The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump deploys the fascist playbook for the midterms

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

President Trump’s message is as clear as it is ugly: Fearmongering about illegal immigration will deliver his party the votes it needs to retain control of Congress. And so, in the final stretch before next week’s midterm election, the president and his allies have launched a blitzkrieg of misinformation.

In a move unprecedented in modern American history, Trump ordered thousands of active-duty troops to the border to intercept a caravan of Central American migrants, casting them as a menacing “invasion” of “unknown Middle Easterners” and other shadowy elements. His allies at right-wing media outlets spread lurid conspiracy theories about liberals enabling disease-bearing foreigners to infiltrate the country.

Even as attention shifted to a spate of right-wing violence, including the slaughter of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue that critics linked to the president’s rhetoric, Trump barreled on, undaunted. On Thursday, he gave a speech at the White House where he warned that U.S. troops would shoot violent migrants at the border. He also shared an ad that sought to connect the Democratic Party to murders carried out by a man twice deported to Mexico, and then to link the man’s murderous behavior to the supposed threat posed by all migrants.

The ad was denounced by Democrats, along with a handful of Republican politicians, as a race-baiting bid to appeal to hard-line conservatives. “It follows an increasing trend of rather shameless misrepresentations and even dog whistles that GOP candidates and the party as a whole seem only too happy to associate themselves with — as if they’ve recognized Trump’s success with this approach and have decided they might as well do it themselves and own it,” wrote my colleague Aaron Blake.

This overt turn toward white nationalism is perhaps the dominant theme of Trump’s time in office. And while it may be a cynical electoral gimmick for Trump himself, there are senior advisers in the White House who harbor sweeping, anti-immigrant visions for America — and are arguably as focused on curtailing legal immigration as they are illegal crossings.

“While the president himself may be acting on some mix of impulse and improv,” noted McKay Coppins of the Atlantic, “the roots of the strategy go deeper — and its architects in the West Wing are looking far beyond the current election cycle.”

The drumbeat of demographic doom coming from the White House has prompted some commentators to start using the F-word. “Fascism’s central idea, appearing in a small repertoire of familiar guises, is that there are classes of human beings who deserve diminishment and destruction because they’re for some reason (genetic, cultural, whatever) inherently inferior to ‘us,’” observed Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon in an essay this week.

Though Trump frames his politics as “a discourse of victimization and national self-defense,” it carries a far more poisonous message. “They are contaminating our nation/race; they are destroying our culture; we must do something about them or perish,” Hemon wrote, invoking the arguments of ultranationalists. “At the end of such an ideological trajectory is always genocide, as it was the case in Bosnia.”

Other analysts caution against such strident conclusions. “Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and others appalls me. But that’s not in the same category as establishing a fascist dictatorship,” wrote Post columnist Megan McArdle. “Nor is tightening our immigration policy very much like invading other countries and sending millions of citizens to extermination camps. It’s offensive lunacy to suggest that these things are somehow inextricably linked.”

But that isn’t quite the point. To link Trump to fascism is not to assume that he’s the second coming of Hitler; it is to point to worrying currents swirling through American democracy and the treacherous path down which the president is leading the nation.

In a new book, Yale philosopher Jason Stanley connected Trump’s demagogic instincts to earlier authoritarian moments. He observed how Trump’s stated mission to defeat Washington corruption — “drain the swamp” — echoed the anti-corruption politics of 20th century fascists, who rode anti-establishment feeling to power only to engage in widespread graft of their own.

“Corruption, to the fascist politician is really about the corruption of purity rather than of law,” wrote Stanley. “Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of traditional order.” (Indeed, the Trump administration, embroiled in myriad ethical scandals involving key officials, is an archetypical swamp creature.)

Trump’s pitch is aimed precisely at voters who believe the “traditional order” is being subverted, those who yearn for the restoration of a mythical American grandeur. His critics have argued that he panders to such divisive, ultranationalist sentiment because his party is fighting a losing battle on key issues such as health care and taxes. A fascist culture war presents their greatest hope.

But no front-page headline or TV network in the United States would outright label a president, party or segment of the electorate as “fascist.” Indeed, right-wing boosters of Trump have sought to turn the table, framing criticism of the president in the mainstream media as an extension of a supposedly fascist-leftist cabal.

“Trump and some of his supporters mount a strategy of deterrence by narcissism: if you note our debts to fascism, we will up the pitch of the whining,” wrote historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on the atrocities carried out both by the Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

“Thus,” he continued, “Trump can base his rhetoric on the fascist idea of us and them, lead fascist chants at rallies, encourage his supporters to use violence, praise a politician who attacked a journalist, muse that Hillary Clinton should be assassinated, denigrate the intelligence of African Americans, associate migrants with criminality, run an antisemitic advertisement, spread the Nazi trope of Jews as ‘globalists,’ and endorse the antisemitic idea that the Jewish financier George Soros is responsible for political opposition — but he and his followers will puff chests and swell sinuses if anyone points this out.”

Trump’s attacks on journalism he doesn’t like as “fake news” follow the Nazi tactic of berating the Lügenpresse, or “lying press,” a phrase that has returned to the political conversation in countries such as Germany and Austria with the resurgence of the populist far right.

“Trump blames the press for attempts to murder members of the press,” Snyder wrote. “He seizes the occasion, as always, to present himself as the true victim. The facts hurt his feelings.” Voters may add to Trump’s pain next week.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.