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WASHINGTON - What will Donald Trump say next?
It could be anything.
The former president and 2024 Republican frontrunner returns to the campaign trail on Saturday, a week after he escalated his already-incendiary rhetoric by describing political opponents as "vermin."
An outrageous speaker for years, Trump's rhetoric now bounces around from confusion - mixing up the names of Joe Biden and Barack Obama, for example - to rodent-like terms once used by fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
"He describes a world of threats and a nation that is humiliated - he claims that there is danger everywhere and he's the only one who can provide safety - he claims that his opposition are enemies who cheat," said Jennifer Mercieca, an historian who teaches at Texas A&M University and specializes in political rhetoric.
"Those are the classic arguments of fascism."
'Trump Derangement Syndrome'?
Trump and his aides have derided opponents as "snowflakes" and argued he is telling hard truths about the state of the nation.
After President Joe Biden said that Trump's "vermin" comment "echoes language you heard in Nazi Germany in the '30s," the Trump campaign put out a statement calling the comment "despicable" and a sign of "Trump Derangement Syndrome."
"As Democrats like to say, democracy is on the ballot and Biden is tearing democracy to shreds," the Trump team said.
'He's lost the zip'
For the most part, Trump's Republican primary opponents have said little or nothing about Trump's most inflammatory rhetoric.
On the stump, Trump has invoked predecessor Barack Obama when referring to Biden and even to 2016 election opponent Hillary Clinton ("With Obama, we won an election that everyone said couldn't be won," he said during a September speech in Florida; he then corrected himself to say "Clinton.")
During a recent trip to Sioux City, Iowa, Trump said he was happy to be in "Sioux Falls," which is in South Dakota.
Trump has pronounced the Palestinian organization "Hamas" as "hummus." His opponents also criticized him for describing Hezbollah leaders as "very smart."
DeSantis, citing Trump's use of a teleprompter and frequent absences from the campaign trail, told voters in New Hampshire that "this is a different Donald Trump than in 2015 and 2016. He’s lost the zip on his fastball and has a sense of entitlement.”
Haley has also suggested that Trump is a politician of the past.
“I’ve always said that he was the right president at the right time and I agree with a lot of his policies,” Haley said recently on "Fox News Sunday.” "The problem is drama and chaos follows him, whether fairly or not. It is constantly following him and Americans feel it.”
Asked at an Iowa town hall Friday about Trump's "vermin" comment, Haley said: "The reality is I don’t agree with that statement any more than I agree when he said Hezbollah was smart ... It’s the chaos of it all, right?"
The 'vermin' speech
Last weekend in New Hampshire, Trump inserted a new and combustible term into his stump speech: "Vermin."
“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” Trump said in Claremont, N.H.
Earlier in the day, Trump used similar language - including "vermin" - in a Truth Social post paying tribute to Veterans Day.
Historians and political opponents noted that, back in the 1920s and 1930s, fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler often compared their opponents to rodents that had to be exterminated.
Trump is scheduled to speak Saturday at a "Team Trump Iowa Commit to Caucus Event" in Fort Dodge.
'Classic mainstream media move'?
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, asked on CNN about Trump's use of the term "vermin," said, "I haven't used that language," but also attacked the media for raising the issue.
"This is a classic mainstream media move," Ramaswamy said. "Pick some individual phrase of Donald Trump, focus on literally that word without actually interrogating the substance of what's at issue"
Another Trump opponent, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said most of the Republican candidates are using rhetoric that is too violent.
When DeSantis talks about reducing the federal bureaucracy, he has used the image of "slitting throats," Christie said. Haley, when discussing the Israel-Hamas war, has urged the Israelis to "finish them."
"In this moment of global turmoil, we cannot afford to hand power to those people who think that wielding it is a game," Christie said.
'One of them'
Historians and political analysts said Trump's increasingly violent rhetoric is designed to appeal to extremists who are part of his political base. They also noted that Trump is proposing a vast expansion of presidential power, including the power to investigate and prosecute political foes.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, historian and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, said Trump "is accelerating his incitements of hatred, now adding the dehumanization of his targets and using language that closely echoes Fascist rhetoric."
One reason, she said, is "to prepare people psychologically to accept the plans he is making public for mass deportations, mass internments, and other forms of persecution directed at immigrants and others he will target."
She added Trump and his aides are "using this rhetoric they consciously signal to extremists 'they are one of them.'"
Trump's legal troubles
Others see Trump's amped-up aggressive rhetoric as a sign of anxiety about his own future - particularly his legal troubles.
Trump is the first major presidential candidate in American history to face the prospect of up to four criminal trials next year.
"Despite Trump's dominant position in the Republican presidential primary race, he is growing increasingly vulnerable in multiple courts of law," said Lara Brown, author of "Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants."
He is charged in Georgia and in Washington, D.C., over efforts to overturn the 2020 election loss to Biden.
Trump also faces the prospects of a hush money trial in New York City and a documents trial in Florida.
Trump also faces civil litigation, including another defamation case in January involving writer and sexual assault accuser E. Jean Carroll.
Currently, the former president is in the midst of a civil trial to determine damages for bank fraud.
Trump, who has attacked prosecutors, state attorneys, and judges involved in his various cases, has also been hit with limited gag orders issued by judges.
"As the trial dates move closer," Brown said, "he grows more angry and feels more victimized."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Vermin:' Donald Trump is escalating his rhetoric as he runs for president