Why We Need To Be Careful With Language

One of the features of contemporary discourse that drives me wild (granted, it’s pretty easy to set me off) is the use of language to label and insult, rather than communicate. For pontificators on the Right,  every social program is socialism (and their view of socialism is indistinguishable from “godless communism”). On the left, the “F” word–fascism– gets tossed about with a similar lack of communicative precision.

The problem with indiscriminate labeling, of course, is that when the real thing comes along, the terminology has lost its proper effect.

Tom Nichols has recently examined that phenomenon in an essay for the Atlantic.

When I was a college professor teaching political science and international relations, I tried to make my students think very hard about using words such as war and terrorism, which we often apply for their emotional impact without much thought—the “war” on poverty, the “war” on drugs, and, in a trifecta after 9/11, the “war on terrorism.”

And so, I dug in my heels when Donald Trump’s critics described him and his followers as fascists. Authoritarians? Yes, some. Illiberal? Definitely. But fascism, a term coined by Benito Mussolini and now commonly used to describe Italy, Germany, and other nations in the 1930s, has a distinct meaning, and denotes a form of government that is beyond undemocratic.

Fascism is not mere oppression. It is a more holistic ideology that elevates the state over the individual (except for a sole leader, around whom there is a cult of personality), glorifies hypernationalism and racism, worships military power, hates liberal democracy, and wallows in nostalgia and historical grievances. It asserts that all public activity should serve the regime, and that all power must be gathered in the fist of the leader and exercised only by his party.

Nichols reviewed Trump’s political emergence, and explained why he was an “obnoxious and racist gadfly” but still a long way from fascism. Nichol’s points out that Trump lacked any political program–really, any consistency beyond his exhausting narcissism.

Trump had long wanted to be somebody in politics, but he is also rather indolent—again, not a characteristic of previous fascists—and he did not necessarily want to be saddled with any actual responsibilities. According to some reports, he never expected to win in 2016. But even then, in the run-up to the election, Trump’s opponents were already calling him a fascist. I counseled against such usage at the time, because Trump, as a person and as a public figure, is just so obviously ridiculous; fascists, by contrast, are dangerously serious people, and in many circumstances, their leaders have been unnervingly tough and courageous. Trump—whiny, childish, unmanly—hardly fits that bill. (A rare benefit of his disordered character is that his defensiveness and pettiness likely continue to limit the size of his personality cult.)

Nichols had continued to warn against what he called “indiscriminate use” of the term fascism– because he worried that the day might come when it would be accurate, and he wanted to preserve its power to shock and alarm.

That day has come.

Nichols points to Trump’s recent speeches–incoherent as usual, but now liberally sprinkled with terminology favored by Hitler and Mussolini, words like vermin and expressions like poisoning the blood of our country. He then enumerates the truly horrifying programmatic changes Trump and his allies have threatened to enact once he’s back in office.

Trump no longer aims to be some garden-variety supremo; he is now promising to be a threat to every American he identifies as an enemy—and that’s a lot of Americans.

Unfortunately, the overuse of fascist (among other charges) quickly wore out the part of the public’s eardrums that could process such words. Trump seized on this strategic error by his opponents and used it as a kind of political cover. Over the years, he has become more extreme and more dangerous, and now he waves away any additional criticism as indistinguishable from the over-the-top objections he faced when he entered politics, in 2015.

Precision in language matters. We’ve seen how the Right’s longtime practice of calling every government program “socialism” has eroded the negative connotations of that term. Nichols is correct in observing that overuse of the term fascist has dangerously dulled recognition of what that term actually means.

The contest between an aspiring fascist and a coalition of prodemocracy forces is even clearer now. But deploy the word fascist with care; many of our fellow Americans, despite their morally abysmal choice to support Trump, are not fascists.

As for Trump, he has abandoned any democratic pretenses, and lost any benefit of the doubt about who and what he is.

Indeed he has.



Incremental Progress

As regular readers of this blog know, I support a UBI–a universal basic income–rather than the current patchwork of social programs that are socially divisive and fiscally inadequate. That support rests on three convictions: first, that no one is truly free who must face a daily struggle just to survive; second, our current government safety-net policies are dividing, rather than unifying, our diverse population; and third, market economies work best when buttressed by a strong safety net.

As I’ve argued before, public policies can either increase or reduce polarization and tensions between groups. Policies intended to help less fortunate citizens can be delivered in ways that stoke resentments, or in ways that encourage national cohesion.  Think about widespread public attitudes about welfare programs aimed at poor people, and contrast those attitudes with the overwhelming majorities that approve of Social Security and Medicare. Polling data since 1938 shows growing numbers of Americans who believe poor people are lazy, and that government assistance—what we usually refer to as welfare—breeds dependence. These attitudes about poverty and welfare have remained largely unchanged despite overwhelming evidence that they are untrue.

