In February 2016, I reported a story for The Nation magazine on Trump supporters at the GOP caucus in Sparks, Nevada. I had been covering Trump’s candidacy since late 2015, and I had grown increasingly convinced that, in Trump, the United States’s democracy was facing as skillful a race-and-religion-baiting demagogue as Weimar Germany had faced when presented with a rising Hitler in the early 1930s.
Trump had been beating the nativist drum for months already, presenting all Mexican immigrants as “dangerous criminals,” all Muslims as “terrorists” who, for the sake of the country’s safety, ought to be denied entry into the United States. There was, if one cared to look, an abundance of opinion poll evidence suggesting that while Trump’s language horrified supposedly sophisticated, cosmopolitan America, he was in fact carefully tapping into a vein of deep, and rising, nativism. Over the previous years, a growing number of Americans were telling pollsters that they believed the Muslim religion should be banned in the United States and that Muslims in the U.S. ought to be deported — or worse.
That drab February day, I asked Trump-supporting caucus attendees their opinions on Muslims. And one after another, they advocated deportation — or, in the case of one old man, a choice between execution or forced exile. At his words, all those around him nodded approvingly, as if he had said something of deep philosophical import rather than advocated a policy of state-supported genocide.
I left the caucus in a cold sweat, convinced that the U.S. was on the precipice of something utterly catastrophic. I also left absolutely convinced that the media and the country’s political establishment were woefully unprepared for how to deal with a demagogue in the ascendancy; that the language generally wasn’t there to call him out for what he was — and that even if the language was there, the political will was lagging to recognize just how degraded the GOP had become and how fascistic in impulses much of the base now was.
Fast forward to today: For weeks now, Trump has been touting dragnet Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that would, he promised, result in the deportation of “millions” of people. In fact, while some limited raids did occur in the 10 cities targeted, to date no mass deportations from these cities have actually occurred. If Trump was hoping for a “biggest ever number of migrants arrested” moment that he could tout to his base, he must have been disappointed.
But, I suspect, for Trump, the real intent was never to actually deport millions; rather it was to further gin up a sense of crisis, a racial and cultural siege mentality amongst his base. The intent was to stoke the flames, to build fear and rage and resentment.
That’s the narrative from here on in — the narrative that Trump, and his shameful, amoral, GOP enablers have decided will help them win elections in 2020 and beyond. How else to understand the impossibly cruel decision, already being challenged in the courts, to deny the asylum claims of all those who transit to the United States through Mexico; in other words, all Central Americans traveling by land northwards? How else to understand the obsession with not only building a wall on the border, but with lining that wall with mile upon mile of layers of rolled barbed wire, installed at great cost by members of the U.S. military — as pure a symbol as any invented that a country faces invasion and that the invaders must be repelled by any means necessary?
And, above all, how else to understand the bilious race-baiting tweets Trump has spewed out this past week against Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts? Trump told the four women of color — three of whom are U.S.-born, one of whom migrated to the U.S. as a child — that they should “go back” to the places they came from, and went on to tweet, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”
There was nothing innocuous about this; he was playing his race-baiting cards, and he was anticipating that the public furor that resulted would only serve to enthuse his primed base still more. He was right, it seems. By Wednesday, his North Carolina campaign rally crowds were not only chanting that Ilhan Omar should “go back” home; now, with Trump standing in front of them in full-on Mussolini pose, they chanted, “Send her back. Send her back.”
This isn’t just a semantic shift; it’s a huge leap further into barbarity. Saying a Muslim politician doesn’t love the country in which she lives and should “go back” to where she comes from is ugly demagoguery. Saying that she should be “sent back” implies that the force of the state should be utilized to exile her, that her citizenship means nothing, that her “American-ness” has been voided.
Watching the president of the United States preside over such a medieval spectacle is utterly soul-shattering. Trump isn’t just posturing here. In his deliberate fanning of the flames, he’s actively inciting his supporters to take matters into their own hands. This week has the potential to see parts of the GOP base jump the shark into physical violence. Trump’s subsequent half-hearted disavowal of the “Send her back” chants doesn’t negate his responsibility one bit. As I wrote for Truthout previously, Trump has, for months now, flirted with paramilitarism and mob rule. Time and again, the president of the United States has held xenophobic rallies in already frayed communities; and time and again the reaction has been swift and predictable: a surge in racist and xenophobic violence in those areas.
It is hardly a great leap of imagination to get from this awful scene in 2019 U.S. back to Germany in the mid-1930s: the Sturmabteilung — primed by Hitler’s demagogic, anti-Semitic rantings in the early Nazi years — going to Jewish-owned businesses and looting them, beating up Jews on the streets, forcing old Jewish men and women to their knees to scrub the sidewalks. It’s hardly a leap from this American version of the Nuremberg Rally to the notion of enforced ghettoization, deportations and worse.
William Shirer, the great chronicler of the Third Reich, wrote in his diaries about the Nuremberg Rallies, “You have to go through one of these to understand Hitler’s hold on the people, to feel the dynamic in the movement he’s unleashed and the sheer, disciplined strength the Germans possess. And now — as Hitler told the correspondents yesterday in explaining his technique — the half-million men who’ve been here during the week will go back to their towns and villages and preach the new gospel with new fanaticism.”
It happened there. Trump’s words, and the sullen, opportunistic silence of virtually the entire GOP political leadership, make it more likely it could happen here. The most powerful man on Earth is now using his platform to unreservedly preach the gutter politics of the purge, of the pogrom, of the race war. We cannot let Trump and his supporters enact his fascistic gospel. We cannot let history repeat itself.