So it has come to this: The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, at a campaign rally Saturday in Orlando, Fla., leading supporters in what looked very much like a fascist salute.
“Can I have a pledge? A swearing?” Trump asked, raising his right hand and directing his followers to do the same. He then led them in pledging allegiance – not to the flag but to Trump.
Trump supporters raised their arms en masse – unfortunately evoking the sort of scene associated with grainy newsreels from Italy and Germany.
Among those not engaging in such ominous imagery were the demonstrators, who, by my colleague Jenna Johnson’s account, interrupted Trump’s event more than a dozen times. The candidate watched a supporter grab and attempt to tackle protesters, at least one of them black, near the stage. “You know, we have a divided country, folks,” Trump said. “We have a terrible president who happens to be African American.”
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Loaded imagery, violence against dissenters and a racial attack on the president: It’s all in a day’s work for Trump.
In the preceding days, he had asserted (and later retracted) his confidence that as president the military would obey his orders to do illegal things: torture detainees and target noncombatant kin of terrorists for death. He said House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Republican, would “pay a big price” for defying him, and he said Sen. John McCain, who criticized Trump, needs to “be very careful.”
Trump explained his initial hesitance to disavow support from the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists by saying such groups could have included “the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies” – prompting the head of the Anti-Defamation League to call his words “obscene.”
And some still deny Il Duce Donald’s autocratic tendencies?
Abe Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the retired longtime head of the ADL, said that Trump leading thousands in “what looks like the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute is about as offensive, obnoxious and disgusting as anything I thought I would ever witness in the United States.”
I’ve perhaps never agreed with Glenn Beck before, but the right-wing radio personality was right to hold up a Nazi ballot on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday morning. “We should look at Adolf Hitler in 1929,” said Beck, who usually saves his Nazi analogies for liberals. Beck added, “Donald Trump is a dangerous man with the things that he has been saying.”
The Germans, too, find him dangerous – and they should know. Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, last month called Trump “the world’s most dangerous man” and leader of a “hate-filled authoritarian movement” who “inflames tensions against ethnic minorities … while ignoring democratic conventions.”
I wish I could enjoy Trump, who at last week’s debate defended the size of his penis. But this isn’t a conventional debate between Democrats and Republicans or insiders and outsiders. Trump is on the wrong side of a struggle between decency and bigotry, between democracy and something else.
Yet, incredibly, the other candidates in the race – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich – all said they’d support Trump if he wins the nomination. The morning after Trump’s salute, the morally neutral Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman, told CBS’ John Dickerson the that his “role is to basically be 100 percent behind” the eventual nominee.
A braver man, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sent a letter Friday to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asking whether he would heed orders to torture detainees or to target noncombatant relatives of terrorists. Trump, who in reply said Graham “should respect me” and bragged that he “destroyed” Graham’s presidential candidacy, has retreated slightly, saying he’d change laws to allow things such as waterboarding. Without that, he said, “we’re weak.”
As some Republican officeholders and donors belatedly try to unify the anti-Trump movement, more are seeing Trump’s words and deeds foreshadowing darker things. On Monday, Jane Eisner, editor of the Jewish media outlet Forward, quoted Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt: “Some people didn’t approve of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but they went along with it because he was going to make Germany great again.”
And comedian Louis C.K., who says he would like to see a conservative president, wrote to his fans about Trump last weekend, saying that “we are being Germany in the ’30s.”
Where does Trump’s flirtation with fascism end? Nobody knows.
But don’t say you didn’t see it coming.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.