"Criminal labels and orange jumpsuits": Experts on how Trump weaponizes his own fears

"The ineffectiveness of Trump's bombastic and revengeful rhetoric has been repeatedly demonstrated"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 11, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with his attorneys during his arraignment at the Manhattan Criminal Court April 4, 2023 in New York City. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Andrew Kelly-Pool)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with his attorneys during his arraignment at the Manhattan Criminal Court April 4, 2023 in New York City. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Andrew Kelly-Pool)

Donald Trump is escalating his threats of fascist violence. During a recent interview, Trump told Glenn Beck that he is going to put President Joe Biden and his other "enemies" in prison if he takes back control of the White House. Last Sunday, Trump announced on his Truth Social disinformation platform that he is going to treat Biden and the other Democrats and his "enemies" like they do in a "banana republic." In so-called banana republics, enemies of the regime are put in prison, tortured and murdered.

Trump means what he says.

It is true that Donald Trump is a pathological liar. But he has been remarkably honest and transparent in his desires and plans to become America's first dictator and unleash a reign of revenge and tyranny. The coup attempt on Jan. 6 was just a trial run for a much larger and successful attempt to end multiracial pluralistic democracy here in America.

In an attempt to make sense of what comes next with Trump's escalating threats of fascist violence and bloodshed, the country's ongoing democracy crisis, and why the news media continues to ignore and normalize the clear and present dangers, I recently asked a range of experts for their thoughts and insights.

Their answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity

Dr. Lance Dodes is a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

Trump's latest threats to place opponents in jail, including President Biden, fit with the limitless nature of psychopaths. Lacking a conscience or morality to limit his sadism, and believing in his worth above all others, leads Trump to think he has the right to destroy anyone who does not submit to him. Without the innate capacity for empathy toward others and a sense of right and wrong, Trump is an extreme outlier in human psychology. His success is possible by his ability to convince large numbers of people, with the help of his party and some in the media, that he is not what he is.

"We should pay very close attention whenever we see these kinds of rhetorical tricks."

How can people be conned in such large numbers? Starting in childhood, we all wish for omnipotent heroes, the magical stars of childhood stories and myths who will avenge our grievances and protect us from harm. While most grow beyond this, there is still a piece of that wish inside as seen in the popularity of action-hero movies and other heroic figure fiction. There are clearly enough vulnerable people for whom the wish for a self-styled strong man leader is powerful enough to overcome rational evidence against it. This may be due to naivete based on denial of the sadism in others, rage at personal unfairness that overwhelms normal concerns for others, or simply enough dishonesty and immorality to go along with a malignant leader. They are easy prey for the Big Lie as practiced by tyrants like Trump.

We need your help to stay independent

Another group of followers surely know that Trump is a con man and wouldn't dream of leaving their children in his care but support him because they think that it is in their personal interest to do so, for economic and political reasons. They lack knowledge of the history and techniques of populist tyrants and the inevitable loss of freedom and democracy from them. That is the sad history of people democratically electing such despots; they don't realize the level of malignant psychology behind the populist face.

Such people cannot succeed without allies, however, and the psychology of Trump's supporters in Congress and elsewhere in public life is doubtless somewhat different. They may not individually be as psychologically ill as Trump, but they lack the moral fortitude to risk their personal political fortunes by opposing him. Said another way, they would also support a less psychopathic leader if that were in their personal interest. Their psychology is more in the nature of failed conscience than overall lack of humanity.

After Hitler, there were still Nazis in Germany. And after Stalin, there were many longing for his return in Russia. We can expect that there will be Trump supporters even if he is finally imprisoned for his crimes. Whether this country will survive as a democracy will depend on whether we can learn from the experience. We do not now routinely teach and emphasize the danger to democracy from populist psychopaths. We do not make a point of teaching young people about the Big Lie. But we will need to do that to make sure that our citizens are less naïve and more prepared in the future.

Norm Ornstein is an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and contributing editor for the Atlantic. He is also co-author of the bestselling book "One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported."

That Donald Trump, a lifelong narcissistic sociopath and psychopath, a grifter and serial liar, would threaten judges, prosecutors and all his political opponents with violence and retribution, is no surprise. Sadly, neither is the reality that most mainstream media shrug about this and normalize catastrophic abnormal behavior, minimizing the clear and present danger this madman represents to all of us.

Over the past several years, the regularity of this kind of behavior has resulted in what Pat Moynihan called "defining deviancy down." At least most of the judges involved here are unfazed, as are Jack Smith, Fani Willis and the others bringing Trump and his mob to justice. But the open incitement to violence, amplified and enabled by too many in the media and social media, including, of course, Twitter/X, will have consequences. If it triggers others to violence, we know who is to blame. We are going through a very perilous time in this country, but at least justice is apparently on the way for the worse miscreants— although not yet including the many members of Congress who were co-conspirators.

Jennifer Mercieca, professor of communication at Texas A&M, and author of "Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump."

Since he first ran for office in 2015, Donald Trump has always used threats of force and intimidation (ad baculum) in his campaign rhetoric. A typical president would use threats of force as a part of international relations, specifically war rhetoric. But Trump uses war rhetoric to run for office, he uses war rhetoric against his own nation. Trump isn't a presidential candidate, he's a fascist. The goal of fascism is to turn politics into warfare, to create the "war of all against all" so that the frightened public will allow the "strong hand" of the fascist to control the government.

