Historically, the erosion of American democracy has happened subtly. In a country where democracy is basically a civic religion, politicians generally don’t announce their intention to attack it when running for office. The past decade of voter suppression laws, state-level rules explicitly designed to limit access to the ballot box, have been sold as tools for combating voter fraud. Many proponents of Jim Crow-era voting regulations — a nakedly racist attempt to ensure white political dominance — described them as a restoration of Southern democracy after the alleged Northern tyranny of Reconstruction.
Donald Trump is currently testing the limits of that unwritten rule by all but openly campaigning on a platform of tearing democracy down.
Perhaps the clearest sign came in a speech on Veterans Day where he vowed to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections.” Calling one’s opponents subhuman and vowing aggressive action against them is a hallmark of classical fascist rhetoric, so much so that the Washington Post’s headline — on a news article, not an opinion piece — described it as “echoing dictators Hitler [and] Mussolini.”
They’re not wrong: Anyone familiar with Nazi propaganda can tell you that it commonly dehumanized Jews by describing us as rats or diseases. Trump has used such language more than once: Just last month, he claimed immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”
This incendiary language is backed by an incendiary policy agenda. Trump and his team have a series of proposals to crack down on dissent, including by remaking the Justice Department into a tool for jailing his enemies and sending troops to suppress protests. They aim to launch mass anti-immigrant raids and detain the people he rounds up in camps. They have extensive plans to replace as many as 50,000 career civil servants with ideologues and toadies, putting people ready and willing to undermine the rule of law in key positions to act on Trump’s dubious orders.
Given Trump’s track record, we should take these threats seriously. Let’s not forget that many thought it was unthinkable that Trump would attempt a kind of coup after the 2020 election. We now know that’s exactly what happened, up to and including inciting an actual riot on January 6.
There’s been a long-running debate among American political observers as to whether Trump can reasonably be described as a fascist. Between his increasingly fascist rhetoric and increasingly fascist second-term policy proposals, the debate should now be considered settled. A political leader who vows to destroy opponents he calls “vermin,” to weaponize the Justice Department against his critics, and to conduct political purges in the federal government is in fascist territory.
Trump is talking like a fascist, planning fascist policies, and staffing up with fascists. While a second Trump term is vanishingly unlikely to produce an openly fascist state — that’s not really how authoritarian takeovers of democracy work today — it’s quite plausible that they could do extensive, even fatal, damage to the American system by pulling the right policy levers. This is what happened in Hungary, and what is currently happening in India, Israel, and democracies around the world.
The fascist ideological positioning is a signal of intent: Trump is coming for American democracy. No one can say they weren’t warned.
Normal politics are over
Whenever someone warns of Trump’s fascist tendencies, there are always two instinctive dismissive reactions you see from elements of the political commentariat: both from Trump apologists and from reasonable centrists who want to avoid what they see as left-wing alarmism.
The first is to call it hyperbolic: Americans have long compared opposite-party presidents to fascists and been proven wrong each time. The second is to argue that the end of American democracy is unthinkable: The United States government has so many veto points that even a competent and determined authoritarian would find themselves hampered by Congress, federalism, and the courts.
In light of Trump’s increasingly open authoritarianism, neither of these should provide much comfort.
There is clearly a qualitative difference between Trump and previous presidents. As bad as (for example) George W. Bush’s record on civil liberties was, he didn’t refer to Democrats as “vermin” or vow to “root out” their presence in American life. He never even came close to firing tens of thousands of civil servants or remaking the Justice Department into a tool of personal revenge against political rivals. When he moved in that direction — firing nine US attorneys on seemingly political grounds — it produced a national outcry, a 22-month investigation, and the defenestration of top administration officials. Trump’s threats to do much worse, by contrast, seem to be fully supported by the institutional Republican Party.
Warnings of looming authoritarianism under prior presidents, typically issued by fanatical partisans and figures on the political fringe, may have proved false. But we have ample evidence that these warnings about Trump’s authoritarianism, increasingly coming from credible sources in the political mainstream, are grounded in the reality of what his second term would look like.
It’s also certainly true that Trump’s most dangerous moves would be contested at all levels of government; challenged by Democrats in Congress, hampered by court cases, and fought by Democratic-controlled state governments. But in the very best case, that means the gears of the federal government would grind to a halt during his presidency, as the entire system was consumed by the fight to defend itself from a hostile takeover. It’s hard to fully anticipate what the worst case looks like, but the breakdown of essential democratic functions — up to and including the basic fairness of the electoral system — is not off the table.
The evidence we have from foreign countries suggests that, when an elected leader with authoritarian tendencies spends time out of power, they get much more aggressive in trying to seize power when they return to high office. This is the story of how democracy in Hungary collapsed, and how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought his country to the brink. And though the United States is very different from both Hungary and Israel, we also have a long history of anti-democratic politics — one that the Republican Party has, in word and in deed, grown increasingly comfortable aping in recent years.
So while the extent to which Trump will succeed in making his vision a reality is certainly something that reasonable people can disagree about, the reality of that vision is not.
This should be the starting point for any conversation about the 2024 presidential race. Anyone who cares about American democracy — regardless of whether you side more with Democrats or Republicans on more “normal” issues like taxes, pollution regulations, or Israel-Palestine — should understand that its health is on the ballot. There has simply been too much business as usual, in which America’s political class treats 2024 as if it’s just another hotly contested election in a long line of them.
It isn’t, and the Trump campaign is making it clear that it isn’t on a regular basis. We in the press need to convey this to our readers as clearly as we can, a commitment which does not require abandoning the media’s core values of accuracy and fairness. On the contrary: It would be a betrayal of those values to shirk from reporting what the Trump people are telling us about themselves.
When the Washington Post asked Trump’s campaign for comment on claims that his “vermin” language echoed fascist rhetoric, Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung responded like this: “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,” Cheung told the Post.
In a way, the denial confirms the charge. There’s something funny about Cheung vowing to “crush” the “entire existence” of anyone who dares call his boss a fascist. But there’s also chilling reality. Trump’s spokesperson is either convinced he won’t pay a price for such authoritarian rhetoric, authoritarian enough that he’s unable to tell how thuggish he sounds, or convinced that this is the way Trump expects his underlings to talk.