Tuesday, November 14, 2023


As part of his never-ending quest for attention, Donald Trump has recently been using language that echoes Nazi rhetoric -- calling his political opponents "vermin," promising that he'll "root out" these enemies, warning that the "threat is from within." Some media outlets didn't respond to this with alarm and were accused of "normalizing" Trump, as if that ship didn't sail years ago. (At this point, with one presidential term under his belt and another one likely, maybe we need to accept that Donald Trump is normal in America -- that, despite President Biden's denials, Trump is "who we are.")

The press eventually did express concern about Trump's words. The headline in The Washington Post was "Trump Calls Political Enemies ‘Vermin,’ Echoing Dictators Hitler, Mussolini." The New York Times (belatedly) and Joe Scarborough joined the condemnation. So now the press isn't "normalizing" this rhetoric.

It may not make any difference. The country seems prepared to vote on two issues: consumer prices and whether the current president looks like an oblivious Mr. Magoo in news clips. To most Americans, nothing else matters. Maybe I'm too pessimistic and this really will make the scales fall from some potential Trump voters' eyes, though over the past eight years, nothing has.

But we do need to talk about it. We should be worried about Trump's Nazi rhetoric primarily because it makes clear that he's being advised by people -- Stephen Miller in particular -- whose principal response to the Nazis is envy. This specific language is coming from them, not from Trump.

(Yes, I know that Trump reportedly had a book of Hitler speeches by his bedside many years ago, but come on -- it was a book. Do you really think he read it? Maybe he paged through it, but can you imagine him studying it? By contrast, Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon have clearly studied Hitler. They knew what they were invoking when, I presume, they recommended these words and phrases to Trump. I don't believe Trump knew.)

The fact that Trump's advisers want him to sound like a Nazi suggests that they genuinely want him to act like one when he's back in the White House. The fact that Trump enthusiastically recites the words they recommend suggests that he might carry out the policies they recommend.

"Vermin" is new for Trump. It isn't his go-to dehumanization word. In his years on Twitter, he never used it. He didn't use it in any of his public utterances as president.

Trump's favorite dehumanization word is "animal." In 2018, during an immigration roundtable, Trump referred to members of the Salvadoran crime organization MS-13 as "animals." When he was criticized for this language, he promised to keep using the word, and the White House issued a statement that called Ms-13 members "animals" eight times. (The headline of this official presidential document was "What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13.")

The words "animal" and "animals" appeared frequently in Trump's Twitter feed -- in reference to terrorists, headline-grabbing murderers, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad ("Animal Assad"), and people who attack Confederate statues.

Some journalists criticized this dehumanizing language, but the criticism had little impact on how voters perceived Trump -- those who loathed him agreed with the criticism, while those who didn't waved it off, often using the dismissive phrase "mean tweets" (short for "I can put up with a few mean tweets if that's what it takes to save our country.")

Maybe the response to Trump's new language will be different -- but I worry that we're still looking for the nonexistent magic bullet that will bring him down, the way we argue that Trump could have been beaten in this year's primaries (or the 2016 primaries) if someone had just found the right way to "take Trump on."

Let's keep talking about the Nazi language and the totalitarian plans for the second term. It might change some minds. But I won't be surprised if an "abnormalized" Trump is just as popular as the normalized one.

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