How Can the Former President’s Opponents Repudiate His Fascist Rhetoric Without Giving Him the Publicity He Craves?

2022 Rally for Abortion Rights in Chicago. Image: SHYCITYNikon/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Even after seven years of incendiary statements, Trump’s Veterans Day comments at a New Hampshire rally still managed to shock: 

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. They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream. 

As Robert P. Jones highlights, the “vermin” imagery and ominous statements about internal enemies echo Mein Kampf

The former president’s use of Hitlerian rhetoric evoked horror from historians, politicians, and the public—but it also signaled the direction of his campaign. To counter effectively, his opponents must figure out how to repudiate this more overtly fascist turn without letting him dictate the news cycle—and it all comes down to how they talk about abortion rights. 

The way the former president openly paraphrases Mein Kampf puts his opposition in an awkward spot. While basic decency demands forceful rebuke of fascist tropes, public denunciation—indeed, publicity of any sort—plays right into his hands. He seems to be betting that he can leverage the notoriety to his advantage—and not without reason. 

At his infamous campaign launch at Trump Tower in June 2015, he scandalized the public with statements about undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border: 

They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Rebuke came swiftly, as did the obsessive media coverage that propelled him to the nomination. It should surprise no one that he’s once again goading the media a year before an election. As campaign spokesman Steven Cheung put it

those who try to make that ridiculous assertion [of fascism] 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. 

Trump operates on the premise that all publicity is good publicity. His critics can denounce this turn to overt fascism without boosting him, but they’ll have to be strategic. After all, the man built his political career on a keen sense for how to control the electoral narrative. The stakes this election cycle are higher for him than ever: with multiple indictment trials looming, returning to the White House is the only surefire way to avoid jail time.

In order to get there, however, he must a) lock up the nomination, and b) defuse the massive public response to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, which has propelled Democrats to victory even in deep-red states. He is betting on his Veterans Day comments being incendiary enough to achieve both aims. 

On one level, Trump’s comments are red meat for the base. While enjoying historic leads over Republican rivals, he’s leaving nothing to chance, riling up his hardcore supporters ahead of primary season. On another level, his comments are an attempt to retake the national narrative. Ever since the repeal of Roe v. Wade, Democrats have not only mobilized successfully around abortion; they’ve defied political gravity. None of the factors that typically sap political momentum—an unpopular incumbent, high inflation, a border surge, the outbreak of war—have thus far dampened Democratic turnout. 

Trump understands that if the abortion issue dominates the 2024 campaign, his bid may well be doomed. So he’s seeking to elicit a reaction so visceral and powerful that it overshadows abortion rights. This is precisely what making the election about his use of fascist tropes would accomplish. 

The 2024 election will either be about abortion rights, or it will be about Trump. One way or another, it will be a referendum. Which framing wins out will likely determine the outcome. The trick for Democrats will be to figure out how to denounce his fascist rhetoric while keeping the focus on abortion rights. One option is to portray the repeal of Roe as laying the groundwork for a fascist agenda. 

There are many principled ways to advocate for a given position. Wielding dark money to shape court nominations and outcomes, changing settled law, and empowering bounty hunters, however, all reveal a deep disdain for due process and civil rights. This is precisely the style of politics that Trump’s “vermin” language foreshadows. He isn’t a culture warrior so much as a man out for vengeance. And if he wins, he will empower the very people who see the repeal of Roe as central to a theocratic—even Christofascist—political vision. 

Unlike much of the GOP, the former president has waffled on abortion rights. Although in the past he’s self-described as the “THE MOST pro-life president in American history,” he understands the political peril the issue poses for him. But if his opponents consistently link Roe’s repeal to a fascist agenda, they can repudiate his Hitlerian rhetoric and remind the electorate about abortion rights in the same breath. This has the potential to derail his bid to set the political narrative, imperil his candidacy, and stigmatize fascist speech—not only as morally abhorrent, but as bad politics as well.