I Love Tom Nichols…..

I recently signed up for Peacefield, a newsletter by Atlantic writer Tom Nichols. The name Peacefield is evidently a reference to something that escapes me–but Nichols is my kind of writer: he doesn’t mince words, and he respects language.

And words were the subject of this particular newsletter.

Nichols began by relating his debates with a fellow faculty member during his time as an academic. ( At the time, his colleague was far to the left of him.)

We’d run through a whole lexicon of political insults, but my favorite moment was a day when I exclaimed “Bolshevik!” and he barked “Hun!” and the two of us broke up in a prolonged fit of laughter….

We enjoyed these jousts, in part because we understood the words we were using and knew when we meant them and when we were kidding. We argued over who had the better policies, and over whose view of human nature and the right order of society should prevail. But I didn’t think he was a Communist and he didn’t think I was a Nazi.

Now we use these terms all day long and no one knows what they mean.

Nichols is frustrated by “how much of our public discourse is short-circuited by people who don’t understand basic terminology.”

I share that frustration. It is impossible to have a genuine, productive debate or discussion with someone who is using words that don’t mean what that person thinks they mean. Human communication is difficult even when the parties to a discussion both use language precisely; it’s impossible when one party simply uses terminology as an insulting–and  inaccurate– label.

In the linked article, Nichols gives “quick and dirty” definitions to terms that are often used indiscriminately–for example, Liberal Democracy.

What it is: A system of government that lets you read cranky articles about politics like the one you’re reading right now.

More specifically, democracies derive a ruling mandate from the free choices of citizens, who are equal before the law and who can freely express their preferences. Liberal democracies enshrine a respect for basic human rights (including the right of old cranks to speak their mind). Rights are, one might say, unalienable: The losers of elections do not have their rights stripped away. All citizens abide by constitutional and legal rules agreed upon in advance of elections and are willing to transfer power back and forth to each other peaceably.

What it isn’t: “The majority always rules.” Getting everything you want every time. Governing without negotiation or compromise. Winning every election. Never living with outcomes that disappoint you. Never running out of toilet paper or cat food.

Democracy, in sum, is not “things you happen to like.”

He goes through an entire political lexicon, defining what various terms mean, and especially what they don’t mean. For example, after  defining “Authoritarianism,” he explains what it isn’t.

Any rules you don’t like. Any laws you don’t like. Any election that you didn’t like. Anything that inconveniences or annoys you. Anything that limits you doing whatever you want, whenever you want, in any way that you want. Paying your taxes, obeying speed limits, or wearing a mask in a store are not “authoritarianism.”

He also offers a snarky explanation of libertarianism, and  particularly good definitions of Capitalism and Socialism. And he reminds us that precision in language matters– that everything you don’t like isn’t necessarily fascism or socialism.

The term I wish more people would think about—and this is why I wrote a book about it—is illiberal democracy, because that’s where we’re headed. This is what happens when everything about liberal democracy—tolerance, trust, secular government, the rule of law, political equality—gets hollowed out and all people remember is the word democracy.

And of course, once you dump all that other stuff, democracy means “absolute rule by 50.01 percent of the voters.”

As Nichols notes, this is what we’re seeing now in places like Turkey and Hungary. All that matters is winning elections.

The danger here is not that Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán or others are fascists. They’re not, and unlikely to be, since they lack the infrastructure, mass party, ideology, and absolute cult of personality that we saw in the 1930s. (Trump is far too stupid to be an effective fascist, but he definitely has a cult of personality. Still, the Trump Cult is small potatoes compared with what Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini built. Trump is more like a Mickey Mouse version of Juan Perón.)

The danger Nichols sees is the very real possibility that the extremists will destroy the guardrails of democracy–those democratic “norms” that seem to be eroding in real time.

And as he reminds us, the first step is debasing the language.


  1. And all this time I thought the problem was that “those people” were crazy. I’m so happy to know that the real problem is the imprecise use of our language😁! Mr. Nichols is a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

  2. Here’s one,

    Josephus coined the phrase in the first century in his book “Against Apion.”

