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Former President Trump faces criticism for using language reminiscent of Hitler

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In a recent campaign speech, Donald Trump used terms that echoed the language of Adolf Hitler. But that parallel is not the only reason to pay attention. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has this analysis.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Last weekend, Trump compared his political opponents to vermin.

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DONALD TRUMP: We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.

KURTZLEBEN: He praised Hungary's strongman leader.

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TRUMP: The head of Hungary, a very tough, strong guy, Viktor Orban.

KURTZLEBEN: And he referred to himself as...

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TRUMP: I'm a very proud election denier.

KURTZLEBEN: All of which has renewed the conversation over Trump as authoritarian. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history at NYU and author of the book "Strongmen." She defined authoritarianism.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: It's when the executive branch and the leader find ways to take away checks and balances so they have a degree of power that they don't have in a democracy.

KURTZLEBEN: She points to a New York Times report that Trump is looking for potential appointees who will not stymie his attempts at greater executive power. Authoritarianism, in fact, has been found to be key to Trump's political success. In a 2016 study, belief in authoritarian ideas was the greatest predictor of support for Trump in that Republican primary. And even in America's heretofore stable democracy, authoritarianism is relatively popular. That study's author later found that around 4 in 10 Americans have authoritarian preferences. Robert Jones is the founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI.

ROBERT JONES: What we have witnessed from Trump over the last few weeks is something new. Trump has clearly crossed into the domain of Nazi ideology.

KURTZLEBEN: Jones also pointed to a recent interview with the far-right website The National Pulse, in which Trump made this statement about immigration.

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TRUMP: It is a very sad thing for our country. It's poisoning the blood of our country.

KURTZLEBEN: The Trump campaign firmly denies any connection to Nazi rhetoric. In a statement, spokesman Steven Cheung told NPR, quote, "everything President Trump is saying is true. It's honestly despicable and racist for any news organization to make disgusting connections as they have done in the past few days." He added, "there has been no bigger ally to Israel and the Jewish people than President Trump. Though Trump's language echoes language Hitler used, many people listening might not draw that connection." But Jones argues that's not the point.

JONES: This language of rooting out vermin, the reason why authoritarian leaders use that is because it does dehumanize their political opponents. Dehumanization of political opponents are the bricks that pave the road to political violence.

KURTZLEBEN: PRRI recently found that 23% of voters, including one-third of Republicans, agreed that, quote, "true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country." That poll also found that 38% of Americans, including nearly half of Republicans, agree that the U.S. needs a leader who, quote, "is willing to break some rules if that is what it takes to set things right." Jones sees this as a clear indication of authoritarian sentiment. Othering an entire group, whether it's immigrants or political opponents, is powerful for authoritarians, says Ben-Ghiat.

BEN-GHIAT: You need to get people to feel they have an existential threat facing them, and the more they feel uncertain and fearful, the more the strongmen can appear and say, I, alone, can fix it.

KURTZLEBEN: And that's something Americans have heard before...

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TRUMP: I, alone, can fix it.

KURTZLEBEN: ...When Trump first accepted the Republican nomination in 2016.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMIR BRESLER'S "PLEASE DO") 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.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.