We’ve all often wondered whether Donald Trump understands the historical import of what comes out of his mouth. He’s so ill-informed, so proudly ignorant, that it’s easy to think that when he hurls a historical insult, he just doesn’t know.
I feel pretty safe in saying that we can now stop giving him the benefit of that particular doubt. His use—twice; once on social media and then repeated in a speech—of the word “vermin” to describe his political enemies cannot be an accident. That’s an unusual word choice. It’s not a smear that one just grabs out of the air. And it appears in history chiefly in one context, and one context only.
Before we get to that, let’s just record what he wrote and said. On Saturday at 10:25 a.m., he posted on Truth Social: “In honor of our great Veterans on Veteran’s Day, we pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, lie, steal, and cheat on Elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and the American dream.” Then, at a rally in New Hampshire later that day, he repeated those words essentially verbatim—promising to “root out ... the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”—and doubled down on it: “The real threat is not from the radical right; the real threat is from the radical left, and it’s growing every day, every single day. The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.”
This is straight-up Nazi talk, in a way he’s never done quite before. To announce that the real enemy is domestic and then to speak of that enemy in subhuman terms is Fascism 101. Especially that particular word.
Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Maus and Maus II, the graphic novels in which he drew Jews as mice and their Nazi captors as menacing cats, explained some years ago to The New York Review of Books how he hit upon the idea:
I began to read what I could about the Nazi genocide, which really was very easy because there was actually rather little available in English. The most shockingly relevant anti-Semitic work I found was The Eternal Jew, a 1940 German “documentary” that portrayed Jews in a ghetto swarming in tight quarters, bearded caftaned creatures, and then a cut to Jews as mice—or rather rats—swarming in a sewer, with a title card that said “Jews are the rats” or the “vermin of mankind.” This made it clear to me that this dehumanization was at the very heart of the killing project. In fact, Zyklon B, the gas used in Auschwitz and elsewhere as the killing agent, was a pesticide manufactured to kill vermin—like fleas and roaches.
If you feel that you need additional backup, just go to Google Images and type in “Jewish vermin.” You’ll get the picture in a hurry. Here’s one cartoon from an Austrian newspaper in 1939 depicting Jewish refugees as scurrying rats. There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of such images.
Trump, let us clarify, does not mean Jews. He means some Jews—the ones who aren’t for him, which come to think of it is most Jews. And by the way, to drop that rhetorical bomb at this time, when antisemitism is raging across the country because of what’s happening in the Middle East, is especially outrageous. But Trump’s vermin are not a racial category. No, Trump’s rats are a much broader category, and in that sense an even more dangerous one—he means whoever manages to offend him while exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to register dissent and to criticize him.
And no, he’s not going to be throwing anybody in a gas chamber. But that’s a pretty low bar for un-American behavior; that is, fascism was not so bad until it started exterminating people? The Nazis did a lot of things from 1933 to 1941 (when the Final Solution commenced) that would shock Americans today, and Trump and his followers are capable of every one of them: shutting down critical voices in the press; banning books, and even burning some, just to drive the point home; banning opposition organizations or even parties; making political arrests of opponents without telling them the charges; purging university faculties; doing the same with the civil service.… If you doubt that President Trump and the Republican Party are capable of all these things and several more, you need to read some history pronto.
Apparently many Americans need to. I woke up Sunday to a Latino man telling CNN, for a story about Trump gaining among Latinos, that well, under Trump, we didn’t have all this inflation. Which is true as far as it goes. The inflation wasn’t Joe Biden’s fault, but of course Biden and the Democrats can’t say that true thing because it sounds like excuse-making. And one can’t blame this man, who I assume is working hard to feed his children, for thinking this way.
But dear God. Can’t we get people to think about fascism, and what Trump would do to this country? Trump invoked “vermin” on the very day that The New York Times broke yet another harrowing story about his second-term plans, this time having to do with immigration. “He plans,” the Times reported, “to scour the country for unauthorized immigrants and deport people by the millions per year.” And he wants to build huge—yes—detention camps. There’s much more. And all of this, by the way, appears to have been fed to the paper by his own people, who are obviously proud of it. They want America to know. And just before this, remember, Trump told Univision that he would use the Justice Department and the FBI to go after his political enemies.
They are telling us in broad daylight that they want to rape the Constitution. And now Trump has told us explicitly that he will use Nazi rhetoric to stoke the hatred and fear that will make this rape seem, to some, a necessary cleansing. We may not get every voter to care about this. But for those of us who do care, this is what the election is about, and nothing else, and history is screaming at us to convince as many people as we can.