Trump’s Language Is Paving the Way*


Donald Trump is now using the fascist rhetoric of the 1930s. He obviously and quite deliberately intends to shift the boundaries of public discourse.

Donald Trump has always used simple language. In an effort to fire up voters for the year ahead, during a Veterans Day speech in New Hampshire, however, Trump crossed the line between the simple and the perfidious in a new way by drawing on fascist rhetoric. He spoke about his intention to “root out […] vermin” within the country, he explicitly singled out “the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs” — language that, with the exception of the word “fascists,” might easily have come from a 1930s or 1940s-era Nazi speech. The parallels with his choice of language are reason to fear that he means exactly what he says. In any case, his rhetoric bears an increasing resemblance to that of autocrats and dictators.

The National Socialists in Germany became virtual experts at promoting the dehumanization of their opponents through propaganda. Comparisons to animals were commonplace, especially descriptions of Jews or political opponents as parasites and pests. Rhetorical comparisons with the natural world first became popular in the 19th century. At that time, they were not designed to incite hatred, but served as harmless metaphorical devices. Gradually, however, antisemitic groups and above all, the Nazis, imported terms from the biological domain into the societal sphere with a view to establishing a hierarchy of “Menschen” (humans) and “Untermenschen” (literally “sub-humans”) in the popular consciousness. The historian and archivist Alex Bein illustrated this process in the 1960s by placing humans at the top and subdividing animals into useful and useless creatures below.

The interminable, repeated labeling of Jews and regime critics as “vermin” was intended to firmly plant the belief that these individuals were not human. Thus, National Socialists prepared to attack these people by laying the groundwork to legitimize their actions. The Nazis began by creating an ideological language, which served as the basis for ideas and, ultimately, action.

Of course, such blatant parallels are designed to provoke a reaction. President Joe Biden and a number of historians immediately accused Trump of resorting to Nazi rhetoric and, while there was undoubtedly a pressing need to do so, it had the drawback of handing Trump his next move. At first, a Trump spokesman stated that critics of Trump’s remarks were “snowflakes [… whose] entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.” The spokesman later amended the phrase “entire existence” to “sad, miserable existence.”

Tyrants Were Ever Thus — No Matter the Time or Place

As if that change made Trump’s words any less intimidating. By making such comparisons, in such language, Trump and his team have dialed up the rhetoric to a new degree. A year ago, Trump announced he would even revoke sections of the Constitution in the event he returned to office, something he later claimed was merely insinuated by his opponents. Since then, he has declared he wants to overhaul the judicial system. Thus, Trump is already planning the destruction of democratic institutions, at least rhetorically. Whether or not he succeeds is another question. Yet he is following the precedent set by many an autocrat and tyrant, who invariably announced such plans in very precise terms. By the same token, Trump supporters follow in the tradition of people in other countries who enabled a candidate like Trump to take office either because they failed to take such a candidate seriously or preferred not to believe him. They allow themselves to be taken in, time and time again.

*Editor’s note: The original language version of this article is available with a paid subscription.

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About Anna Wright 20 Articles
I am a London-based translator, who got properly hooked on languages and regional affairs, while studying German and Russian at Edinburgh University, followed later by an MA in Politics, Security and Integration at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. I have worked in Language Services for many years and hold a Postgraduate Diploma in Translation from the Open University.

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