Opinion: Violence and dehumanization: The MAGA calling cards

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Published: 01-08-2024 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

In understanding what makes Donald Trump and his MAGA movement unique, I would argue it is both their incitement to violence and their dehumanization of opponents. That rhetoric echoes fascist tradition that sees violence as necessary and a virtue. Fascists build their community by identifying and vilifying those seen as enemies.

Trump’s speeches and his social media tweets are an effort to change and normalize the perception of violence among his followers. He is trying to remove hesitation about resorting to its use. Part of his effort is seeing those who oppose him as sub-human. Trump is attempting to train his followers to see violence as positive.

The examples to cite are numerous but I would begin with his recent watershed remarks about vermin and immigrants poisoning the nation’s blood. This is another step down the dehumanization highway. That Hitler-type language reverberates back to 1930s-1940s fascism. It is a recognizable moment that should cause everyone to pause. Talking about any people like that is sick and morally indefensible.

For those who think I am exaggerating, Trump’s words speak for themselves. Remember January 6: “If you don’t fight like hell, you won’t have a country anymore.”

Trump has called for the execution of General Mark Milley, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has urged police to shoot shoplifters. He has mocked the vicious assault on Nancy Pelosi’s 82-year-old husband that fractured his skull. He had previously called for shooting illegal border crossers in the legs. Trump and his minions matter of factly discuss deporting millions without due process and putting huge numbers of immigrants in vast detention camps in south Texas.

Part of the dehumanization is the name-calling and vitriolic attacks on enemies. Trump calls Jack Smith “deranged” and “a psycho who looks like a crackhead.” He labels New York Attorney General Letitia James “a monster” and “a racist.” He says the judge in his New York civil fraud trial, Judge Arthur Engoron, is “deranged” and should be disbarred and criminally prosecuted.

Possibly these statements are in response to the pressure he is currently under but the pattern of dehumanization is long-standing. In his January 2, 2021 conference call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger where he wanted 1,1780 votes found, Trump mentioned Ruby Freeman, a Black election worker, 18 times. He repeatedly slandered Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, accusing them of election crimes. Trump called Freeman “a professional vote scammer and hustler.”

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Trump’s false accusations, along with Rudy Giuliani’s, terrorized the two women and turned their world upside down. Following Trump’s cue, Republican activists threatened the women’s lives, forced Freeman to flee her home, close her business and go into hiding. The two women received threatening emails, letters and social media attacks filled with violent and racist content.

In her testimony to the January 6 Committee, Freeman described the type of threats received: “Kill yourself now so we can save ammo” read one message. Another read: “I hope the Federal government hangs you and your daughter from the Capitol dome you treasonous piece of s-! I pray that I will be sitting close enough to hear your necks snap.”

I see the attacks on Ruby Freeman and her daughter as the prototype of the MAGA modus operandi. With Trump’s words, he unleashes the attack dogs. Then he chooses to ignore the inevitably horrible consequences of his remarks.

Since Trump emerged in 2015-2016, dozens of his unhinged supporters have carried out acts of violence. Think Cesar Sayoc. More recently, I think of the Colorado Supreme Court justices who are now receiving a barrage of death threats because of their opinion on the 14th Amendment case barring Trump from being on the Colorado ballot.

Just to give a flavor of the messages received: “All f-robed rats must f-hang” and “This ends when we kill these f-.”

This is no different than the treatment meted out to other judges and prosecutors who have engaged in Trump-involved cases. As John Miller of CNN has said, Trump has been pouring gasoline on the fire. His threats against judges have created a much less secure judiciary. This ties into Trump’s more general responsibility for increased hate crimes. Words have an effect. As the author of “The Undertow,” Jeff Sharlet, has observed, blood and gore play a big role in Trump speeches at his rallies.

After January 6, 2021, Sen. Mitt Romney had to spend $5,000 a day for security for his family. Liz Cheney said there were members of Congress who told her they were afraid for their own security. They voted against impeaching Trump out of fear for their own lives. This is the way fear and intimidation work to undermine democracy.

Many election workers have quit because of the MAGA threats. After the 2020 election, Reuters documented more than 900 threatening and hostile messages to election administrators and staff in 17 states. Almost all the threats were related to Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election. It is no wonder so many election workers have quit because of the perceived danger.

Every fascist movement is different and has its own national characteristics. Trump is focused on revenge because he cannot stand being a loser. He talks about putting Joe Biden in jail along with others who have crossed him like Bill Barr, John Bolton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. As his former White House Chief of Staff, Gen. John Kelly, has said, Trump has nothing but contempt for democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Fascists came to power in Italy by killing off and intimidating members of the Socialist Party which was the largest opposition party. Between 1919 and 1922, the fascists in Italy killed thousands. A similar process occurred in Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. In 1933, the Nazis consolidated their power by murdering leftists, social democrats and Jews.

Whatever happens in the 2024 election, we can be certain that Trump will not accept the result unless he wins. Trump is running to stay out of jail. What level of MAGA violence will come into play is a good question but based on history it is unrealistic to expect him to accept an unfavorable result peacefully.

I cannot help but think about Maya Angelou’s famous quote — “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

No one can predict the future but all who care about keeping democracy should be very worried.