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.


  1. Sadly trump/MAGA have for years met the 14 early warning signs of fascism as listed by the Holocaust Museum. I hate using the term because it sounds a bit like a “I know you are but what am I” school yard taunt but unlike the right calling democrats socialist or communist, and occasionally fascist, it is an honest description of the trump wing of the GOP

  2. Words matter. No question.

    But the solution is not necessarily in the precision selection of words; it is listening with the intent of understanding instead of distinguishing differences.

    That is impossible in words delivered to anonymous crowds, whether they are a large group in front of you, the speaker, or millions on mass media.

    Those settings are impossible because misunderstandings cannot be questioned by the listener and then clarified by the speaker.

    In the past and more intimate situations, much more often than not, communication is face-to-face. And, of course, it also is in mature classrooms.

  3. Trump may not be the definitive fascist but many of his top lieutenants are. Let’s not give the Republican Party and its leaders a pass.

    Nichols may believe that the party has the capacity to return to its conservative roots. My perspective, it needs to go the way of the Whigs and replaced by a new right center political party.

  4. While the Orange One does not have the intellect or stamina to develop ideas beyond voicing grievances, he has attracted and collected a coterie who appear to harbor truly fascist views and agenda. He is using them to cobble together his plans, and they are using him to advance their vision.

  5. Michael is correct about Trump’s “top” lieutenants. The drunk uncle Steve Bannon and the wretched Stephen Miller come to mind immediately. Then there’s Mike Flynn, the latest Republican iteration of Hermann Goering. Nice lineup.

    Here’s another word that begins with “M”: MONSTERS. Well done, Republican voters. What label shall thinking people attach to you? There are many, some of which begin with the letter “I”.

  6. Vernon, if Trump ever read a real book, he would have been well advised to start here:

    Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is a 2005 book by Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, published by Simon & Schuster. The book is a biographical portrait of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and some of the men who served with him in his cabinet from 1861 to 1865.

    Staff your staff with rivals instead of sycophants. This would have also required an unheard of Trump – listen to them.

  7. Michael writes, “My perspective, it [the GOP] needs to go the way of the Whigs and replaced by a new right-center political party.”

    That has already taken place, Michael. It’s called the Democratic Party. Now, what we need is a left-center party.

    As for Trump being a fascist, that’s debatable. The term used most often today is Neofascist, but its definition is still in flux. How about authoritarian populism — Trumpism?

    If only we had a leftist party in this country that functioned like a socialist party. We could expand to five legit parties without any restrictive requirements. The far-right could have their party or call it the GOP since there doesn’t seem to be much resistance within the party.

    Mitt Romney could join the Democratic Party. 😉

  8. Pete,

    I read that book you mentioned. True. But Trump is the intellectual, spiritual and moral antithesis of Lincoln. His pathology cannot tolerate anything BUT sycophants.

    These traits, and others, fuel my comments about the people who vote for monsters like Trump, et. al. Take ANY of the current Republicans in Congress, and you see a pantheon of corruption, stupidity and lunacy. They represent Republican voters perfectly.

  9. Trump’s “obnoxious and racist gadfly” description has advanced with adoption of many of Benito’s ism’s parts, and just lately he has been adopting the language of Benito’s ism, so must we refrain from using the term fascist to describe this fruitcake because not all of Benito’s ism’s sum of the parts has yet been achieved?

    Is a greedhog capitalist not to be called a greedhog capitalist because he or she once helped an old widow across a busy street? Must every i be dotted and every t crossed before we are permitted to label such conduct? Isn’t 85% a passing grade? When are we allowed to label Trump a fascist, after another 1/6? Are we to demand perfection in political wordplay?

    Nichols is a great writer and it’s tempting to adopt his views on “indiscriminate” use of the term fascist, but I, not a great writer, think that the jury is still out on this issue, if it is an issue.

