What Trump and Orbán want: It's fascism — it's not a metaphor or a joke

The global right's two greatest heroes spoke at CPAC over the weekend. Take what they said very seriously

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 12, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Are you a Democrat? Have you voted for Democrats in the past? If the answer is yes, Donald Trump wants to put you in prison.

That may sound preposterous, but these are are not idle threats. 

At a rally last week in Wisconsin, Trump told his followers this:

We are a nation that has weaponized its law enforcement like never before against the opposing political party. They send their law enforcement out to get them because they can't beat us at the polls so let's lock them up.

Like other autocrats and tyrants, Trump is engaging in an act of obvious psychological projection. He imagines himself to be the victim of some vast conspiracy, and this imagined victimhood becomes the justification for violence and other crimes against human decency and society.

Trump is actually threatening — or, more precisely, promising — to put his political opponents and others who dare to oppose him in prison, or to subject them to some even worse fate, if he manages to regain the presidency. These are themes that Trump and his acolytes have repeated during his presidency and beyond. The Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump's coup attempt were those evil desires partly translated into reality.

Trump has gone further of late, even telling his audiences where he would imprison these "enemies of the people". In a recent speech at the America First Agenda Summit, he promised to put "homeless people" and "drug addicts" in special camps as a way of removing them from the country's major cities. Once such camps were created, they would in all likelihood soon be used for political enemies as well. Fascists and other authoritarians find ways to disappear people as a matter of routine.

Those who continue to believe in the permanence and sanctity of America's "institutions" and the rule of law, and who instinctively proclaim that it would be "illegal" for Trump and the Republicans to do any such thing are living in a fantasy world. Many of those same public voices also announced with certainty that it would be impossible for Trump and his confederates to attempt a coup because such things simply "can't happen here." By definition, fascists and other authoritarians do what they want to do, proclaiming their deeds to be legal after the fact, if necessary. They have no use or respect for the law, except when they can twist it to advance their pursuit of power and domination.

As I and numerous others have repeatedly observed, demagogues, autocrats and tyrants typically tell you what they are going to do and then do it. They do not conceal their goals or motivations, and they are not kidding. One does not need to be an expert in semiotics or linguistics to decode what Trump and other fascists are saying. The meaning is clear for anyone who chooses to pay attention.

In a much-discussed 2016 essay for the New York Review of Books, Masha Gessen offered this prescient advice about understanding the realities of fascism and other forms of authoritarianism:

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin's Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler's anti-Semitism was all posture….

He has received the support he needed to win, and the adulation he craves, precisely because of his outrageous threats. Trump rally crowds have chanted "Lock her up!" They, and he, meant every word. ... Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.

Last weekend's CPAC meeting in Dallas once again proved the wisdom of Gessen's advice. Consider what some of the featured speakers actually said. Donald Trump repeated his threats about putting homeless people and other vulnerable people in concentration camps. He reiterated his promise to federalize the National Guard as his personal enforcers, to be deployed against "crime" in majority Black and brown cities. He continued to encourage violence by his followers through both stochastic terrorism and overt threats:

So as we gather tonight, our country is being destroyed more from the inside than out. America is on the edge of an abyss. And our movement is the only force on Earth that can save it. This movement right here. What we do in the next few months and the next few years will determine whether American civilization will collapse or fail, or whether it will triumph and thrive, frankly like never before. This is no time for complacency. We cannot be complacent. We have to seize this opportunity to deal with the radical left socialist lunatics and fascists. And we have to hit them very, very hard. Has to be a crippling defeat, because our country cannot take it.

Steve Bannon, Trump's former campaign CEO and White House strategist, who has since become a propagandist for international fascism, said in his CPAC speech: "We are at war. We're at a political and ideological war. You can say anything else you want about it, but we're at war." He described Joe Biden as an "illegitimate imposter" and reiterated his goal of sending "shock troops" to Washington to destroy the "administrative state." At Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson adds: 

Bannon promised the crowd they had an opportunity to "shatter the Democratic party as a national political institution." He alleged that the party has been overrun by "radical, cultural Marxists" and "groomers" who "want to destroy the Republic." Bannon insisted the GOP must pursue absolute victory over "power-mad and lawless" Democrats, asserting: "There can be no half measures anymore."

Viktor Orbán, the right-wing prime minister of Hungary, was the featured guest at the CPAC meeting. Kathryn Joyce of Salon offered this context:

Over the last two years, Orbán has become an icon of American conservatives rivaled only by Donald Trump himself. That's so much the case that this week's CPAC is bookended by Orbán's opening speech and Saturday night's closer by Trump, who earlier this week posted pictures of him and Orbán meeting at his New Jersey golf course along with the caption, "Great spending time with my friend." Thursday's opening speech was the most high-profile appearance Orbán has made since igniting international controversy two weeks ago over comments he made condemning the notion of "mixed race" nations as an "ideological ruse" of the "internationalist left," and urging supporters to read one of the most infamously racist books of the last 50 years. But Orbán's Dallas address wasn't his first invitation by CPAC.

In recent years CPAC has incrementally broadened its scope beyond U.S. borders, holding mini versions of its flagship American gathering in countries such as Israel and Brazil. In May, the group held its first-ever European conference in Budapest, where Orbán, serving as host, offered a 12-point "open source" plan for Americans to emulate Hungary's "Christian conservative success" and reject "progressive dominance." ... In Dallas, Orbán struck a similar tone: part pregame coach ("You must play to win!"), part commanding officer of an international brigade ("We must coordinate the movement of our troops because we face the same challenge"). Throughout he spoke from the premise, widely accepted among today's U.S. right, that Hungary, which recently voted Orbán into his fourth consecutive term, has discovered the secret recipe for permanent conservative rule.

