Donald Trump talks a lot of trash, of course. But three days after his campaign appearance in Claremont, New Hampshire, on Saturday, some of the words he used are still reverberating. At the end of a long and rambling speech, Trump said the following: “In honor of our great veterans on Veterans Day, we pledge to you that we will 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, and will do anything possible; they’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and to destroy the American Dream.”
If the phrase “live like vermin within the confines of our country” sounds vaguely familiar, it should. In February, 1933, days after Adolf Hitler was appointed as Chancellor of Germany, Wilhelm Kube, a Nazi politician, wrote in a propaganda publication, as reported at the time by the Jewish Daily Bulletin: “The Jews, like vermin, form a line from Potsdamerplatz until Anhalter Banhof. . . . The only way to smoke out the vermin is to expel them.” In 1936, when Oswald Mosley’s British Fascists were harassing Jews in London’s East End, they referred to them as “rats and vermin from the gutters of Whitechapel.” Hitler himself used similar language more than once. In a 1934 interview, he said, “If I can send the flower of the German nation into the hell of war without the smallest pity, then surely I have the right to remove millions of an inferior race that breeds like vermin!”
To be sure, Trump wasn’t targeting Jewish people during his speech in New Hampshire. Although he sometimes peddles antisemitic tropes, such as running a campaign ad attacking “global special interests” that featured pictures of George Soros and Lloyd Blankfein, he has also made determined efforts to wean Jewish voters from their historical affiliation with the Democratic Party. But that hardly excuses his language or diminishes its significance. As he leads the 2024 Presidential polls nearly a year out from Election Day, he’s taking the sort of hateful rhetoric that in the past he’s used about immigrants and minorities and applying it to his political enemies and legal antagonists.
This shift largely reflects the embattled position that Trump finds himself in, as he faces criminal indictments in four different courts—and his eagerness to save his own skin, regardless of the costs to American democracy. Just as the Fascists’ hateful rhetoric during the interwar period was intended to dehumanize, delegitimize, and intimidate its targets, Trump is trying to do the same thing to the individuals and institutions on his enemies list, which seems to include anybody who won’t forgive his attempt to overturn the 2020 election results or who supports the subsequent efforts to hold him to account. The foes he is targeting appear to include President Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, Never Trump Republicans, the Justice Department, the courts, senior military officers, and the media—i.e., many of the central institutions of American democracy.
Until 2020, Trump reserved his most offensive language for undocumented immigrants. During the 2016 campaign, he referred to them as “drug dealers,” “criminals,” “rapists.” From the Oval Office, he referred to them as “animals,” and in a 2018 tweet he said that Democrats wanted them “to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.” This dehumanizing rhetoric went down well with many of Trump’s hard-core supporters. He also made derogatory comments about prominent Black figures, calling Representative Maxine Waters “low I.Q.” and Don Lemon, the former CNN anchor, “dumb.” He referred to Baltimore, a predominantly Black city, as a “disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess.”
After Trump got criminally indicted earlier this year, he pivoted to his new targets. In June, hours after pleading not guilty to federal charges of mishandling classified documents and conspiring to obstruct justice, he claimed that President Biden “together with a band of his closest thugs, misfits, and Marxists, tried to destroy American democracy.” He added, “If the communists get away with this, it won’t stop with me.” Since then, Trump has routinely adopted this sort of language, occasionally adding the term “fascists” to his repertoire, perhaps as an effort to muddle the meaning of the word. At a speech in Miami earlier this month, on the eve of the off-year election, he urged the crowd to “crush the communists at the ballot box.”
Describing his political opponents as “vermin” on Veterans Day represented a further escalation, and there is no reason to believe that he was unaware of the history he was invoking. (He also posted the same language to his social-media account, and it hasn’t been taken down.) Still, Trump’s incendiary comments were part of a whole that includes him accusing the retired general Mark Milley of treason and suggesting that he should be executed; repeatedly referring to Special Counsel Jack Smith as “deranged” and a “thug”; and constantly lobbing charges of political bias at Judge Arthur F. Engoron, who is presiding over Trump’s New York civil trial, and Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is overseeing the January 6th case in Washington, D.C.