“Babies in cages were no ‘mistake’ by Trump,” argues Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, “but test-marketing for barbarism.”

Is it possible that President Donald Trump is throwing out policy and rhetoric to test the waters? To determine just how much leash Americans will grant him?

O’Toole says we’d be foolish to think otherwise, and if we’re not careful, the leash could be altogether gone before we know it.

Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.

The signs are clear: Election meddling, dehumanizing of a chosen outgroup, and a functioning propaganda machine are all in place.

Rigged elections, O’Toole writes, are a key component of fascism. And not once but thrice the world recently has witnessed the attempted fixing of elections results – in the election of Trump, the success of Brexit, and though less successfully, in France.

Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.

Evidence of this testing is also present in Trump’s dehumanizing language surrounding Central American immigrants, creating an outgroup for Americans to rally against – and eventually pushing the moral envelope to increasingly heinous deeds.

You have to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can gradually up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination.

This is the stage the Trump administration and others are test marketing now, O’Toole says.

It is being done in Italy by the far-right leader and minister for the interior Matteo Salvini. How would it go down if we turn away boatloads of refugees? Let’s do a screening of the rough-cut of registering all the Roma and see what buttons the audience will press. And it has been trialled by Trump: let’s see how my fans feel about crying babies in cages. I wonder how it will go down with Rupert Murdoch.

Trump’s claim last week that immigrants “infest” the US is a test-marketing of whether his fans are ready for the next step-up in language, which is of course “vermin”. And the generation of images of toddlers being dragged from their parents is a test of whether those words can be turned into sounds and pictures. It was always an experiment – it ended (but only in part) because the results were in.

And it appears to be working – the test subjects appear ripe for taking the rhetoric further, and babies in cages were apparently no big thing.

Rupert Murdoch is happy with it – his Fox News mouthpieces outdid themselves in barbaric crassness: making animal noises at the mention of a Down syndrome child, describing crying children as actors. They went the whole swinish hog: even the brown babies are liars. Those sobs of anguish are typical of the manipulative behaviour of the strangers coming to infest us – should we not fear a race whose very infants can be so devious? Second, the hardcore fans loved it: 58 per cent of Republicans are in favour of this brutality. Trump’s overall approval ratings are up to 42.5 per cent.

The muscles that the propaganda machines need for defending the indefensible are being toned up. Millions and millions of Europeans and Americans are learning to think the unthinkable.

This is where we sit, according to O’Toole. Pre-fascism is well underway, and many of the people are ready for more.

They have already, in their minds, crossed the boundaries of morality. They are, like Macbeth, “yet but young in deed”. But the tests will be refined, the results analysed, the methods perfected, the messages sharpened. And then the deeds can follow.

Read the full op-ed here.