Social Security and Medicare send a very different message. They are universal programs; virtually everyone contributes to them and everyone who lives long enough participates in their benefits. Just as we don’t generally hear accusations that “those people are driving on roads paid for by my taxes,” or sentiments begrudging a poor neighbor’s garbage pickup, beneficiaries of programs that include everyone are much more likely to escape stigma. In addition to the usual questions of efficacy and cost-effectiveness, policymakers should evaluate proposed programs by considering whether they are likely to unify or further divide Americans. Universal policies are far more likely to unify, an important and often overlooked argument favoring a Universal Basic Income.

There is a growing body of research favoring the approach, and I was interested to read a  New York Times column that traced growing support for the proposition that–duh– the best way to combat poverty is with money.

For the past three decades, federal aid for lower-income families has largely consisted of handing out coupons: housing vouchers for families that need housing; food stamps for families that need food; Medicaid cards for health care.

Sometimes, however, what families need most is a little extra money they can spend as they see fit. Researchers have found that even small amounts of cash can make a big difference in the lives of children from lower-income households, improving their grades, their chances of graduating from high school and their income as adults.

In an important shift in poverty policy, some states are starting to provide that kind of financial aid. During the recently concluded spring legislative season, states including Minnesota, Colorado and Connecticut created programs to give people money.

The increased interest in such programs was sparked by the temporary expansion of the federal child tax credit during the pandemic. The credit reduces the amount of federal tax that families with children owe, and in 2021, Congress raised the maximum credit per child to $3,600 from $2,000. Importantly, it also authorized payment of the entire amount in cash to households that didn’t owe enough in taxes to fully benefit. Until then, families that earned less money had received less help.

Unsurprisingly,Republicans refused to extend the program, and their refusal prevailed thanks to Senator Joe Manchin, who agreed with Senate Republicans that only people who work should qualify for help.

But for that one year, the government offered the same assistance for every eligible child.

Since then, Democratic majorities in seven states — often with support from Republican legislators — have created their own “refundable” child tax credits, the technical term for the policy of paying benefits in cash to families that can’t use the full value of a credit because they owe less than that amount in taxes. The only two states that had created refundable child tax credits before the pandemic, New York and California, both significantly increased eligibility.

The states hand out less money than did the federal government. The largest credit, which Minnesota created in May, offers up to $1,750 per child for households with incomes below $35,000 per year — roughly half the lapsed federal credit. But unlike the federal expansion, the state credits are meant to be permanent.

There is now a significant body of research supporting not only cash payments, but also the importance of a robust social safety net to market economies. Will Wilkinson, vice-president of the libertarian Niskanen Center, argues that the Left fails to appreciate the important role of markets in producing abundance, and the Right refuses to acknowledge the indispensable role safety nets play in buffering the socially destructive consequences of insecurity.

It’s slow, but perhaps we’re learning…

Defining Free Speech

When I taught about the First Amendment’s Free Speech protections, I would sometimes ask students to differentiate between a person pontificating that “Someone should lead a revolt against the government,” and a person at the head of an angry crowd moving toward a government official and yelling “We’re coming for you.”

The first of those is protected speech–it’s the utterance of an opinion. We might dislike the opinion, we might find it infuriating (much like burning a flag, which is the expression of a similar opinion), but it is an opinion, and protected by the First Amendment. The second, however, is a threat. To the extent that words constitute a credible threat, they are not within the protection of the First Amendment. Granted, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between an angry exhortation and a genuine threat, but legally, they are different.

A recent article in the New York Times considered the rise of anti-Semitic incidents on the nation’s campuses, and drew that distinction.

Free speech, open debate and heterodox views lie at the core of academic life. They are fundamental to educating future leaders to think and act morally. The reality on some college campuses today is the opposite: open intimidation of Jewish students. Mob harassment must not be confused with free speech.

Fareed Zakaria made much the same point in an essay in The Week.

I have strongly condemned the attacks of Oct. 7. I think that those who praise Hamas in any way are blind to the reality that it has been the principal opponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question. But the question to grapple with is how to handle views that either side finds deeply offensive. And of course, speech and assembly are not the same as physical intimidation and harassment, which prevent civil discourse…

The basic argument for free speech… is that it is better to hear those you violently disagree with than to ban or silence them. That way, debate happens out in the open and points are matched with counterpoints. The alternative is to drive discourse into the shadows and gutters of political life where it festers, turns into conspiracy theories, and often erupts into violence.

David French –a noted expert on the First Amendment–underlined the point that– just as there are international rules that apply to shooting wars, there are constitutional rules that apply to our nation’s culture wars. As he explained, “applying those rules properly is one way that a continent-size, multi-faith, multicultural society peacefully perseveres through profound division.”

