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Opinion: Trump’s video referencing Nazi Germany isn’t exactly a surprise

Opinion by Ruth Ben-Ghiat

(CNN) — “What’s Next for America?” The video posted on, and now deleted from, Truth Social by former President Donald Trump’s campaign asked this question before detailing what would purportedly happen in a second Trump term. It has sparked another round of debate about whether Trump sympathizes with Nazism and its leader Adolf Hitler.

The video, a carefully composed homage to post-World War I newspapers and interwar documentary filmmaking, contains multiple references to “the creation of a unified Reich.” The Nazi government was known as the Third Reich, and Hitler often claimed he was founding a “thousand-year Reich.”

Following a backlash to this apparent reference to Hitler’s government, the Trump campaign removed the post and claimed that the Reich reference was an error by a “staffer.” In the meantime, the inclusion of the word “unified” has led some to argue that it could refer to the 19th century unification of Germany and not to Nazism.

Yet images tell their own stories, and the images in this black and white video, along with the fonts of its text and overall style, are highly reminiscent of the fascist propaganda I have studied for many years.

The initial closeup of Trump juxtaposed with a crowd of his followers channels 1930s images that propped up the leader cults of Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, while the font used for the on-screen message about the Reich resembles those used on fascist buildings such as Rome’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, which was built to celebrate the regime’s imperialist conquest.

The evocation of authoritarian aesthetics is unsurprising given that during a Fox News town hall last December, Trump said he would be a “dictator” on day one of his second term to address the border and oil production in the US. He also has lost no occasion to praise foreign autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese head of state Xi Jinping. Trump has also used language common to both Hitler and Mussolini when speaking about immigrants as “poisoning the blood” of our country and has called political opponents “vermin.”

Trump’s admiration of Hitler is no secret. As CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto revealed in his book “The Return of Great Powers,” when Trump was president he told chief of staff John Kelly that “Hitler did some good things,” citing how the Nazi leader “rebuilt the economy” of Germany.

How fitting, then, that the headline “Economy Booms!” appeared in the video with another closeup of Trump, framed in the fascist manner, his hand giving his famous thumbs-up gesture. Trump is the only recognizable figure in the video, as befits a dictator who must always be at the center of the national imaginary.

The repeated text references to World War I as an event seemingly in the recent past are both strange and telling. Fascism was born in both Italy and Germany from the ashes of the war, but in this video Trump has been substituted for Hitler and Mussolini, playing the role of the savior who ushers in a new era of history. Trumpism is the fascism of the 21st century, it would seem.

Like most authoritarian propaganda, this video is not subtle. Nor are its statements on how Trump will make history at the expense of people of color. We see an announcement that reads “Border is Closed 15 Million Illegal Aliens Deported,” and an image of police arresting a young Black man wearing a hoodie signifies “Law & Order Restored.”

Yet much of Trump’s persuasive power has come from his facility at leaving a space of plausible deniability. The skilled propagandist lets the audience fill in his message with the meaning that feels right to them.

“The American dream is dead” has been a refrain of Trump’s since his 2016 presidential campaign, and he has continued to use it in events connected to his current attempt to return to the Oval Office. Authoritarians must create a sense of despair and crisis so they can pose themselves as the solution. So the ending message of this film, that the “American Dream is Back. Everything is possible,” might seem to strike a new and more hopeful note.

Yet combining the promise of a better future with nostalgia for a “simpler” time — when Blacks and other non-Whites knew their place, for example — has always been part of the authoritarian appeal. It’s certainly central to the slogan “Make America Great Again,” which closes out this film as the message about creating an “unified Reich” returns. MAGA floats against a background that could be newsprint, or stones of a monumental building like those the fascists and Nazis favored.

And that’s what’s next for America, if Trump returns to the White House: an illiberal government that takes liberally from the fascist past as well as from the governments of the sitting autocrats that Trump so admires.

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