will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country,” Trump vowed in his speech, “that lie and steal and cheat on elections and will do anything possible, they’ll do anything, whether legal or illegally, to destroy America,” Trump warned ominously.
Of course, 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.
Don’t debate that because that’s the debate that Trump wants us to have heading into 2024. Trump would love for you to believe that he’s a powerful “strong man” like Hitler. He’s not. He’s a weak loser.
Actually, Hitler was also a weak loser who also wanted people to think that he was a strong man. So, in that way, Trump is just like Hitler, but that’s not what he thinks we’ll think when we think about Trump and Hitler. He thinks we (the peaceful non-Hitler lovers) will be scared. And he thinks that his followers—the ones who are already scared to death of all of the violent chaos and instability in the world, terrified that their nation is already being “invaded” by immigrants, and who are absolutely certain that violent crime is rampaging in their communities—will embrace him as the “strong leader” who will protect them and do what needs to be done to secure their safety.
“So what if that’s Hitleresque?” they’ll ask. “Maybe we need a Hitler?” they’ll wonder. “Trump is our Hitler!” They’ll think when they vote.
But can being compared to Hitler really help Trump? Yes. If we’re debating whether or not Trump is a vicious, violent, genocidal maniac like Hitler, then we’re not talking about him as a huge loser. It’s worse for Trump to be seen as a huge loser than to be seen as Hitler.
Trump is in a really bad position. He’s leading the Republican primary, but with him as its head, his party lost big in the 2023 elections (again). His four court cases are proceeding along, three of which will most likely be decided before he could become president. In one case last week, he was forced to testify that he lied (repeatedly) so that he would look richer than he really was (or is). His Truth Social reported $73 million in losses to date. Fancy hotels want to get rid of Trump’s name. Trump’s brand is looking bleak and weak. He may even go to prison.
The only hope he has of keeping a semblance of his brand/fortune is by becoming president. That’s why he’s so desperate to win in 2024, so very desperate. The only way for him to become president is if his followers believe the charade that he’s a “strong man” tough guy who doesn’t put up with “crap” from other nations or the Democratic Party. Is he desperate enough to run an “elect me and I’ll be the new Hitler” campaign? Yes, he’s that desperate.
Accusing someone of being like Hitler is typically a logical fallacy—Reductio ad Hitlerum—but in Trump’s case, being like Hitler might actually be his campaign strategy.
Could it work? Absolutely. This is the three-step recipe for a fascist take-over of any nation, and why it works:
Step One: erode democracy by normalizing fascist ways of thinking, acting, and communicating so that what was once unthinkable (civil war, voting for Hitler) begins to seem like “common sense.” Punish those who refuse to comply with the new “normal” (attack, threaten, demand loyalty, ostracize, kill).
Why it Works: Right-Wing Authoritarian followers respond to a Socially Dominant (fascist) leader. They want order and hierarchy. Scholars estimate that about 40% of the population have “Right-Wing Authoritarian tendencies,”—meaning they have an innate disposition for hierarchy and order and a willingness to “join the posse” to defend group norms. These kinds of folks want to give power to a Socially Dominant leader (like Trump).
Step Two: Create a closed media ecosystem that circulates scary news, outrage, and conspiracy so that your followers believe that the world is dangerous and dangerously unstable. Blame your opposition for everything going “wrong” and promise to restore order.
Why it Works: The amygdala is the part of your brain that responds to stress and perceived threats in your environment. Psychologist Daniel Goleman called the emotional overreaction to stress an “amygdala hijack.” When a scary or stressful situation occurs, your amygdala floods your brain and body with stress hormones that short-circuit or “hijack” your frontal lobes. It’s also known as your body’s “fight or flight” response—a natural response to danger that typically helps people to survive dangerous situations—the amygdala hijack temporarily disables rational, reasonable, and more time-consuming responses to stressful events. Research in media studies, psychology, sociology, and other fields has established that media (print, radio, television, cable, podcasts, etc.) overrepresent crime news and other kinds of crime content. Consuming all that crime content leads to people cultivating what researchers call a “Mean World Syndrome,” in which they overestimate how likely they are to be victims of crime. Experiencing the kind of negative emotions (fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, disgust, outrage, anger, jealousy, frustration) elicited by consuming right-wing media can activate an amygdala hijack just as easily as seeing a bear while hiking in the woods can—and it does.
Step Three: Induce the “disgust” response by framing your opposition as enemy objects and shame your Right-Wing Authoritarian followers with tales of their and your humiliation at the hands of your corrupt enemy.
Why it Works: Disgust is different from fear or outrage. It’s an energizing emotion that demands action, the action of removing whatever is disgusting and getting it as far away from us as possible. Using “Devil Terms” like “groomer” or “vermin” means you position the opposition as unquestionably and irredeemably bad things, as not even human. Those disgusting, bad things must be purged for the nation to be pure and to restore safety for the people who matter.
Trump, his enablers in the Republican Party, and the rightwing media ecosystem have already normalized fascism, have already hijacked his followers’ amygdalas, and have already induced disgust and shame in his followers. All he needs to do now is sit back and wait for someone(s) to posse up and do the deeds of death—or, at minimum, vote for him for president.
But is he really running as America’s new Hitler? Well, consider this: he said those genocidal words, knowing that they are likely to get folks killed. His campaign is leaking stories about how his second term is going to be fascist (installing “loyalists,” purging “scary” outsiders, and restoring “order” are high priorities). And when the news reported on Trump’s fascist plans, his son responded, “They say it like it’s a bad thing,” and his propaganda team amplified the news reports throughout their social media feeds.
All of this points to his 2024 strategy: he’s running as Hitler because it’s better to be thought of as a “strong man” than as a loser.