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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump’s dire words raise new fears about his authoritarian bent

Supporters of former president Donald Trump during a campaign event at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., on Nov. 11, 2023. Crowds at Trump’s events have generally affirmed his calls to drive out the political establishment, to destroy the “fake news media” and to remake government agencies like the Justice Department.

By Michael C. Bender and Michael Gold

Donald Trump rose to power with political campaigns that largely attacked external targets, including immigration from predominantly Muslim countries and from south of the United States-Mexico border.

But now, in his third presidential bid, some of his most vicious and debasing attacks have been leveled at domestic opponents.

During a Veterans Day speech, Trump used language that echoed authoritarian leaders who rose to power in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, degrading his political adversaries as “vermin” who needed to be “rooted out.”

“The threat from outside forces,” Trump said, “is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within.”

This turn inward has sounded new alarms among experts on autocracy who have long worried about Trump’s praise for foreign dictators and disdain for democratic ideals. They said the former president’s increasingly intensive focus on perceived internal enemies was a hallmark of dangerous totalitarian leaders.

Scholars, Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans are asking anew how much Trump resembles current strongmen abroad and how he compares to authoritarian leaders of the past. Perhaps most urgently, they are wondering whether his rhetorical turn into more fascist-sounding territory is just his latest public provocation of the left, an evolution in his beliefs or the dropping of a veil.

“There are echoes of fascist rhetoric, and they’re very precise,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor at New York University who studies fascism. “The overall strategy is an obvious one of dehumanizing people so that the public will not have as much of an outcry at the things that you want to do.”

Trump’s shift comes as he and his allies devise plans for a second term that would upend some of the long-held norms of American democracy and the rule of law.

These ambitions include using the Justice Department to take vengeance on his political rivals, plotting a vast expansion of presidential power and installing ideologically aligned lawyers in key positions to bless his contentious actions.

Trump’s allies dismiss the concerns as alarmism and cynical political attacks.

Steven Cheung, a campaign spokesperson, responded to criticism of the “vermin” remarks by saying it came from reactive liberals whose “sad, miserable existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.” Cheung did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Some experts on authoritarianism said that while Trump’s recent language has begun to more closely resemble that used by leaders like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, he does not quite mirror fascist leaders of the past. Still, they say, he does exhibit traits similar to current strongmen like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Trump’s relatively isolationist views run counter to the hunger for empire and expansion that characterized the rule of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. As president, he was never able to fully wield the military for political purposes, meeting resistance when he sought to deploy troops against protesters.

“It’s too simplistic to reference him as a neofascist or autocrat or whatever — Trump is Trump, and he has no particular philosophy that I’ve seen after four years as president,” said former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Republican who served in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet after 12 years as a senator from Nebraska.

Still, Trump’s campaign style is “damn dangerous,” Hagel said.

“He continues to push people into corners and give voice to this polarization in our country, and the real danger is if that continues to bubble up and take hold of a majority of Congress and statehouses and governorships,” Hagel went on. “There must be compromise in a democracy because there’s only one alternative — that’s an authoritarian government.”

Trump’s attacks sweep from the highest echelons of politics to low-level bureaucrats whom he has deemed insufficiently loyal.

He has insinuated that the nation’s top military general should be executed and called for the “termination” of parts of the Constitution. If he wins back the White House, he has said, he would have “no choice” but to imprison political opponents.

He has tested the legal system with broadsides against the integrity of the judiciary, railing against prosecutors, judges and, more recently, a law clerk in his New York fraud trial as “politically biased” and “out of control.”

Crowds at Trump’s events have generally affirmed his calls to drive out the political establishment and to destroy the “fake news media.” Supporters do not flinch when he praises leaders including Orban, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Standing amid nearly two dozen American flags at an Independence Day celebration in South Carolina in July, Trump promised retribution against Biden and his family.

“The gloves are off,” he said. The crowd unleashed a resounding cheer.

Supporters roared in approval when Trump called Democrats in Washington “a sick nest of people that needs to be cleaned out, and cleaned out immediately.”

While Trump’s fan base remains solidly behind him, his return to the White House may be decided by how swing voters and moderate Republicans respond to his approach. In 2020, those voters tanked his bid in five key battleground states, and dealt Republicans defeats in last year’s midterm elections and this month’s legislative contests in Virginia.

But Trump and his team have been energized by signs that such voters so far appear to be more open to his 2024 campaign. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found Trump leading Biden in five of the most competitive states.

Biden has often sought to paint Trump as extreme, saying recently that the former president was using language that “echoes the same phrases used in Nazi Germany.” Biden also pointed to xenophobic remarks that Trump made last month during an interview with The National Pulse, a conservative website, in which he said immigrants were “poisoning the blood” of America.

“There’s a lot of reasons to be against Donald Trump, but damn, he shouldn’t be president,” Biden said at a fundraiser in San Francisco.

Worries about Trump extend to some Republicans, though they are a minority in the party.

“He’s absolutely ratcheting it up, and it’s very concerning,” said former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 against Trump. “There’s just no limit to the anger and hatred in his rhetoric, and this kind of poisonous atmosphere has lowered our standards and hurts our country so much.”

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