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Both Sides Now

The Two Sides of Donald Trump Are Equally Bad

The former president is making news for his ramped-up authoritarian rhetoric, but his embrace of the Republican Party’s most unpopular ideas shouldn’t be ignored.

Chris Unger/Getty Images

Donald Trump is talking like a Nazi again. Over the weekend, in both a speech and a subsequent social media post, he referred to his enemies as “vermin”—a favorite word of fascists and antisemites of yore—and channeled Hitler, declaring that America’s biggest enemies were domestic foes that needed to be “rooted out” and destroyed. “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,” he said. “The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.” 

As if doubling down on the authoritarianism, Axios reported on Monday morning that Trump and his allies had formulated a plan to purge the federal government of ideological opponents. Trump and his allies “are pre-screening the ideologies of thousands of potential foot soldiers, as part of an unprecedented operation to centralize and expand his power at every level of the U.S. government if he wins in 2024,” wrote Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei. Although they note that this plan—which they’ve taken to calling “Agenda 47”—has an “authoritarian sounding” name, Allen and VandeHei (the latter of whom has harbored some authoritarian sentiments of his own), ever eager to ingratiate themselves, observe that those in charge of this plan “are smart, experienced people, many with very unconventional and elastic views of presidential power and traditional rule of law.” For sure! 

Finally, to underline the weekend of goose-stepping, Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung responded to the criticism by telling The Washington Post that those “who try to make [the] ridiculous assertion [that Trump is channeling Hitler] are clearly snowflakes grasping for anything because they are suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome and their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.” Not exactly a posture aimed at reassuring those who are alarmed by the increasingly fascistic bent of the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. 

The response to Trump’s “vermin” comments and the revelation of the “Agenda 47” plan have led to a deserved round of hand-wringing about Trump’s authoritarianism, the threat his political project poses to American democracy, and the media’s role in covering both. In 2016, the press failed to adequately capture the sum total of this threat, partly because Trump’s political career was seen as a doomed project and partly because it was still too abstract. Seven years later, Trump’s rhetoric is substantially darker and we’ve had plenty of hard evidence of his willingness to push past the acceptable boundaries of our democracy in his continued insistence that the 2020 election was stolen from him, as well as in the Capitol riots that this rhetoric inspired.

Emphasizing Trump’s authoritarianism—and the related damage he can do to the fabric of the country—will be a necessity both for the press and for Joe Biden. Trump is rather transparently announcing his intentions to purge and weaponize the federal government against his political opponents, immunize himself against legal prosecution, and manipulate the levers of power to preserve his own for as long as possible. Given the threat of physical violence that so often accompanies his words, this is more or less open fascism. But declaiming against it will not be enough to defeat him. 

“This is not normal” was a potent rallying cry during Trump’s presidency—it was arguably the defining admonition of that period. In many ways, Trump’s abnormality has only metastasized since voters evicted him from the White House. His rhetoric has grown more extreme. He is facing multiple criminal trials and will likely head into the presidential election as both his party’s nominee and as a convicted felon. 

But Trump very much is a normal Republican now. That is true in many frightening ways, certainly. Trump’s political rivals have begun to echo his authoritarianism. Vivek Ramaswamy has arguably an even more insane plan to force the federal bureaucracy to submit to his will (he has suggested firing everyone whose social security number ends in an odd number). Ron DeSantis has called for shooting migrants. Nikki Haley has advocated for invading Mexico. Trump’s positions are the norm in the GOP now, and they will remain that way for the party’s foreseeable future: The GOP has, in eight years, been remade in his image. 

But Trump has also become a normal Republican in the traditional sense, in that he’s more or less ended up embracing the long-standing policy positions of his GOP forebears. During his first term in office, his most important legislative accomplishment was a gigantic tax cut for corporations and the rich. Even though it is unlikely that he will staff his second-term office with the same kind of establishment figures—think Rex Tillerson and Steven Mnuchin—who briefly defined the early part of his presidency, one can rightly assume that he will continue to pursue regressive, supply-side economic policies, especially considering that this is what Republicans in Congress will want to do. The domestic agenda of a second Trump term would likely involve the greatest hits of Republican fiscal policy: tax and entitlement cuts, as well as the elimination of various environmental, labor, and economic regulations. 

For all the talk of Trump’s abnormality, the fact that he’s always marched to the recognizable, old-school beats of the GOP drum has always been the less celebrated aspect of his time in politics. So there’s a danger in continually casting him as a pathbreaking sort of politician. Voters don’t like the status quo. They’ve repeatedly voted to reject the economic dogmas that have defined Republican policymaking for several consecutive elections. They thought that this was what they were getting from Trump in the first place—and the media did a much better job of selling Trump as a change-of-pace candidate, and clung to the notion that he was an economic populist long after he’d demonstrated no real interest in refreshing the Republican brand.

Democratic messaging needs to account for both Trump’s unique authoritarian leanings and his embrace of vintage Republican ideas. To solely advance the idea that Trump is a unique political figure in American life—a wild departure from the norm—runs the risk of implanting the idea that he is a politician bent on shattering the status quo during a time when many might prefer the short sharp shock of change. Ideally, you want to capture Trump as a chaos agent whose plans to sledgehammer the system won’t lead anywhere fruitful or new, but will more deeply entrench the unpopular ideas for which the GOP has long been known.

The clearest and most potent position for Democrats is to push on reproductive rights—it embodies the new post-Dobbs dystopia with the Republican Party’s decades-long effort to bring it about. Trump has, of late, escaped much attention for his abortion policy, in part because he’s skipped the Republican debates and in part because many of his opponents have adopted even more extreme positions. (Trump claims to oppose a nationwide abortion ban, though it seems highly likely he would sign one if he was given the chance.) More to the point, no one in the country is more responsible for the repeal of Roe v. Wade than Donald Trump, who appointed the three justices to the Supreme Court necessary to do the deed. Still, there is nothing new under the sun. Here we see a normal Republican doing normal Republican stuff. It is both odious and unpopular: Republicans have repeatedly lost elections when abortion is on the ballot. It will be again in 2024. 

For Democrats, campaigning against Trump’s reelection will be an exercise in threading a needle between the new threats he poses and bad, old ideas to which he clings. This is something Democrats did successfully in the 2020 presidential election and then refined to great effect in the 2022 midterms; voters said that abortion and threats to democracy were the two issues that were front of mind as they tamed the “red wave” that was supposed to sweep Republicans into power.  With less than a year before the election, both Biden and the press are doing a better job of making the case that Trump is a unique danger to the Republic. They should spend a little time reminding voters that he’s just as bad in other, more banal ways, as well.