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.


Ezra Klein Read DeSantis’ Book So We Don’t Have To

As horrifying as I find the prospect of TFG (aka Donald Trump) retaking the Presidency, the idea of Ron DeSantis in the Oval Office makes me even more nauseous.

At a gloomy brunch a couple of days after the 2016 election, a friend opined that the only thing that would save the country was TFG’s obvious incompetence. She was right–so many of the administration’s efforts failed because TFG’s ragtag group of “captains of industry” had absolutely no idea how government operated (or, in many instances, what governments are for.)

Ron DeSantis poses a significantly greater threat. He’s smart. And as Ezra Klein has recently written, he thinks Trump didn’t go far enough toward the dark side.

Klein says it’s a mistake to dismiss campaign books written by politicians. He thinks we  “can learn a lot about people by paying close attention to how they want to be seen.” And he notes that Ron DeSantis’s “The Courage to be Free”–while not a good book– is a revealing one.

As I read through it, I started marking down every time he told a story about using the power of his office to punish or sideline a perceived enemy or obstacle. There is his bill to make it easier to sue tech companies if you feel they’re discriminating against your politics. Here are his laws limiting what teachers can say about gender identity and imposing criminal penalties on medical providers who offer certain types of gender-affirming care. There’s his effort to punish Disney for opposing his anti-L.G.B.T.Q. laws by removing its self-governing status. Here’s his suspension of Andrew Warren, the state attorney for Hillsborough County, because Warren declined to enforce laws criminalizing abortion. There’s the bill to increase criminal penalties against rioters during Black Lives Matter protests.

Then there’s what DeSantis wants to do, but hasn’t yet done. He thinks the federal government has become too “woke” and too liberal, and Congress should “withhold funding to the offending executive branch departments until the abuses are corrected.” He is frustrated that President Donald Trump didn’t do more with an authority known as Schedule F that can reclassify around 50,000 federal employees to make them more like political appointees, enabling the president “to terminate federal employees who frustrate his policies.” He tried to make it easier to sue media outlets for defamation, though that plan got bogged down in the Florida Legislature. Outside the book, he has called for a national “reckoning” on Covid and promised to hold people like Dr. Anthony Fauci “accountable” for the damage he believes they’ve caused.

Klein hones in on the essence of DeSantis’ view of Trump–and his own approach to  governing. DeSantis argues that, despite Trump’s complaints about the “deep state,” he didn’t use the power of the Presidency to destroy what DeSantis regards as the “threatening forces of the left.” (My friend would argue–correctly–that this was due to Trump’s incompetence, rather than an absence of bile.) Whatever the reason, as Klein reports, “DeSantis is trying to show, in vignette after vignette, that he has both the will and the discipline to do what Trump did not.”

DeSantis delights in describing the methodical, relentless effort he put in to bending the state of Florida to his will. He describes winning Florida’s governorship and ordering his transition team to “amass an exhaustive list of all the constitutional, statutory, and customary powers of the governor.” Much of the rest of the book is an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, account of how he used them.

In media coverage of his campaign, DeSantis emerges as a humorless martinet, utterly unable to engage with people in retail politics.  Klein notes that he also can’t  bring himself to

“extend even a modicum of compassion to his opponents. When he describes the George Floyd protests he doesn’t spare even a word condemning or grieving Floyd’s murder. His anti-L.G.B.T.Q. agenda is unleavened by even the barest sympathy for L.G.B.T.Q. kids.”

Despite painting a truly appalling picture of Florida Man, Klein warns readers not to underestimate his chances–a warning that sends chills up and down my spine.

If American voters needed any further confirmation of the Republican Party’s U-Turn from political party to cult, DeSantis might be that U-Turn’s poster boy.

The GOP of my younger days was firmly opposed to what the party characterized as government over-reach. It was so averse to the exercise of federal authority, especially, that the party opposed many programs and regulations that were clearly warranted. Today, however, Republicans like DeSantis are enthusiastic about wielding government power– so long as government is  imposing an agenda benefitting Republican oligarchs and culture warriors, and ensconcing Republican politicians in office.

There’s a reason Neo-Nazis support DeSantis. He’s a fellow fascist.


