A Code Red for Our Democracy
Trump is running the Hitler speech and playbook. America needs to wake up.
I’m not an alarmist. I study facts and weigh trends, and I pay attention to signals. Many of those signals are positive, despite a few worrisome polls and general economic malaise. And I have uplifted those positive signals here in the hopes of alleviating anxiety.
But there are also moments when the danger signals are so strong and the disturbing facts so incontrovertible that I need to join in raising the alarm for the sake of our democracy. If we act collectively and with deep purpose, it is not too late to stop what is coming. But we must first see clearly what is coming.
So, deep breath.
This weekend’s speech and online statements by Donald Trump are such a moment. They are no less than a blaring Code Red for our democracy. It’s not MAGA bravado. It’s not Trump being Trump. It’s an unmistakable, open and unapologetic embrace of the fascist language and tactics used by Adolf Hitler in his rise to power.
We need to identify and understand it before we can fight it effectively.
Sometimes history repeats itself. And sometimes it does so nearly verbatim. Let’s take a closer look at what Trump said—in a speech written for him no doubt by the likes of Stephen Miller—and compare it to what we’ve heard before from the Nazi leader himself. You will probably conclude, as I and many others have, that this marks a dark turning point for his base of supporters and for our country.
A Veterans Day speech that assails and dehumanizes
One of the telltale signs of a fascist movement is when it dehumanizes the political opposition. This is a necessary step, in the eyes of fascists, in order to treat them as subhuman, meaning they lack the rights and freedoms “regular” humans have. From there it is but a few short but historically predictable steps toward political oppression, marginalization, group violence, collective punishment, and ultimately war and genocide.
In his nearly two-hour speech, delivered on Veterans Day in Claremont, New Hampshire, as part of his campaign to regain the presidency, Trump claimed he would “root out” his enemies, referring specifically to “the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country” who “lie and cheat and steal on elections.”
When I heard those words, I felt a chill. Like vermin? Hitler and the Nazis used the term in German frequently to describe Jews, as if they were parasites who spread disease. According to accounts at the time, Hitler once told the Czech foreign minister that the “vermin must be destroyed. The Jews are our sworn enemies, and at the end of this year, there will not be a Jew left in Germany.”
Historians quickly noted that the use of “vermin” is no coincidence. Wrote Michael Tomasky in The New Republic, “That’s an unusual word choice. It’s not a smear that one just grabs out of the air. And it appears in history chiefly in one context, and one context only.”
Trump repeated that threat in a Truth Social post, published also on Veterans Day, promising to “root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
The latest in a dangerous pattern
This isn’t the first time Trump targeted a group of people as disease-ridden. I remember well the attacks he made on the Chinese during the Covid-19 pandemic, which he called the “China Virus” and the “Kung Flu.” Those words led directly to random and sometimes even deadly assaults upon Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by total strangers. In my own neighborhood, I was accosted by a man who called me a “rat” to my face as I stood on a street corner waiting to cross. A Chinese friend and neighbor was chased into a parking garage as he walked his two toddlers around the block, the assailant yelling at them that they were “diseased.”
In a recent interview with the National Pulse, a right-leaning website, Trump claimed that undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country”—a statement aimed directly at his white supremacist followers. Once again, this closely tracks the words of Hitler. As Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the oldest Latino civil rights group in the country, observed, Hitler told Germans in Mein Kampf to “care for the purity of their own blood” by eliminating Jews.
Listen to Trump’s words. “It’s so bad, and people are coming in with disease,” Trump told the right-wing readership of the National Pulse. “People are coming in with every possible thing that you could have.”
Trump knows exactly what he is doing.
Trump has turned his dehumanizing language not just upon the judges, prosecutors and court staff involved with his many trials, which was bad and dangerous enough. He is now labeling all of his political opponents “vermin” and riling up his MAGA base over the idea that his enemies are like rats: unclean and diseased. He is assailing migrants as polluting and poisoning the nation’s blood. Such statements open the door wide to racist and political violence.