Our civilization is intended to be a rights-based liberal democracy, where people who possess diametrically opposed points of view cannot just survive but also thrive without compromising their most fundamental beliefs — so long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others.

As French reminds his readers, freedom of speech includes freedom to be offensive and provocative–even freedom to advocate violence, but not to “incite or produce” lawless action.

Under this construct, public support for Hamas — or public support for carpet bombing Gaza — is constitutionally protected, even if it’s gross and immoral, and public institutions that suppress such speech violate the First Amendment….


The right to speak does not include a right to silence others. Putting up a poster is an act of protected speech. Tearing down that poster is not, even if the person destroying the poster is trying to make his or her own statement. Tearing down a poster is akin to shouting down a public speaker. Your protest cannot trump the speaker’s own right to free speech. The answer to a poster is another poster, not destroying the expression you hate, by tearing it down or defacing it any way…

The right to speak does not include a right to harass. This last concept is perhaps the most difficult to understand and apply consistently. The right to speak, as I said, absolutely includes a right to offend. The government cannot silence your speech simply because it makes people angry or upset…

This is a strict standard but certainly one that applies to threats and to acts of physical intimidation. If anti-harassment laws mean anything, they mean that students shouldn’t have to fear for their safety from fellow students simply because of their race, color or national origin. 

The prohibition of harassment includes actions prompted by antisemitism and Islamophobia that “detract from the victims’ educational experience.” 

I strongly recommend clicking through and reading French’s essay in its entirety, because it is an excellent primer on the constitutional interpretation and critical importance of  America’s Free Speech doctrine.

Bottom line: In America, people with defensible points of view express them through speech, not through vandalism, intimidation or thuggery. 



The Banality Of Crazy

Thomas Edsell recently had a guest essay in the New York Times that addressed a question I’ve had for a long time. Why don’t media figures state the obvious? Donald Trump is mentally ill. Crazy.

Edsell quoted political scientist Brian Klaas, whose Oct. 1 essay was titled, “The Case for Amplifying Trump’s Insanity.”

Klaas argued that the presidential contest now pits a 77-year-old racist, misogynist bigot who has been found liable for rape, who incited a deadly, violent insurrection aimed at overturning a democratic election, who has committed mass fraud for personal enrichment, who is facing 91 separate counts of felony criminal charges against him and who has overtly discussed his authoritarian strategies for governing if he returns to power against “an 80-year-old with mainstream Democratic Party views who sometimes misspeaks or trips.”

“One of those two candidates,” Klaas noted, “faces relentless newspaper columns and TV pundit ‘takes’ arguing that he should drop out of the race. (Spoiler alert: It’s somehow not the racist authoritarian sexual abuse fraudster facing 91 felony charges.)”

Klass points to the multiple pundits telling Biden to drop out, or engaging in “doom and gloom” predictions about Biden’s age. Meanwhile, the response to Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior is, as he says, “crickets.”

How is it possible that it’s not front page news when a man who soon may return to power calls for law enforcement to kill people for minor crimes? And why do so few people question Trump’s mental acuity rather than Biden’s, when Trump proposes delusional, unhinged plans for forest management and warns his supporters that Biden is going to lead us into World War II (which would require a time machine), or wrongly claims that he defeated Barack Obama in 2016?

Klaas thinks that media outlets have succumbed to what he called the “banality of crazy.” That has led them to ignore

even the most dangerous policy proposals by an authoritarian who is on the cusp of once again becoming the most powerful man in the world — precisely because it happens, like clockwork, almost every day.

Klass argues that the “don’t amplify him” strategy is nothing short of disastrous–and I agree.

Edsell reminds his readers that, three months after Trump took office, the Yale School of Medicine convened a conference called A Duty to Warn. Conference attendees issued a book titled  “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.”

I read that book; it was recommended by a psychiatrist friend. It had chapters with titles like “Our Witness to Malignant Normality,” “Unbridled and Extreme Hedonism: How the Leader of the Free World Has Proven Time and Again That He Is Unfit for Duty,” and “Pathological Narcissism and Politics: a Lethal Combination.”

I understand that a given individual can be deeply mentally ill. What I simply do not understand is how people can look at Donald J. Trump and fail to see a cognitively impaired, unstable and delusional individual who is getting worse as he ages.

Trump has pledged to shoot shoplifters (“We will immediately stop all the pillaging and theft. Very simply, if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store.”), pledged to “root out” the “communists, Marxist fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections and will do anything possible — they’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American dream.”)

On Nov. 6, Isaac Arnsdorf, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett reported in The Washington Post that Trump “wants the Justice Department to investigate onetime officials and allies who have become critical of his time in office, including his former chief of staff John F. Kelly and former attorney general William P. Barr, as well as his ex-attorney Ty Cobb and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley.”