  10. That Indiscriminate use of the word “fascist” to describe Trump started early on in 2017. It seemed to me to be the equivalent of yelling “fire” at the first sign of smoke coming out of a house about to being engulfed in flames.
    Fire alarms don’t need to be shut down; they need to be heeded.

  11. Truth is truth, and you can’t argue with truth, so if a public figure is using words that are defined by the historic and real definition of them, that vocabulary should be used.
    BUT, when not defined in a truthful way, the author SHOULD BE CHALLENGED.
    When these right wingers began to become popular their chosen word to belittle, denigrate, and lie to the public was “Liberal”. It was a word everyone was familiar with and had been in common usage since The New Deal.
    But when Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, & others began to associate it with good ideas and programs but continuously used it in a hateful way, on purpose, the Liberals stood by, thinking the negative impacts of its use would disappear, because ‘surely’ the public knows they are lying!!
    Well, the public didn’t know they were lying, and that has brought us to where we are today.
    So, our political language? I think it’s best use is when it is defined & challenged when it is a lie. Because words matter.

  12. It may be that Trump embraced fascism in the same way his followers embraced the label deplorables. OK, if you’re going to call me a whatever, I’ll be a super whatever. The human tendency to respond that way may be a better argument for avoiding indiscriminate labeling. Or pejorative labeling at all.

  13. Words matter – yes. But actions, MUCH MORE. Beware of what I say; however, you may lose your country by what I (and my minions) do….

  14. As Theresa points out, the smoke signaled the presence of fire, and the flames are being stoked by the sycophants and the truly demented trio of Bannon, Flynn, and Miller.
    TFG is a bag of narcissism and other disorders, with nowhere to go but crazier, as he feels the pressure of finally, for once in his putrid life, seeing consequences coming at him. I expect that the fear of that is what is driving his growing desperation.
    Now that his favorite Florida lady judge has postponed his trial in her court, there is thinking that this might work out to bring on the Georgia trial that much sooner.
    Language does matter, and his is getting less, and less, coherent.
    Poor baby.

  15. When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. James Waterman Wise stated these words, not Sinclair Lewis, although Sinclair Lewis probably would have wanted to say it.

    So the hatefulness in fascism completely contrasts with What Jesus Christ taught. It’s an absolute dichotomy with no gray area.

    Christ said to love your neighbor as yourself and to love God. He also said later on quoting the Old testament, to love your enemy because you could gain a brother.

    Christ was also ridiculed for having dinner with the wealthy and associating with those many considered unsavory. Because he came to preach to those people, to get them to change their ways. There was no social means test concerning who he would speak to. Everyone was considered equal.

    So, Christ was not a hypocrite, he socialized with everyone. And, the current climate as we referred to left and right, it really is convoluted. Adolf Hitler was considered right wing. He wasn’t all the way as far as you can go, but absolutely was not considered what we call a leftist. And that’s because Adolf Hitler wrapped himself in the flag and was carrying a cross hypocritically! He used religion to bludgeon, not to heal.

    The German Nazi party was also extremely active in the occult and finding relics that could help them win the war. So, you can actually feel that dichotomy between what Christ taught and what the Nazis believed.

    Christ was the antithesis of the social order concerning the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedrin. And he paid the price for going against them.

    Same thing is happening today with our social order. Those who claim to be god-fearing, are preventing individuals from being free moral agents and exercising their rights as such.

    Hypocrisy and it’s fascist handmaiden, is leading the demise of The social fabric of civilization. When that happens, probably more sooner than later, there will be no coming back from it.

  16. Has anyone read Project 2025?
    Close borders, round up anyone that looks illegal and deport them. Separate children from their parents. Create concentration camps. Lock up enemies of 45. Sounds like Fascism to me.

    We must not let him become 47.

  17. Agingl.Girl – right on. Who cares whether these are words? I care for these as potential actions and what they imply about what will enable them “behind the curtains” which will certainly be drawn.

