“If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.” –Albert Einstein
On November 13 the PBS News Hour aired a five-minute segment on Donald Trump’s Veterans Day campaign rally in New Hampshire. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian specializing in autocracy and Italian fascism, provided a scholarly assessment, which left me no choice but to sit through Trump’s two-hour monologue. After all, I was about to write a summary of the 12th and final lecture in a Propaganda and Persuasion Great Courses series on the capstone subject of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories.
While much of the New Hampshire speech was vintage Trump vitriol—divisive, inflammatory, populist, provocative, nationalistic, authoritarian, demagogic—Ben-Ghiat zeroed in on the alarming use of fascist rhetoric by the candidate with the seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls over his Republican rivals. She highlighted the dehumanizing language used to describe his political opponents, pointing out that Trump’s use of the term “vermin” to describe Communists, Marxists, and the radical left is not just inflammatory but reminiscent of tactics used by dictators like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. This language was historically used to dehumanize enemies, making violence against them seem justified and even patriotic.
The New York University professor and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2020), emphasized that such rhetoric is part of a broader effort by Trump to reframe violence as a legitimate tool in politics. Ben-Ghiat drew parallels between Trump’s language and techniques of Mussolini and Hitler to prepare their societies for repressive policies. This includes Mussolini’s use of similar language in his 1927 Ascension Day speech, which signaled a crackdown on leftists and other groups seen as threats to the Italian state.
Moreover, Ben-Ghiat warned against dismissing Trump’s language as mere bluster. She argued that this kind of speech should be taken seriously as a declaration of intent to undermine American democracy and potentially engage in large-scale persecution of vulnerable groups. She pointed out that Trump’s rhetoric—targeting undocumented immigrants and proposing extreme measures against them, trafficking in racist tropes, scapegoating universities and sexual minorities, lambasting a free press, criticizing the norms and guardrails of governmental function—aligns ominously with the authoritarian playbook of hyping existential threats to justify repressive actions.
Ben-Ghiat’s scholarly analysis is essentially ignored by Trump’s base of unabashed loyalists. Despite the financial backing of business elites, his anti-establishment and populist rhetoric resonates with many “ordinary” American voters who feel disenfranchised by traditional politics. Further, his nationalist trade policies promise to bring back manufacturing jobs and appeal to working-class voters, most of whom feel left behind by globalization. Trump also taps into cultural, ethnic, and racial grievances, appealing to voters who feel that their social power and values are being eroded.
Could It Be That the Medium Is the Message?
In the mid-1960s Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” He recognized how societies change their structure according to the media they use, irrespective of particular content. For instance, medieval Europe was a primarily aural culture. Once widespread literacy was introduced, however, profound shifts occurred. The Catholic mass, for instance, used to center the eucharist in the transept of the cathedral, with adherents gathering in a circle around the ritual. After the Reformation, in the wake of the printing press, both Catholic and Protestant churches began to organize in rows, literally mimicking the structure of lines on a page. The medium shapes the world.
It is widely accepted that the Internet constitutes a second profound shift in communication, from text now to image. Exactly how the meme, emoji, and video clip are reorganizing the world, is still hotly debated. Neil Postman, for example, contends in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1984) that television fundamentally altered the nature of public discourse. As an entertainment medium, its format is not conducive to serious, rational public debate and discussion. In essence, the TV medium demands continuous entertainment, all too often negatively affecting the content of the public square.
In short, the medium of the visual is more chaotic and less measured. This thinking sees Donald Trump’s blunt, unfiltered communication style, amped up through television and social-media channels, as creating a direct, visceral connection with his base that precludes reasoned engagement. While his assertive and frequently controversial remarks are perceived by that base as a refreshing break from typical political discourse, they mimic the chaos of the medium and are unsuited to deep and thorough reflection. If his followers would think more deeply and follow his statements to their conclusion, even they would be appalled at the consequences.
