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Story highlights

Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Eric Trump's 'bullet' comment about David Duke follows a pattern

Like his father, younger Trump speaks a language of threat, she says

Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is “Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

Thank you, Eric Trump, for saying that David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and current candidate for Louisiana senator, “deserves a bullet.” Even those of us who are no fans of Duke find your proposal of political assassination repulsive and must reject it in the strongest possible terms. Yet you’ve also done America a favor: Just days from the presidential election, you’ve reminded Americans of the ethos of violence that’s at the heart of your father’s presidential campaign.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat
PHOTO: CNN
Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Ironies abound in Eric Trump’s declaration that “these are horrible people,” referring to the white supremacists behind the Ku Klux Klan. Swastikas and other emblems, retweeted by Trump Sr. from white supremacist social media accounts, have mainstreamed a subculture of hatred, bringing concepts like “Jewamerica” and “white genocide” to a vast public. In one week of January 2016, one data analysis from Little Bird found that 62% of Trump’s tweets had white nationalist origins or connections.

The Trump campaign has also used Nazi German symbols in its own original campaign ads. In July 2015, Trump tweeted a stock image of actors with SS uniforms overlaid by an American flag and a portrait of himself, with text saying “We need real leadership.”

Trump blamed an intern for the presence of those uniforms, but his followers know the real story: Trump promises to save American whites against the incursions of shifting demographics (Hispanics and other peoples of color will become the majority in a few decades) and immigrants, as well as from the empowerment of African-Americans in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidency. That’s one reason why The Crusader, a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated newspaper, recently endorsed Trump.

Eric Trump’s recent remark also echoes his father’s campaign’s values by advocating violence as means of dealing with people one doesn’t like or agree with. Donald Trump has repeatedly alluded to his opponent Hillary Clinton meeting with some physical harm, and has stayed silent when his political allies have called for her execution. Effigies of Clinton in an electric chair or posters with her on a bullseye have become part of Trump followers’ grassroots political theater.

The Trump campaign’s unprecedented attacks on the media are another aspect of this rampant culture of threat. Donald Trump’s campaign has mobilized popular hatred of the media to the point that journalists covering his campaign have double layers of security. Some have been punched or otherwise physically accosted.

Then there’s the violence promised to Trump’s opponents on Twitter by trolls on the hunt for any criticism of their leader. Many of us writing about Trump have been invited to “take a bullet” for the racist cause. If Melania Trump truly wants to make social media a kinder and gentler place, as she asserted the other day, she’ll have to start inside Trump Tower by asking her husband to get these trolls in line.

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Above all, Eric Trump’s frank statement is valuable for its reminder that Donald Trump is a rogue player in American politics who has no equivalent among presidential nominees of any party. Rogues (whether states or individuals) operate outside of accepted norms and principles. In this lies their appeal to many – and their danger to many more. GOP leaders have been completely unable to handle him, from their hopeless fantasies that he would “pivot” and become more like them, to their acquiescence to Trump’s lowering the bar on the value of human life by inciting violence against nonwhites and non-Christians.

Donald Trump often proclaims how proud he is of his children, and Eric Trump’s comment makes clear he takes after his father in his understanding of democracy, and his conception of appropriate presidential family behavior. If Donald Trump is defeated on November 8, we’ll all be dodging a bullet.