  18. “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” A narcissistic Psychopath by any other name would be 1) A world class jerk, 2) A sick s.o.b., 3) if given any power, a brute, 4 ) A nazi!

  19. A lesson TFG and his minions/generals should take note of: The lives of the fascist leaders Hitler and Mussolini did not end well. Eva Braun married Hitler just in time to commit suicide with him. Benito and his wife (mistress?) ended up with their corpses hanging upside down in the town square, surrounded by a cheering, jeering mob.

    Little wonder that Melania is keeping her distance.

  20. I am waiting for the Biden campaign team (do they exist?) to get out there and instruct the public about “social democracy”! We have GIANT billboards here in the Myrtle Beach area with TFG portrayed as Superman (I kid you not). Where are the Biden signs???????

    And “a rose by any other name . . . .” Language is indeed important, but a picture is worth 1000 words.

  21. This has been in the works for a long time, read the information on Readiness Exercise 84. Much of this was initiated under the Reagan administration. The plans for deporting South Americans, to put black Americans in camps, because they would be considered the agitators. Some of these camps exist today although in bad repair. That’s reality, it’s available to all if you look. It’s a hint into the future, but many refuse to see! The underlayment for major change in social structure doesn’t just crop up in a couple of years. Pieces must be put in place, laws changed, infrastructure procured, minds scrubbed of common sense, and finally, The actionable plan which cannot be reversed reeks anarkal havoc which feeds itself with its self-perpetuating fuel, Hatred!

  22. TFG has always displayed fascist tendencies, but our democratic Republic in which he was operating has built in obstacles to his aim. When he was Potus he constantly chipped away at the US separation of powers to enhance his trajectory to ultimate dictatorial power. These aims were on full display with his high signs of white supremacy (thumb to index finger) during his rally rants and his many “fans” understood and supported them. Also his word salad rants were used to rally his followers and confuse/distract his critics. With the power of the presidency, he was incrementally building momentum toward his ideal of complete dominating power. He also displayed fascist ideals with his embracing of anything military, boasting of “his generals” and insisting that general Milley accompany him to town square (church) during the uprising of protests after the police murder of George Floyd. Trump planned for military parades and met privately with Putin and Kim Jong Un who are fascist dictators. Conspiracy? I wouldn’t doubt it. The firing of all the IG’s was also indicative of corrupt intent and easing his path toward fascism.
    Facing the music for his continuous crime wave of behavior before, during and after being Potus is now testing US Justice department and court systems. Will the strong arm of the law and resolve of the American people be strong enough to bring justice to this situation.

  23. How many legs does our democracy have to remain standing? Gone – real public education for all teaching critical thinking, real journalism calling truth to power everywhere…next up, the rule of law – tottering.

  24. Exactly Lester,

    When complete lawlessness and criminality seep into the workings of government, the lawless rule. And they use the lies they weave to authorize their criminality. It really is like a cancer, you have the nefarious criminal element gaining control of state legislators and enacting laws that are damaging for the social structure. Rolling back protections that had been bought in blood. And as this cancer moves its way up the ladder, there is no breaker in the way of the killer wave coming.

    Unfortunately, these things don’t happen in the dead of night, they happen out in the open, available for all to see. And still it’s claimed that it’s catching folks by surprise. Appealing to folks good nature is a fool’s errand, because, most don’t have a good nature. I believe Barack Obama called that good nature, “the better angels,” unfortunately, those angels seem to have fallen.

    If you find a couple of roaches running around your house, do you just step on those roaches? Do you buy a can of Raid? That doesn’t work. Eventually, you have to wrap the entire house in plastic and pump in poison gas. Fumigating every nook and cranny. But the willpower and the wherewithal to do that in the political realm isn’t even close to being there. Eventually the infestation won’t just be one house, it’ll be all of them.

    For any system to function properly, both sides have to play by the same rules. If you’re playing chess, play chess. You can’t play checkers and chess at the same time!

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