Building the mandate for MAGA: Why Trump is choosing a harm offensive over a charm offensive

As Trump raved about revenge on "vermin," top adviser Stephen Miller went public with plans for concentration camps

Published November 15, 2023 5:30AM (EST)

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump hold up signs while he delivers remarks during a campaign event on November 11, 2023 in Claremont, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
A supporter of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump hold up signs while he delivers remarks during a campaign event on November 11, 2023 in Claremont, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

On Friday, former President Donald Trump insisted in a court filing that he was being denied his due process rights. One day later, he told the audience at a political rally that if elected president, he will strip those rights from anyone who opposes him. And it’s not an empty threat — his right-wing team has been developing ready-to-implement plans for doing just that.

Much ink has been spilled about each one of these events, but it is their combination that should cause alarm among all Americans who care about democracy. A government with one law for the rulers and one for the ruled is rightly called “fascist.” Fascism is often defined as “a political movement that embraces the forceful suppression of any opposition, all overseen by an authoritarian government. Fascists strongly oppose Marxism, liberalism and democracy, and believe the state takes precedence over individual interests.”

When we say the shoe fits what Trump is selling, don’t believe us: Believe him and his key lieutenant, Stephen Miller.

Trump used a filing before Washington, D.C., federal district court Tanya Chutkan asking her to allow his trial to be televised to claim he had been denied “his inalienable rights, including . . . the rights to: a fair trial . . . [and] due process.” He complained that Chutkan’s rulings have placed "the interests of his political opposition above the precious protections that American patriots have fought and died for,” and that “this case has all the unfortunate badges of a trial in an authoritarian regime, lacking . . . due process.”

Then on Saturday, Trump painted a different vision of his own future administration that would afford no “precious protections” or due process to its political foes. 

“We pledge to you,” he told his rally audience in Claremont, New Hampshire, “that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”

He had used the identical language in a social media posting earlier that same day. 

Trump loyalist Stephen Miller filled in the blanks on Sunday. In a New York Times Magazine interview, he said that the second Trump Administration would build “vast holding facilities” for immigrants “on open land in Texas near the border.” And Miller made clear that, contrary to what the Supreme Court has said about deportation, Trump would try to invoke the 1798 Alien Enemies Act to deport “suspected members of drug cartels and criminal gangs without due process.” 

As for detention camps, Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the Current Affairs Magazine, wrote on Monday:

Trump’s team . . . [is] serious about this. . . . I don’t think we should assume that this ends with undocumented immigrants. 

That’s not to say that in 2025, Americans would walk quietly, or allow others to be hauled into detention camps without resistance. But if you believe it “can’t happen here,” history begs to differ. 

In this century, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio ran what he bragged were “concentration camps” in the 110 degree desert heat for brown-skinned people his deputies picked up.

Last century, ten weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt shamefully ordered Japanese Americans to be rounded up and interned in desert camps. The Supreme Court upheld the detentions in Korematsu v. United States. It took the Court 74 years to repudiate that ruling.

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History tells us that “emergencies” other than war can be used to justify suspending constitutional rights. Hitler abolished freedom of speech and justified phone taps the day after the Reichstag fire in February 1933. The Nazis, of course, blamed Jews and communists by calling them poisoners of native blood and “vermin.” In Hitler, his biographer Joachim Fest quotes these words from his subject:

Nature is cruel; therefore we are also entitled to be cruel. [S]hould I not . . . have the right to eliminate millions of an inferior race that multiplies like vermin?”

Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic, made clear that Trump's “vermin” covers more than disfavored religious groups or people of non-European background. (There’s a significant  history of that in America with respect to native Americans and Chinese-Americans, among others.) 

If the courts stand in his way, he will, like strongmen in other countries, turn on them and seek to bend them to his will.

Dehumanizing opponents also helps “encourage [totalitarian leaders’] followers to engage in violence," according to Professor Ruth ben-Ghiat, New York University scholar of fascism.

Ironically, in trying to brush off that critique, Steven Cheung, Trump’s campaign spokesman, confirmed it. He predicted a grim fate for people who suffer from what he called “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”  

“Their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.”

Maybe you’re wondering why Trump’s presidential campaign seems to have chosen a “harm offensive” instead of a “charm offensive.” Consider these possibilities.

First, it energizes his base and arouses its violent elements. He wants them amped up for when he faces jeopardy in criminal trials or if something sidetracks his nomination.

Second, if he wins, he wants to be able to say that he has a mandate for a totalitarian plan to jail enemies and end American constitutionalism as we know it.  

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Trump’s Project 2025, a blueprint his hardcore troops are preparing for screening loyalists and transitioning to a Trumpist state, involves far more than imprisoning opponents. It is, as the Atlantic’s David Graham encapsulates it, “un-American.” That’s because Trump’s “ideas contravene basic principles of the Constitution or other bedrock bases of American government.”

On Monday, Graham laid out 12 basic elements of Trump’s vision including the argument that “a presidential candidate should be immune from prosecution” and “Trump normalizing insults and “attempts to intimidate judges and prosecutors.” 

You can be sure that Chief Justice John Roberts and other members of the Court, including those appointed by Trump, have been watching those attacks on the judicial system and not liking them. And Roberts, in particular, has made a point of repudiating the Korematsu decision that approved American detention camps.

But it would be foolhardy for Americans to hope that the courts will save us from Trump’s dark vision of this country’s future, with one set of laws for himself and his cronies and another for his opponents and groups he scapegoats. If the courts stand in his way, he will, like strongmen in other countries, turn on them and seek to bend them to his will.

Americans who care about preserving our 234-year-old republic should reject Trump’s proposed double standard and express our outrage at Trump’s anti-constitutional plans for detention camps and for prosecuting rivals and critics if he is elected. The best way to do so is to mobilize now and make sure that he cannot claim an electoral mandate in 2024.

More than ever we should pay heed to what former President Barack Obama said six years ago in his farewell address:  “It falls to each of us to be…anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.”

By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

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By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

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