Edsell includes quotes from several psychiatrists who attribute the spiraling of his insanity to age (he’s only 4 years younger than Biden) and the stress of his multiplying legal problems.

Most of the specialists I contacted see Trump’s recent behavior and public comments as part of an evolving process.

“Trump is an aging malignant narcissist,” Aaron L. Pincus, a professor of psychology at Penn State, wrote in an email. “As he ages, he appears to be losing impulse control and is slipping cognitively. So we are seeing a more unfiltered version of his pathology. Quite dangerous.”

In addition, Pincus continued, “Trump seems increasingly paranoid, which can also be a reflection of his aging brain and mental decline.”

Edsall and Klass are right: the media needs to call crazy, crazy.


A Clear Choice

Indiana’s Democrats may finally be wising up.

As lines firm up for Indiana’s 2024 election, the Democrats are putting together a slate of impressive candidates for statewide office. Destiny Wells has announced she is joining Jennifer McCormick and Marc Carmichael on that statewide ballot. That makes three absolutely first-rate candidates who will take on Indiana’s MAGA culture warriors.

You may remember that Destiny Wells was expected to defeat disgraced Diego Morales for Secretary of State a couple of years ago, even though that contest was down-ballot and would have required a significant amount of ticket splitting in Red Indiana. She failed to pull that off, but garnered wide praise for her intellect and demeanor. She is now taking on one of Indiana’s most reviled politicians, Attorney General Todd Rokita.

I have previously written about Jennifer McCormick, former Secretary of Education, who is running for Governor, and about Marc Carmichael, running for U.S.Senate. You can expect additional posts about Marc and his positions when I return from our trip to Australia and New Zealand–I am all in on his campaign, and not simply because Marc is running against Jim Banks, Indiana’s version of Marjorie Taylor Green. Marc is a great guy– the real deal; furthermore, he has outlined his policy priorities and I agree with every single one of them. 

I have also posted–a number of times–about the candidates they are running against. (If you type Rokita in this blog’s search bar, you’ll find numerous negative posts beginning when he was in Congress, and extending through this, his first–and hopefully only– term as AG, during which he has “distinguished” himself by repeatedly attacking the doctor who aborted a raped ten-year-old, by joining other GOP AG’s in efforts to obtain the medical records of women leaving the state for reproductive services, and by grandstanding whenever a camera is near. Rokita was recently reprimanded by the state’s Supreme Court, and is generally an embarrassment to the legal profession.

Republican Senate candidate Jim Banks is currently a member of the Wrecking Ball Congress–an anti-government, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ culture warrior married to a woman who heads up a several-state “pro-life” organization. He voted to overturn the 2020 election and to shut down the government, and supported loudmouth empty suit Jim Jordan for Speaker. 

We don’t yet know who the Republicans will nominate for Governor, but the likeliest is rich, self-important Mike Braun, who is leaving the Senate (where he signaled his disinterest in governing, and routinely voted for MAGA priorities). All five primary candidates seem to be promising tax cuts and vying for the Christian Nationalist vote.

There is absolutely no comparison between the quality of the Democratic candidates and the clown car that is the GOP ticket. If the Democrats can get their message out, I am confident they can win.

My only concern is funding. 

About the money: the Democrats don’t need to match the Club for Growth or the other far-right funders supporting GOP candidates, but they do need enough to get their message out– to let voters know who they are, where they stand, and how their positions differ from those of the MAGA culture warriors.

The data I’ve seen confirms that most Hoosiers agree with the Democrats’ message–especially on abortion and gun safety. But voters need to hear from these candidates, and that takes money. Hoosiers need to donate enough for a repeat of 2008 –when Barack Obama won Indiana– by funding this slate of outstanding Democrats.

The cartoonish Republicans on the ballot can’t defeat the Democratic ticket, but “savvy” political observers with a defeatist attitude about Indiana politics can. As I’ve said before, that defeatist attitude is far and away the biggest barrier to Democratic victories in this state. It prevents otherwise intelligent observers from recognizing–and funding– opportunities when they present themselves. 

Is Indiana a hard state for Democrats to win? Yes. Does this year offer unusual openings? Absolutely– especially in open, state-wide races where the GOP’s extreme gerrymandering is irrelevant.

They just need the resources to mount effective campaigns.

Next year, Hoosier Democrats will offer voters an absolutely sterling set of statewide candidates. These aren’t performative, “look at me I wanna be important” figures–they are serious, experienced, talented–and ethical. They believe in democracy. In Marc Carmichael’s words, they want to actually do the jobs. And unlike their opponents, they understand what those jobs entail, and are capable of fulfilling the duties of the offices involved.

And a bonus: in addition to getting good officeholders, Hoosiers can join the other states–including a number of Red ones– that have voted for reproductive rights and genuine religious liberty. 

We need to dig deep and send them money. It’s important!