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.