What to do about Trump’s increasingly dangerous speech

In his concern to prove that he did not rip the phrase, “poisoning the blood of our country,” directly from the pages of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” Donald Trump has taken the time to clarify. He really meant to say that undocumented immigrants are “destroying the blood of our country”.

Thankfully, dangerous speech experts don’t require that a speaker properly cite the sources of their dehumanizing rhetoric to identify its potential to incite mass violence. Trump’s remark exhibited a “hallmark” or typical rhetorical pattern of dangerous speech: asserting that members of an out-group can poison or contaminate an in-group. This idea was prevalent in Hitler’s famous book in which he wrote, for example, “All the great civilizations of the past became decadent because the originally creative race died out, as a result of contamination of the blood.” (Criticized for plagiarizing similar remarks, Trump insists he hasn’t read the book.) The idea of poison or contamination was a recurring feature of Nazi propaganda. One example compared Jews to rotten apples, noting that just one, added to a barrel of fresh apples, can spoil them all.

Dangerous speech is also very similar across countries, cultures, and history. Dangerous Speech Project Executive Director Susan Benesch has said of her research on the speech of tyrants, “I was stunned at how similar this rhetoric is from case to case. It’s as if there’s some horrible school that they all attend.

Trump would be valedictorian. He is such a fluent and effective dangerous speaker that on Tuesday a Colorado court found that he had committed insurrection, by inciting his followers to attack the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The language he used then, like much of his previous dangerous speech, was ambiguous. He never explicitly called for the attack on the Capitol. “It will be wild,” he posted. His supporters immediately understood it as a call to violence, though.

His recent rhetoric is more brazen and explicit. In addition to accusing undocumented migrants of poisoning U.S. national blood and “the fabric of our nation,” he said in a rally in New Hampshire on Saturday that undocumented migrants from Africa, Asia, and South America may “bring in disease that’s going to catch on in our country”. To top it off, he further frightened many of his followers by saying “They’re going after Christians.” “They” are Democrats.

Dangerous speech has real consequences, as January 6 demonstrated. We are seeing lots of it and it is breaking down what our Dangerous Speech Elections Project fellow Professor Alexandra Filindra and other political scientists call the “soft guardrails of democracy”: discourse norms that guide people on how to take on their political opponents with vigor but without inciting violence. “When these norms are violated again and again, it becomes easier to perpetrate violence against people.”

It’s urgent to undermine dangerous speech, especially in 2024, a year when two billion people will vote in more than 50 elections around the world. One of the most effective tools against dangerous speech is for influential people to partake in a vital practice: calling it out. Republicans have a responsibilityto decry dangerous speech for what it is.

It’s urgent to undermine dangerous speech, especially in 2024, a year when two billion people will vote in more than 50 elections around the world.

Nearly all Republican leaders have kept silent instead or even echoed dangerous lies like Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Far-right Republicans have even threatened the few party members who fail to toe the pro-Trump line, for example with a 2022 ad in which Eric Grietens, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, was shown breaking into a house with an assault rifle in hand, hunting for RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

But on Tuesday Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate minority leader, plucked up the courage to speak publicly against Trump’s xenophobic messages, perhaps influenced by his wife, who is an immigrant from Taiwan and a former Trump administration official. “Well, it strikes me it didn’t bother him when he appointed Elaine Chao secretary of transportation,” McConnell said. Earlier this year, Trump denigrated Asian Americans including Chao, whom he took on personally by referring to her as “Coco Chow”. She pushed back publicly, noting that people deliberately misspelled or mispronounced her name when she was young — and that Asian Americans have worked hard to change such behavior. “He doesn’t seem to understand that,” she said of Trump, “which says a whole lot more about him than it will ever say about Asian Americans.”

Regardless of what motivated McConnell to push back on Trump’s rhetoric this week, we need much more corrective speech from Republicans and leaders in other countries, as we head into a fraught year packed with elections.