“Send Her Back” and the Advancement of Trump’s Authoritarian Playbook

Ruth Ben-Ghiat
Ruth Ben-Ghiat on leader-follower relationships in authoritarianism and the fascist purpose in targeting Ilhan Omar at the Greenville, North Carolina rally.

To many, it felt like a threshold had been passed on Wednesday night at Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina. When the president brought up Minnesota Democratic representative Ilhan Omar, the crowd chanted, “Send Her Back! Send Her Back!” It was an echo of Trump’s twitter comments a few days prior that four American congresswomen—which also included the U.S.-born Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib—should “go back” to their own countries.

While Trump supporters and critics alike have grown used to hearing such collective rage directed at former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, this was the first time that a person of color and an immigrant had been targeted at a rally by name. The hostile energy emitted by the majority-white crowd was notable, as was the satisfaction Trump radiated as he stood still, his signature smirk on his face, for a full 13 seconds as the chants washed over him.

I have seen this expression before. In fact, I’d seen it that afternoon, as I watched a newsreel of Benito Mussolini standing before a crowd of cheering Italian Fascists in Rome. That same rush of ego-gratification, that same pause before the return to aggression, in this case it was Trump “joking” yet again that he’ll stay in office for more years than is allowed by the American constitution—just like Mussolini used to do as Prime Minister, before he declared dictatorship in 1925.

The leader-follower relationship is the core of authoritarian regimes—and rallies are its distillation. They stage the leader's hold over the people as he demonstrates that his enemies have become their own. Fascist rallies were volatile mixes of hatred and joy, of strong emotions guided by the leader. “Women and girls, Jews are your ruin,” huge banners proclaimed at a Nazi rally in 1935 Berlin, matching Hitler’s anti-Semitic diatribes as the crowds cheered. The North Carolina rally projected that same dominance of the crowd by the head of state and the collective excitement at being able to express hatred sanctioned by him.

The leader-follower relationship is the core of authoritarian regimes—and rallies are its distillation.

From the leader’s perspective, rallies are essential to maintaining his personality cult, and a reminder that his hard work indoctrinating people and securing their loyalty has not been in vain. Mussolini used to get turned on sexually by the adulation; he’d ask his lover Clara Petacci to watch the spectacle, hiding behind him, and then take her violently (as was his habit). Adolf Hitler, too, craved adoration. Years before he came to power, his propaganda wizard Joseph Goebbels saw that he was a wooden and boring speaker in the studio: he needed an audience to come alive. Trump is in this tradition: he’d be nothing without the public attention he colonizes 24/7 by his outrageous tweets, comments, and actions, and he’s sensitive about crowd size. Whether in Rome, Berlin, or Greenville, the strongman needs those crowds more than they need him.

Omar is an ideal target for Trump. She’s a Muslim and a woman who came to America as a refugee, making her a member of the category of people of color on the move who have been targets of authoritarian regimes for one hundred years. Trump is just the latest right-wing leader—after Mussolini, Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and more—to try and stoke anxieties in the public about floods of dark and primitive people breaching the nation’s borders or already here, spreading anarchy and polluting bloodlines and the culture. It has become the GOP’s latest talking point. Attempting to justify the imprisonment and killing of thousands after the September 1973 coup in Chile, the junta’s foreign minister Ismael Huerta told the United Nations that the country had faced an onslaught: “By September 11 this year more than 13,000 known foreigners, most of them extremists, were known to be in the country illegally.”

Trump’s propagandists built up this latest escalation of hatred carefully, starting with Trump’s statement that those who weren’t happy—who were critics—could leave the country, then mentioning a “rumor” that Omar had married her own brother to bring him into America illegally. Seeming to question the national credentials of those “not like us,” Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway had also asked Jewish reporter Andrew Feinberg, “what’s your ethnicity?” At the rally, Trump’s daughter-in law Lara Trump, performing a warm-up act, had prepped the crowd “If you don’t love our country—the president said it…” “Leave!” they yelled back.

Sure enough, they were ready to chant, supposedly spontaneously, “Send her back!” at the proper moment, to be immortalized on every type of media. And, of course, Trump distanced himself from the crowd’s racist chant later on, with a wide wink and knowing full well that another step on the path to subvert American democracy had been taken, with more to follow.

The ad released by the Trump campaign before the North Carolina rally is worth watching, because it starts with a classic strongman image—the Leader descending from the clouds in an airplane and greeting the cheering crowds. Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of Zaire, had a similar segment open the evening news. More famously, such images feature at the start of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous 1934 Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will, which has inspired propagandists of the right ever since.

Trump and his fellow right-wing conspirators are building a “new America” where joy at a perceived American greatness blends with messages to his followers to hate those who look or worship differently than they do. The playbook they are using has a history of being deadly effective. Rallies like the one in Greensville are just the start.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of Italian and history at New York University. A recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and other fellowships, she’s an expert on fascism, authoritarianism, war, propaganda, and Donald Trump. You can find her on Twitter @ruthbenghiat.

Originally Appeared on GQ