    “Some people haven’t trusted the supreme political power to monarchies, others to oligarchies, yet others to the masses. Our lawgiver, however, was attracted by none of these forms of Polity, but gave to his Constitution the form of what,,, if a forced expression be permitted,,, may be termed a “Theocracy” placing all sovereignty and authority in the hands of god.”

    By scripture, the only true Theocracy was the ancient Israelites in their Exodus from Egypt. Moses was God’s Emissary and those Israelites witnessed miraculous things that could have only been caused by God.

    And, still the people rebelled which delayed their entry into what was known as The promised Land for 40 years, when the generation that rebelled passed away.

    What many are trying to do today in a secular society, is to reconstitute a Theocracy as described by Josephus. All who do not abide by whoever is supposed to be the leader will be put to death or exiled!

    Leviticus the 19th chapter is a good example of the “Theocratic Laws” Moses instituted as an Emissary of God. The Abrahamic Covenant gave eventual rise to the Mosaic Law. And many of the laws, the hundreds of commandments, besides the most famous 10, are in use today in Secular Society.

    Of course leaders of certain bastardized Evangelical groups, along with some in government, who wish a Theocracy are genuinely ignorant of Theocratic Law or what it truly means.

    As Josephus plainly stated, the law giver, was not involved in politics. Therefore, these charlatans claim “a form of Godly Devotion but proof false to its power.”

    The current attempt at theocratic authority could more be considered Zealotry. They seek Atonement in the form of misguided and unauthorized Retribution.

    Or as scripture calls them, “Men Of Lawlessness.”

  3. Tom Nichols blocked me on Twitter a few years ago and I’ll never understand why. But it happens.

    But I find NO comfort in his notion that TFG is too stupid to be an effective fascist and I would argue that he AND many of his GQP cohorts in federal, state and local elected offices are, in fact, fascist or fascist-leaning. And I challenge anyone to read the dictionary definition of the word to argue otherwise. All boxes checked. What else are we SUPPOSED to call them? Illiberal Democrats??

    Nichols hasn’t answered the tough question: How long can our democratic republic form of federal government survive if as many as 40-50% of its citizens can never accept a national election loss?? Ever.

    It’s a simple question with no easy answers. As it is with most political pundits…Nichols mostly expounds on the problem…not the solution, which is complex, multifaceted and will require decades to realize. No matter what it looks like, the 50% that DO embrace liberal democracy needs to become 55% then 60%, then 70%, etc. etc. until we’re out of this morass.


  4. Nichols is underselling the concern when he worries about “absolute rule by 50.01 percent of the voters” — because, with Republicans gaming of elections/systems/disenfranchising voters, we are actually heading toward “absolute rule by 40-45 percent of the voters.”

    I’m as troubled as Nichols by the loss of all the other qualities of “Liberal Democracy” (as properly defined), but the biggest loss is likely going to be the loss of elections where ALL votes count and where the actual majority wins.

    If we are unable to pass most of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, America’s days as a Democracy are truly numbered.

  5. David S.; the RNC selected Trump as their presidential candidate with a 20% – 80% “majority”. Go figure!

  6. I’d agree trump is too stupid to be an effective fascist but many around him are not. Otherwise an excellent read. Words have meanings, I wish more people would respect that.

  7. Academics must watch for pontification. It may be an excuse, as Patrick says, to deny the reality they helped create.

    While we debate the meaning of words, the Russian diplomats are mocking our “leaders” and “media” over their insistence that Russia is getting ready to invade Ukraine.

    Why does the USA have to drag us and NATO into World War 3? Why this sense of urgency? What are they trying to cover up or prevent?

  8. Sheila, by the way, I did look up ,”Peacefield.”

    Peacefield is the name of John Quincy Adams family home in Quincy massachusetts. I believe it’s also called “Old House.”

