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Trump Is Turning the January 6 Coup Leaders Into Fascist Martyrs

Trump’s heroization of those who led the attack on the Capitol is eerily similar to tactics used by Hitler in 1923.

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks to a crowd during a "Get Out The Vote" rally at Coastal Carolina University on February 10, 2024, in Conway, South Carolina.

Backed by overwhelming support from the GOP’s primary voters, and by most Republican congressmembers and senators, former President Donald Trump is now barreling toward the 2024 presidential election as his party’s presumptive nominee.

Usually, at this point in the election process, once the base has been satisfied during the primary season, a candidate starts the long, slow, sometimes awkward pivot back toward the political middle. Trump, by contrast, is veering evermore into the extremes, plunging into political conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric.

He’s repeatedly spoken of immigrants “poisoning” the nation’s blood. He has taken to calling out individuals such as former White House Aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who testified against him in the congressional hearings into the January attack, arguing that they should be prosecuted for their words. He’s basically invited Russia to take military action against North Atlantic Treaty Organization members who don’t boost their military budgets.

But Trump is, perhaps, at his most incandescently dangerous when talking about the January 6 coup attempt and the efforts by his followers to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Last week, at a rally in Ohio, the crowd was asked to rise to pay tribute to those imprisoned after the events of January 6. Trump got up and gave a salute, while the loudspeakers blared a version of the national anthem recorded by some of these prisoners.

The Washington Post has tracked Trump’s language surrounding the January 6 perpetrators, and recently published a graph showing his increasing usage of the incendiary term “hostages” to describe them. Between November and the third week of March, the paper identified 12 times in which Trump used this term, each time further corroding his base’s trust in the democratic political system.

This isn’t accidental. Trump is consciously creating a martyr mythology, a stabbed-in-the-back-by-a-fifth-column storyline. It is the same narrative used by the early Nazis to describe those — including Adolf Hitler — imprisoned by the Weimar state after the failed Munich “Beer Hall Putsch” of November 1923.

In that attempted coup, Hitler and his followers tried to seize power in Munich, to capture government buildings, and from that stronghold to then launch a march on Berlin aimed at creating what Hitler termed a “national revolution.”

After the effort failed, the Nazi leader was arrested, charged with treason, and in a trial the following February, sentenced to five years in prison. He was, however, pardoned after less than a year behind bars. As they say, the rest is history.

In the subsequent Nazi mythology, the men sentenced to prison after the putsch attempt, as well as for various other violent assaults on Weimar leaders and institutions, became martyrs; instead of the malcontents and violent political extremists that in reality they were, they were painted by Nazi propagandists as heroes who had sacrificed their freedom for a noble cause.

The Nazi newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, wrote, as the Beer Hall coup was unfolding, that it was aimed at destroying “five years of the most atrocious shame and disgrace perpetrated by Jews and the Jewish regime.” (This, just two years after the industrialist Walter Rathenau, the Weimar state’s foreign minister, was assassinated by nationalist extremists infuriated by his Jewish origins and his internationalist political leanings.)

Nineteen years later, in the depths of World War II, Hitler made a lengthy speech commemorating the uprising that was larded with antisemitic bile. He claimed:

In the beginning I did not have much more to give than faith, the faith that if anyone pursues a just aim with unchanging and undisturbed loyalty and never lets himself be diverted from it, but puts everything into it, then others will be found who are determined to be his followers, and that from this host an ever stronger faith must gradually radiate to the whole people, and that out of this host the worthiest part of the whole people must one day finally find themselves together, and that finally this worthiest part must acquire the power of the state.

In this speech, Hitler denounced Franklin D. Roosevelt for being a “half-Jew,” with a “Jewish brain-trust.” He claimed that Jews controlled the Soviet government, accused wealthy Jews of a conspiracy to control the world, and so on.

Even as Trump tries in his usual offensive fashion to persuade Jewish voters to elect him (he recently argued that “any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion”), he has long deployed thinly veiled antisemitic tropes in his speeches. For example, as the Washington Post reported, he has frequently asserted to Jewish Americans that Israel is “your country,” thus essentially accusing them of dual loyalties. Moreover, he has flaunted his friendship with the notoriously antisemitic Kanye West, and after the 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, in which fascist participants chanted “Jews shall not replace us,” Trump went out of his way to say there were “very fine people” on the fascist side of the confrontation.

Meanwhile, Trump also deploys dehumanizing, fascistic language to attack his perceived enemies in all quarters. On the campaign trail, for example, he has called his opponents “vermin,” and indicated that he would support executing ex-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley.

Trump’s wholehearted embrace of the January 6 coup leaders and his escalating martyrdom language about their fate are part of this chilling political package. Faced with more than half a billion dollars in court-imposed fines, the possibility of some of his marquis properties being seized and the imminent start of at least one of his four criminal trials, Trump is now marshalling an army of the angry and the conspiracy-minded to serve as a battering ram against the legitimacy of the state itself.

Promising to release violent paramilitary supporters — as Trump routinely does these days when pledging to free the January 6 perpetrators on day one — isn’t politics as usual. Rather, it’s an unprecedented embrace of political violence by a candidate who is, yet again, showing that he has no moral limits.

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