We got here because fascists are very good at normalizing fascist ways of thinking and acting. They use fear appeals, outrage, us versus them polarization, and accusations of hypocrisy to turn their political opposition into "hate-objects." They then blame the hate objects for everything that's going wrong or ever went wrong or could ever go wrong in the future. That combination of rhetorical strategies is strategically useful for fascists because it activates people's innate fight or flight responses and makes them pay attention to the fascist's rhetoric—it also makes it harder to think critically about the fascist's rhetoric. A fascist like Trump knows how to play the media so that they help him to normalize fascism.

We should pay very close attention whenever we see these kinds of rhetorical tricks. They are a sign—an advanced warning—that fascism is on the rise. Political candidates who believe in democracy and the rule of law do not use these fascist strategies.

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and author of "Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding" and "Criminology on Trump."

Donald Trump's vindictive and anti-human rhetoric is as old as he is and first came into full public view in 1989 over his calling for the reinstitution of the death penalty in New York for the Central Park Five who were wrongfully convicted for an alleged group rape committed instead by a lone serial sexual offender. Trump used a similar type of rhetoric when he first ran for the presidency in 2016 and again in 2020. Now in his final days as a free person and as the envisioned walls of prison are starting to close in on Trump, and as his efforts to escape criminal justice by regaining the power of the Oval Office look less likely by the day he is increasingly becoming more desperate to lose the criminal labels and orange jumpsuits that are inevitably coming for him. Hence, the escalating pace of his violent and revengeful rhetoric against his enemies, real or imagined, including most importantly those prosecutors and judges who are doing everything within their power not to weaponize the wheels of justice against him. 

At best Trump is having limited, if any, success in intimidating some witnesses and tainting juries. Ultimately, however, this rhetoric will be more to his legal detriment than to his political benefit. At the same time, the fact that the news media is no longer preoccupied with Trump's violent rhetoric—- even giving him less air time in this area—has to do with the normalization and routinization of this type of vulgar speech by Trump and a few others like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., but not I would point out by most Republicans as well as the other GOP wannabe candidates for the Republican nomination.

In other words, Trump's rhetoric is simply no longer as newsworthy as it once was compared to the daily news here, there, and everywhere about his latest losing efforts in civil and criminal courtrooms. Lastly, the ineffectiveness of Trump's bombastic and revengeful rhetoric has been repeatedly demonstrated with each new indictment where his stormtroopers are no longer answering his calls for violence nor for that matter are they anywhere to be seen. I would argue further that they are not going to return anytime soon and that also includes after Trump loses the popular vote for the third straight time in 2024. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

If we are assuming that Trump is the 2024 GOP nominee and that he will continue to lose legal motions after legal motions and lawsuits after lawsuits in civil and criminal courtrooms alike — whether before or after the 2024 election — then Trump's rhetoric of retaliation and revenge will continue to escalate and fall flat up until the very day of the presidential election. This is also coupled with the fact that Trump, if he even bothers to talk about policy or anything of a substantive matter besides his bogus victimization and martyrdom, he will still have nothing of value to say about any of the domestic or international issues in play that will gain any traction with anyone other than the die-hard Trumpers who do not know up from down or left from right.

Despite the present polls showing Biden and Trump in a dead heat, I see Trump losing the popular vote by a record-setting 15 million votes. I also see the Republican Party imploding in this presidential election cycle. If Trump was to win the presidency for a second time to my chagrin and should I be wrong about these two predictions, then I see the end of American democracy as we have known it. In either scenario, however, I do not see the recurrence of mass violence the likes of which we saw on January 6. Thanks primarily to the Justice Department's enforcement of the criminal law against these alt-right neofascists and insurrectionists alike.

Thirteen presidential centers wrote a joint letter and shared it with the nation calling on the American people to protect democracy but, unfortunately, they did not identify the source of the problem as Donald Trump and the Republican Party nor did they address the former president's 2024 campaign promises to dismantle the federal government on behalf of an aspiring dictator who has already failed once and has been criminally indicted in both federal and state courts for trying to criminally overturn the 2020 election. Worse yet, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow has written in Dignified Silence Doesn't Work Against Trump that not only are Trump's Republican rivals not attacking him, but neither are the Democrats or President Biden. "This reluctance to take on Trump has allowed him and his surrogates to develop a narrative of victimhood and justified vengeance while allowing the image of timidity and weakness to harden around his opponents like plaster."

What these folks who care about the threat to American Democracy need to do is follow the lead of prosecutors Jack Smith and Fani Willis who have called out the hate speech and acts of violence linked to the depreciating and denigrating language of Trump and Trumpism. They also need to punish the violent behavior linked to this negative speech, which has already demonstrated its effectiveness in cooling out the collective violence with respect to Trump's four indictments.

Miles Taylor previously served as chief of staff at the US Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, where he published the widely read "Anonymous" essay in an attempt to warn the public about the extreme dangers that the now-former president represented to American society. His new book is "Blowback: A Warning to Save Democracy from the Next Trump".

A mob mentality has overtaken our politics, especially on the right. If we thought our republic was immune to it, we were wrong. And if we continue to abide it, we won't have a republic much longer. 

Now is one of the fleeting final moments for Republicans to turn against Donald Trump. There won't be many turning points left. A crass and petulant man's rage has sparked a conflagration of anti-democratic sentiment, and if it isn't repulsed by the party writ large, it will burn our system down. This isn't alarmism. It's realism. 

Put more simply, when an ex-president calls for jailing opponents — again and again, incites violence — again and again, and proposes detonating American institutions — again and again, it's time to wake the hell up. 

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.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democracy Crisis Donald Trumpp Fascism Interview President Biden Project 2025 Stochastic Terrorism Violence