  9. Patrick,

    You are absolutely right! Short answer, this form of government cannot survive. And more than likely, 99.9% probability that it won’t last to see another century.

  10. David S.,

    The John Lewis Voting Act deals solely with how people register and vote. It has no provisions whatsoever to deal with how Trump and his gang attempted to steal the 2020 presidential election, through the vote counting and certification process. Priority No. 1 needs to be fixing the Electoral Count Act, the vagueness of which the Trump gang tried to exploit to overturn popular election results. There is actually bipartisan support to fix the ECA’s problems. It desperately needs to be done and soon.

  11. I’ll have to respectfully disagree with Tom RE DJT as I believe he is a fascist as does President Obama.

  12. I suspect as a nation we have seen far worse times that would have generated a great deal more expression of despair only if the internet was invented much earlier. The word resiliency comes to mind. Enduring values survive absurd dribble that fails to deny access to the pursuit of happiness by our grand children.

  13. Patrick W., I feel your pain. I once took to Twitter (which I don’t often do) to voice my disagreement to something commentator Matthew Dowd had said about the Supreme Court. I offered a thorough and respectful explanation for why I thought he was wrong. Dowd immediately blocked me. I actually like the guy and agree with about 95% of everything he says. Apparently he doesn’t like the free exchange of ideas on social media.


    I have long said we as a nation dodged an authoritarian bullet because Trump is not a smart man. Imagine if Trump had the intelligence of someone like Putin or Stalin? Trump never was able to get to 50% support because he wasn’t smart enough to exploit the opportunities he was given. I know Charlie Sykes says Trump has reptilian smarts, but I don’t even buy that. Every time Trump has the opportunity to make the smart move politically, he does the opposite. Not smart.

  14. The absolutely unique and capable individual that you and I are came from what we were born with and into and have experienced since, compacted into memories packed into our brains.

    What left the ape in us behind was the fact that our heads are capable of uttering so many different noises and our ears could distinguish among them and we had the good sense to define certain combinations of noises to mean certain things.

    In fact some of us, but not me, can pack in multiple dictionaries of different languages.

    No matter which sound we hear, or the representation of that we see inscribed, meaning is attached from our memories.

    Without that we’d return to the jungle.

    Hucksters know all of this so sell their wares by inventing new sounds or new meanings to old sounds and define them so as to be compelling to certain people with certain kinds of other memories of life.

    Some people make good livings by being broadcast hucksters selling whatever ware they are paid to broadcast to millions of people. The larger and more loyal their audience, the more purchasing power they are granted.

    That is the nature of the threat turning us from the formerly United States of America, into the States formerly United in America.

    We need to free ourselves from the market of broadcast opinions and sales and return to the market of expertly considered and accurately communicated ideas in preparation for the coming reality instead of the imagined realities created by professional hucksters.

  15. Has Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act (known as the War Measures Act prior to 1988) because he is at war with Canadian citizens?

    Allowing for the suspension of civil liberties, the Act is designed to be declared in the event of insurrection, invasion, or war.

    It gives the federal government special powers at times of national emergency to do things that the law would normally disallow.

    If Trudeau maintains the Act indefinitely, under the pretext of maintaining public health in time of disease contagion, what would that process of acquisition of societal control be called?

  16. Tom Nichols
    I hope you’ll all consider subscribing to my newsletter with
    , “Peacefield.” (It’s named for the home of the OG of New England curmudgeons, Mr. Adams of Massachusetts.) You’ll get me – and the Atlantic!
    Even Mr. Jefferson would do it.

    I see John sorg found Peacefield, but I decided to post mine since I took the time to look it up.

    I believe this is the same Tom Nichols I used to read in Madison (Wisc) Capitol Times a few years back. Always a must read.

