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Trump's rhetoric draws alarming comparisons to autocratic leaders and dictators


Former President Donald Trump is dominating Republican primaries, and he's doing it while increasingly using language that echoes strongman leaders of the past. Rather than emphatically rejecting the label, Trump has seemingly embraced it. But there may be a strategy behind Trump's words on the campaign trail, as well as online - one that is fueling his base. Here for more are NPR's Franco Ordoñez, who covers the campaign, and Odette Yousef, NPR's domestic extremism correspondent. Hi to both of you.



SUMMERS: Franco, I want to start with you. Trump has always used dark language on the campaign trail but is it actually getting more extreme?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, you're right, Juana. I mean, dehumanizing language has been a big part of his politics. But he has ramped up the autocratic language in ways that we're just not really used to hearing on the campaign trail. I mean, this weekend, Trump told supporters in New Hampshire that immigrants were, quote, "poisoning the blood of our country," which the Biden campaign and some scholars likened to the words of Adolf Hitler. And Trump, he's cast this election as, quote, "our final battle."


DONALD TRUMP: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.

ORDOÑEZ: Another big difference is that his targets have shifted. In 2016, he saved his most vitriolic attacks against outsiders - migrants, Muslims - remember the Muslim ban. But in this campaign, his attacks, in many ways, have been sharper against political opponents right here in the United States.


TRUMP: The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.

ORDOÑEZ: He's called political opponents vermin who needed to be rooted out. Now, of course, Trump has pushed back on these characterizations and claims Biden is the greater threat to democracy. But it's Trump's language, particularly against people within the United States, that's leading some of these political scholars to draw these alarming comparisons to past autocratic leaders and dictators.

SUMMERS: Right. And, Odette, you have been looking specifically at Trump's rhetoric on social media. Tell us what you've been seeing there.

YOUSEF: Yeah. Juana, I've really focused on what Trump's activity has been on Truth Social because, you'll recall, after January 6, he was booted off of Twitter and Facebook until relatively recently. And on Truth Social, there have been a couple of trends. First, his volume of posts has really been climbing over time, especially starting in the early summer. His number of posts daily has grown. And this is likely attributed to two things. First, campaign season is really getting into gear, but also to the fact that the number of indictments were piling up. And so a major theme of his posts have related to those cases. But the second trend that we're seeing is that we're seeing him invoking much darker language in his posts, particularly about what he says the future would look like without a second Trump term. I spoke to Kirsten Theye about this. She's a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and she's studied Trump's rhetoric, both online and offline, since he ran for president in 2015.

KIRSTEN THEYE: One of the things I've been noticing lately on Truth Social is the framing of next year's election as sort of a last chance for America. So he's sharing content, and his supporters are sharing content, with the message of, this is our final battle to save America. And the implication that this is - what? - the very last election for our country.

SUMMERS: And, Franco, you have been speaking to people who study political rhetoric. How is it that in this day and age, sounding like a strongman can be a successful political tactic?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. I mean, Donald Trump knows how to use words for effect, and he knows how to use words as a weapon. I mean, he says these outrageous things to stoke his base. And, you know, I've been at rallies and people are laughing at these comments. And it also keeps the spotlight on Trump. But those who study political rhetoric say Trump has crossed the line from flirting with these autocratic themes into real strongman messaging. I talked to Jennifer Mercieca. She's a professor at Texas A&M University. She says Trump is following the authoritarian playbook.

JENNIFER MERCIECA: It's always the same process. They narrate a nation in crisis. They say that politics is war. The enemy cheats. The rules no longer apply because they've already broken them. Therefore, put me into power because I will break the rules for you. I will do to them what they have already done to you.

YOUSEF: And look. You know, Juana, there's also a portion of Trump's base that wants a strongman leader. You know, they like what they're hearing.

SUMMERS: OK, say more about that, Odette.

YOUSEF: Well, earlier, Franco brought in some tape of Trump using words like retribution and warrior. And these are words that resonate in a very particular way with a growing far-right religious movement that's increasingly influencing politics at the state and federal levels and which seeks to impose, quote, "biblical governance" in the United States. You know, that's not a popular idea in this country. But Trump legitimized those voices during his first presidency. And through him, they see a path toward their goal.

There's another part of his base, also, one that we've all heard about, which is QAnon. Yeah, it's still a thing. You know, people who believe in that conspiracy theory see Trump as a kind of savior against forces of evil. And analysis from Media Matters for America found that since Trump moved his online activity to Truth Social primarily, he's amplified QAnon-promoting accounts much more than he ever did before. And this, you know, final battle language that he's using, this also speaks to these parts of his base who are actually counting on an authoritarian regime if he is reelected.

SUMMERS: I mean, Odette, so former President Trump is using language that resonates with a more extreme portion of his base, but do we know anything about how they respond to it?

YOUSEF: Well, there's this interesting court filing in one of the Trump cases recently where a court security officer claimed that Trump's social media posts correlated directly to threats against people in those cases. So specifically, he documented what happened when Trump's posts targeted the law clerk for a New York judge. He said that the number of threatening voicemails she received, when transcribed, amounted to more than 275 single-spaced pages, and half of that was antisemitic. But on the flip side, Juana, when the judge in that case imposed a gag order on Trump, those threats decreased.

SUMMERS: OK. Franco, I'll let you have the last word here. Stepping back a bit, has Trump's rhetoric had a larger impact on politics in Washington?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Juana, it was just a few weeks ago that there were members of Congress and their spouses who are getting threats over votes for the next Republican House speaker. I mean, the reality is, we're living at a moment where studies show more Americans, and it's particularly among Republicans, who feel that resorting to violence may be necessary to save the country.

SUMMERS: NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Odette Yousef. Thanks to both of you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.