The case for the strongman
Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, whom we recently interviewed via an excellent Q & A session in The Big Picture, noted to the Washington Post that Trump’s use of “Communists, Marxists, Fascists” is classic authoritarian projection. He mentions all of these authoritarians “to set himself up as the deliverer of freedom,” Ben-Ghiat explained. But “Mussolini promised freedom to his people too and then declared dictatorship.”
Asked to comment, the official Trump spokesperson, Steven Cheung, didn’t set out to allay concerns. Cheung claimed that “those who try to make that ridiculous assertion are clearly snowflakes grasping for anything because they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome and their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.”
Entire existence will be crushed?
It is deeply ironic, and also intentional, that Trump assails and pledges to root out these evil authoritarian forces from within America while openly praising authoritarian strongmen outside of it, from Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping, Viktor Orbán to Kim Jong-un. Trump at once declares he will deliver America from the false authoritarian threat posed by the Democrats, while in the very next breath promising to be as authoritarian as any despot out there once he’s done.
The enemies within
Trump borrowed another talking point from Hitler in his speech. He warned that the danger to America didn’t come from the outside. Rather, he claimed, “The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.” He then tied this to his campaign for reelection. “Because if you have a capable, competent, smart, tough leader, Russia, China, North Korea, they’re not going to want to play with us.”
As an initial matter, this is a bit nonsensical. If the threat from the outside really is lesser than the internal one, it is logically because of the capabilities of the current leader in the White House, Joe Biden.
But even assuming Trump is projecting forward to the day he will return to the White House, what threat is he talking about? There is of course the Trump-manufactured threat of the Big Lie, which some 70 percent of Republicans still believe, that our democracy is being stolen by Communist Democrats using Venezuelan software. But beyond this, he is also talking about a supposed threat from millions of undocumented migrants within our country.
As I discussed on Sunday, the New York Times reported that Trump’s team is making plans to reinstitute and expand the anti-migrant policies from the time he was in office. These include the following draconian policies and actions:
conducting sweeping raids;
rounding up the undocumented;
detaining them in camps;
deporting people by the millions;
eliminating due process hearings;
ending humanitarian waivers;
canceling the visas of foreign students who protested against Israel;
restricting legal migration;
reinstating the Muslim ban;
refusing asylum claims on false grounds that migrants carry infectious diseases; and
ending birthright citizenship for children born to undocumented parents.
In short, Trump and his allies want to shred the U.S. Constitution, but will begin with the most vulnerable communities, targeting them with the entire power of the state and letting civil liberties and freedoms erode from there. It’s precisely what Hitler did, numbing the German people to the loss of their democracy and to acts of political violence and preparing them to permit the ultimate atrocities during the Holocaust.
Closing words by Trump
At the end of his speech, Trump evoked Hitler once more. He called for, “One people, one family, one glorious nation.” Historians recoiled. They knew that cadence immediately. Hitler used it when he called for, “One people, one realm, one leader.”
For years, many people have dismissed Trump’s use of Hitler’s words and methodologies as coincidental, even fanciful, but they would be wrong to do so. Trump is someone who has studied Hitler and wants to regain power and rule like him.
Listen to Trump’s former Chief of Staff, John Kelly, to whom Trump reportedly said, “Well, Hitler did do a lot of good things.” Trump also once railed to his military staff, “You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals…in World War II?”—meaning willing to do Hitler’s bidding without question. (Kelly promptly reminded Trump, who had apparently only studied the parts of modern German history he liked, that those generals had tried to kill Hitler three times.)
Listen to Trump’s late ex-wife, Ivana, who reportedly told her lawyer that Trump kept a copy of a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside.
For Trump, Hitler is a leader to be admired and copied, his playbook studied and ruthlessly deployed. He is now doing it in plain sight. And America needs to wake up to the danger.