The medium contributes in myriad ways to the Trump phenomenon. Whether chaos is the nature of the visual or it is a derivative of for-profit cable network business models could be debated. Both conclusions, however, largely ignore the content of Trump’s message and the history of his rhetoric. Demagogues predate the Internet revolution, television, the printing press, and hyper-capitalist news conglomerates. Instead, Trump taps into cyclical, anti-democratic themes of American society. In other words, he touches on a durable dynamic of human nature.
The most notorious dictators of modern history—Hitler and Mussolini—have surprisingly American roots. They’re just not the roots that drink from the ideals of the nation. They go down to its failures. Mussolini was quite popular in 1920s America. His persona resonated with misgivings around the domestic costs of Wilson-style democracy and anxiety around growing gender equality. There was a vibrant U.S. Nazi party through the 1930s. Hitler himself took inspiration for ghettoizing Jews from the legal machinations of the Jim Crow south. His genocidal intentions in Eastern Europe (he wanted to eradicate the Ukrainian and Russian populations between Germany and Moscow) were clearly inspired by the U.S. treatment of the American Indians. The political power to create racial hierarchies was a founding principle of the U.S. Constitution, demonstrated by the three-fifths compromise. When Trump touched again on these themes, he was being quintessentially American. The nation upholds liberty and freedom; it also has a history of suppressing the same.
The “will to power,” as public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, is the durable danger of our species. Using that power to cast social distinctions in our favor is the horrid history of the European empires if not humanity itself. Remember, the Enlightenment gave us liberty and colonialism. Trump is the unfortunate shadow side of this history burst onto the modern stage as an angel of light in the eyes of his adoring followers. His rhetoric employs on the language of liberty, but it builds a discourse of violence. His is not artful oratory, but it’s skillful nonetheless.
Freedom of Speech
It is shameful to acknowledge such histories, for this accepts that our forebears failed as much as they succeeded. But to be silent about the actual historical trends of which Trumpism is a part is complicity (as Einstein notes at the beginning of this essay) with the evil it precipitates. However, to stand by the courage of one’s convictions is a test of character that most of us regularly fail.
In 1927, ironically the same year television was first demonstrated by Philo Taylor Farnsworth in San Francisco, U.S. Supreme Court jurist Louis Brandeis wrote a concurring opinion in Whitney v. California:
Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.
They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.
While Brandeis seems unconcerned with the preceding contradictions regarding the American experiment, his warning that “the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people” rings true. The antidote to speech contradicting our highest values is more speech. Presumption that the strengths of our current society are indelible is foolishness. In a twist that only highlights the contradictions of American history, Brandeis’ defense here of freedom of speech was still used to imprison a California leader of the Communist Party. The decision was overturned in 1967 in Brandenberg v. Ohio, in which a Ku Klux Klan leader was acquitted of criminal conspiracy for advocating a violent march on Washington to take over Congress.
The Courage of One’s Convictions
On Yom Kippur, two weeks before Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Rabbi Sharon Brous preached a controversial sermon. She was highly critical of the radical-right Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, arguing it was betraying the essence of Jewishness and the Jewish state. Rabbi Brous observed: “Many of us have spent years trying not to look. We don’t know because we don’t want to know.” She stepped into the line of ecclesiastical fire when most remained in the shadows.
Though my medium is the written word, the readership is modest. This post was conceived as a possible contribution to the New York Times. For to remain silent, to feign ignorance, would make me complicit in Donald Trump’s media-enabled assault on democracy.
Brous argued her understanding of the fundamental nature of Jewishness. Here in the apparent intermission of the Trump saga, we are now arguing about the fundamental nature of America. Or, instead, we are seeing in stark relief the very different modes in which this nation has existed and are debating whether we can pursue our great ideals independent from the violent impulses that have so often accompanied them. To succeed in this endeavor requires the participation of our best selves and commitment to the civic work of reorganizing, as necessary, our society.
John Stuart Mill, a 17th-century English philosopher, political economist, politician, and civil servant, had this to say about civic duty:
Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to [achieve] their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.
Whether the wrongs committed be at home or abroad, for Americans, the deeds of America are done in our name. Passivity is neither answer nor absolution. Speech, orally or in writing, thus becomes both a patriotic act and a moral one. I cannot remain silent.