During his CPAC speech, as reported by the Guardian, Orbán summoned up centuries-old lies about a Jewish cabal that secretly runs the world and manipulates Black and brown people, along with unwitting "leftists," into doing its bidding:

"Hungary is an old, proud, but David-sized nation standing alone against the woke globalist Goliath. We invite the solidarity of American conservatives. They are in total attack, so we need a total defense. You have to be brave. If you feel fear, you have a job to do. The only thing we Hungarians can do is show you how to fight back by our own rules.…

"We are not the favorites of the American Democrats. They did not want me to be here, and they made every effort to drive a wedge between us. They hate me and slander me and my country, as they hate you and slander you and the America you stand for." Why? "Because they knew what I would tell you. Because I am here to tell you that we should unite all our forces."

Orbán also channeled the white supremacist "great replacement" conspiracy theory:

"The future of the West is in grave doubt. We must take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels. We must find friends and allies in one another. We must coordinate the movement of our troops because we face the same challenge." Europe and America's coming elections, he said, "will define the two fronts in the battle being fought for Western civilization. Today we hold neither of them, yet we need them both. You have two years to get ready." 

Other speakers and featured guests at the CPAC gathering in Dallas continued with these fascist themes, threatening political violence against "the deep state," "socialist Democrats" and other "enemies," wallowing in antisemitic conspiracy theories and celebrating both the Jan. 6 coup attempt and the Big Lie.

If a time machine or some other portal between the past and the present existed, the speakers and attendees at this month's CPAC meeting could travel to the infamous 1939 pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, where they would feel right at home. 

In a 2019 essay for the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot explored the horrific resonance that connects the pro-fascist "America First" movement of the 1930s and early '40s to Trumpism and the white right of the present day:

"A Night at the Garden" is a seven-minute documentary film composed entirely of archival footage that is, in its way, as chilling and disorienting to watch as the most inventive full-length horror movie. The film, which is nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Short category, chronicles the night in February, 1939, when twenty thousand American men, women, and children gathered at Madison Square Garden for an event billed as a "Pro-American Rally." In the opening minutes, the signifiers seem scrambled, as though in a nightmare. A banner of George Washington hangs at the back of the stage; there are American flags everywhere and excited kids dressed in what might be scouting uniforms. But people in the audience are giving the stiff-armed Hitler salute, and the speaker is Fritz Kuhn, the head of the German-American Bund, a national organization that supported the Nazi Party.

But even more unnerving than the strangeness of the spectacle is the creeping sense of familiarity it evokes. Kuhn's snarky excoriation of the "Jewish-controlled" press, his demand "that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it," and even the idolatry of the Founding Fathers all have their echoes in far-right politics today. No moment in the film seems more redolent of our current demagogue's maga rallies than the one in which a protester scrambles onto the stage — he was Isadore Greenbaum, a twenty-six-year-old plumber's helper from Brooklyn — and is promptly tackled and pummeled by Kuhn supporters, amid appreciative laughter and hooting from the crowd.

One advantage to living through Trumpism is that it has compelled a reckoning with aspects of our country's past that, for a long time, many Americans preferred not to acknowledge.

On Monday, the FBI searched Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort and residence in Florida, after obtaining a warrant from a judge. It has been reported that FBI agents recovered numerous boxes that may contain classified documents illegally taken from the White House. On Thursday night, the Washington Post reported that sources close to the investigation say some of those documents were related to national security matters, including U.S. nuclear weapons.

Predictably, Trump took to his Truth Social platform and issued a delusional edict, in which he again appeared to incite violence by his followers and proclaimed that he is the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy:

These are dark times for our Nation, as my beautiful home, Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, is currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents. Nothing like this has ever happened to a President of the United States before. After working and cooperating with the relevant Government agencies, this unannounced raid on my home was not necessary or appropriate.

It is prosecutorial misconduct, the weaponization of the Justice System, and an attack by Radical Left Democrats who desperately don't want me to run for President in 2024, especially based on recent polls, and who will likewise do anything to stop Republicans and Conservatives in the upcoming Midterm Elections.

Such an assault could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries. Sadly, America has now become one of those Countries, corrupt at a level not seen before….

The political persecution of President Donald J. Trump has been going on for years….

I stood up to America's bureaucratic corruption, I restored power to the people, and truly delivered for our Country, like we have never seen before. The establishment hated it. Now, as they watch my endorsed candidates win big victories, and see my dominance in all polls, they are trying to stop me, and the Republican Party, once more. The lawlessness, political persecution, and Witch Hunt must be exposed and stopped.

I will continue to fight for the Great American People!

These are not hollow threats. Across the right-wing echo chamber, Trump, his followers and the larger American fascist movement are announcing their plans to retaliate and seek revenge against Joe Biden, the Democrats, Attorney General Merrick Garland and all others they target as un-American traitors.

The American people would be wise not to take these threats lightly. This is not a game or a joke, not material for mockery by late-night TV hosts. American democracy continues to be imperiled by Trump and his movement, and they will not stop until they succeed in replacing it with their own version of fascism, carrying a cross and wrapped in a flag.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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