Are We There Yet?

I often think about that old quote asserting that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Of course, there are obviously lots of things that are “new under the sun,” (these days, AI comes to mind) but the very human tendency to use words as labels or weapons, rather than as tools for communication, isn’t one of them. That probably began when the snake sold Adam and Eve on eating the apple.

The problem is, when we use words as  signals or epithets, rather than transmittals of descriptive content, it becomes very difficult to engage in meaningful conversation,  let alone political debate.

Today, terms like “fascist” and “woke” are used to label political opponents rather than to describe particular beliefs or behaviors .

Much like “woke,” (which apparently means “not members of my MAGA tribe”) “fascist” tends to cover a lot of political ground. Which leads me to that saying about nothing being new under the sun, at least when it comes to political discourse.

Back in the day, right-wingers scorned undefined “liberals,” turning the word into a negative accusation. As a consequence, those of a liberal political bent began to self-identify as “progressive.” And as long as I can remember, those on the political far right have reliably labeled any and all social programs as “socialism,” depriving that term of any descriptive use.  Etc.

When words lose their meaning, it becomes very difficult to assess where we are as a nation. Are we on the road to totalitarianism? Fascism?  Given the Supreme Court’s current fondness for returning questions of fundamental rights to the various (and very different) states, is it even possible to talk about a “we”?

What triggered me, and led to this disquisition, was an article warning that America was  dangerously close to fascism.  (My immediate take, for what it is worth, is that the farce that is our current Congress defies comparison to any coherent system.  It’s as though we elected the Keystone Kops.) Like so many articles of the sort, this one didn’t bother to define fascism–but how do we answer the question “are we there yet” unless we know where “there” is?

In my little book Talking Politics, I offered definitions of these very fraught terms.

As I noted, socialism may be the least precise of these political labels. It generally gets (mis)applied to mixed economies where the social safety net is much broader and the tax burden somewhat higher than in the U.S.—Scandinavian countries are an example. Those are more accurately called welfare states, or examples of democratic socialism, since genuinely socialist systems are those in which a fairly autocratic government owns the means of production. It is really important to draw that distinction. When Republicans scream about “socialism,” what they usually warn against is communism; socialism can be an “interim step” toward communism.

Communism begins with the belief that equality is defined by equal results; this is summed up in the well-known adage “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” All property is owned communally, by everyone (hence the term “communism”). In practice, this meant that all property was owned by the government, ostensibly on behalf of the people. In theory, communism erases all class distinctions, and wealth is redistributed so that everyone gets the same share.  In practice, the government controls the means of production and most individual decisions are made by the state. Since the quality and quantity of work is divorced from reward, there is little incentive to innovate or produce, and ultimately, countries that have tried to create a communist system have collapsed (the USSR) or moved toward a more mixed economy (China).

Fascism is sometimes called “national Socialism,” and people who are unaware of history (and ignorant of political philosophy) sometimes get them mixed up, despite the fact that fascism differs significantly from socialism. The most striking aspect of fascist systems is the elevation of the nation—a fervent nationalism (MAGA??) is central to fascist philosophy. There is a union between business and the state; although there is nominally private property, government controls business decisions. Fascist regimes tend to be focused upon a (mythical) glorious past, and to uphold traditional class structures and gender roles as necessary to maintain the social order.

Fascism generally involves a radical authoritarian nationalism, with fascists seeking to unify the nation through the elevation of the state over the individual, and to mobilize the national community through discipline, indoctrination, and physical training. Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy are the most notable examples of Fascist regimes.

Now that we’ve defined our terms (and noted some disquieting parallels), we can ask: where are we heading? And I sure hope  we’re not there yet.


Florida Man…Again

For the past couple of years, comedians have focused on nutty things done by people–okay, men–who live in Florida, leading to a much-used meme about “Florida man.”

Maybe there’s something in the water that leads Florida guys to lose it–that would go part way, at least, to explaining Ron DeSantis. (Nothing I can come up with can explain the Florida voters who support him.)

Diane Ravich recently reported on  DeSantis’ headlong dive into authoritarian anti-Americanism.