  17. @ Gordon Evans. My wife and I live half the year in southeastern Ontario, in a rural area where there are only two ICU beds in a 30 mile radius. This limited capacity works during ‘normal’ times and is repeated exponentially throughout Canada. Most Canadian citizens do not need a mandate. They understand the insidious threat of COVID vs. scarce triage access in rural areas. Compliance to best public health protocol is practiced from the feed store to the marinas. No nonsense. BTW … even among Canadian truckers. No. Trudeau has waged a war against COVID to save Canadian citizen lives and their per capita death rates outperform with far fewer incident ratios than the USA. Canadians are more angry about far right American insurgency into the sovereignty of Canada (for inciting truckers, a significant number from USA, to protest by joining the so called Freedom Convoy blocking surface routes into Ottawa and at border crossings) than they are with Trudeau.


  19. Innocent until proven guilty, Lenny.
    Theocracy requires a god who isn’t indifferent, John Sorg.
    We’re not going to abolish lying about words by fiat, Sheila.
    The answer is governance, Gordon.
    The ideology you’re describing is Technocracy, Pete.
    They really are out to get you, Todd.

  20. Thanks Norris for your view as a “part-time” Canadian.

    My friend’s experience with Canadian healthcare (emergency appendectomy) was excellent.

    I, too, see the Covid death rate per capita in Canada is one-third that of the US — very impressive.

    The Canadian COVID death rate among cases has dropped from over 50% in March, 2020, to ca. 3% at the start of 2022, to ca. 1% in Feb., 2022.

    It seems like Canada has COVID well under control.

  21. Norris, another thought:

    If the above data are correct, and Canadian deaths among COVID cases (now fallen to 1% in Feb., 2022) are asymptotic, i.e., they will approach, but never reach 0% (perhaps due to co-morbidities), it seems Canada’s COVID battle is won.

    It seems that no further vaccinations, therapies, border-cross restrictions, digital passports, masks, isolations, etc., can improve Canada’s present COVID outcome.

    From one non-epidemiologist to another non-epidemiologist, what do you think? Is this reasoning sound?

    Shall we inform PM Trudeau that we’ve solved the Ottawa conflict?


  22. To digress from the main point, which I love as a homage to Bierce, you are missing some important points, Gordon.

    Declaring victory early against a disease, especially a viral disease is not the wisest choice. Perhaps the effects will be more marginal, but do you want to be that “small number that no longer matters”?

    More significantly, vaccines, and being used to the idea of restrictions when we need them, will help mitigate the effects of the next wave. Beyond that it might prevent the next wave. Where did Delta come from, or Omicron? From the body of un-vaccinated people, aka walking bio-weapons labs.

    We would all love to go back to LVC (Life Before Covid), but do just rationalize why it is OK now — well we have been making that mistake in the US for a couple of years now and see where it has gotten us.

    Thought experiment – think of the virus as a “bad buy” with a gun – it has a mix of bullets and blanks. Your actions, and more so, our collective actions, can replace some of the bullets with blanks. Our actions can also mess with his aim (milder cases). Do you really want to take your chances, or would you prefer to replace a few more live rounds. I, for one, vote for more blanks and bad aim.

    Back to the main point – Loved Nichols article, but Red-baiting has been a time honored tradition in this country, even worse than the ineffective Fascist-baiting from the left. If only we could use language with precision.

  23. John: proof/prove, the intention was understood

    Patrick Wiltshire: correct, tfg is not stupid, that is what’s frightening about him

  24. John,
    Remaking a point I made yesterday:

    The Canadian COVID death rate among cases has dropped from over 50% in March, 2020, to ca. 3% at the start of 2022, to ca. 1% in Feb., 2022.

    I, admittedly, am not an epidemiologist, but I fail to see the PM Trudeau declaration of “…a national public order emergency — the first such declaration in half a century…” (as 2/20/22 NY Times reported) as warranted.

    Granted, PM Trudeau has authority that must be obeyed, but he is facing more opposition than from truckers. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is quoted in the NYT in this manner:

    “Invoking such sweeping new powers was “unnecessary, unjustifiable and unconstitutional…” CCLA plans to sue the government over the move.”

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