Florida has become a Petri dish for potential fascism. DeSantis has made war on African Americans, on gays, on transgender people, on drag queens, on public schools, on higher education, even on private corporations (Disney). He likes to stand behind signs that declare Florida is “free,” but no one is free to disagree with him. That’s not freedom.

Now DeSantis has proposed to create a military force that answers only to him. To call out the National Guard, he must get federal permission. That’s not good enough for him. He wants a Florida state guard. Some other states have them, but they are not in the hands of a would-be dictator whose vanity knows no limits.

Ravich quoted a CNN report on the proposal that included the following paragraph:

But in a nod to the growing tension between Republican states and the Biden administration over the National Guard, DeSantis also said this unit, called the Florida State Guard, would be “not encumbered by the federal government.” He said this force would give him “the flexibility and the ability needed to respond to events in our state in the most effective way possible.” DeSantis is proposing bringing it back with a volunteer force of 200 civilians, and he is seeking $3.5 million from the state legislature in startup costs to train and equip them.

The thought of giving this tin-pot would-be dictator the authority to call out troops to “respond to events” triggers all kinds of questions. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture DeSantis using his chosen goons to break up peaceful demonstrations–or other “woke” events like those nefarious Drag Story Hours at the local library.

And speaking of DeSantis’ “war on woke,” Florida media are reporting on recent actions taken by judges Herr DeSantis has placed on the state Supreme Court

Florida judges no longer will need to learn how to at least try to ensure “fairness and diversity” while applying the law under a rule change that the Florida Supreme Court has adopted by a nearly unanimous vote.

Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct still requires 30 hours of classes every three years about “judicial professionalism, opinions of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, and the Code of Judicial Conduct.”

However, the court has stripped language mandating education in “fairness and diversity” to count toward the requirement.

The order was signed by Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz and by associate justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston, John Couriel, Jamie Grosshans, and Renatha Francis. All but two of them–Canady and Polston– were placed on the court by DeSantis.

One Justice, Jorge Labarga, dissented strongly. Labarga, appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, wrote that  “this unilateral action potentially eliminates vital educational content from our state courts’ judicial education curriculum and does so in a manner inconsistent with this court’s years-long commitment to fairness and diversity education… Moreover, it paves the way for a complete dismantling of all fairness and diversity initiatives in the State Courts System. I strenuously dissent.”

And of course, DeSantis continues to wage war on education–especially, but not exclusively, higher education.

As one Florida newspaper has reported, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Florida universities had been told to prioritize diversity plans. Two years later, DeSantis is gutting them. The report quoted one official saying “It takes years to get where we’ve gotten. It takes days to destroy it.” 

As the Guardian has reported,

Florida’s rightwing Republican governor, Ron DeSantis – and likely would-be presidential candidate for 2024 – has launched a relentless campaign of attack on higher education in the state, seeking to appeal to his party’s Trumpist base by positing that the state’s colleges and universities are a bastion of liberal extremism that needs to be reformed.

Last week DeSantis unveiled plans for a sweeping overhaul of Florida’s state university system that has left thousands of in-state students and faculty members feeling by turns indignant and dumbfounded as the man seen by many as Donald Trump’s only serious Republican rival set them up as a punchbag for his self-declared “war on woke”.

DeSantis may have trouble selling his “in your face” fascism to a national electorate. It’s hard to see how he might “pivot” to the center after winning the GOP nomination–even assuming he can wrest that nomination from Trump.

But “Florida man” is undoubtedly the (terrifying) face of today’s GOP.


Where We Are

I’d planned to introduce today’s post with a rundown of what we’ve narrowly escaped OR what comes next after a disappointing midterm. I still don’t know where the results will land us, but it is obviously neither a rout nor the Blue Wave I’d hoped to see.

The good news, as Heather Cox Richardson reminded us yesterday, is that many more Americans today are concerned about our democracy, and determined to reclaim it, than were even paying attention to it in 2016. As she pointed out, we see new organizations, new connections, new voters, and new efforts to remake the country better than it has ever been.

And new efforts to prevent a rightwing populist takeover.

In last Sunday’s New York Times book review, two recent books exploring the decline of democracy investigated “the F word”–fascism

As the review noted, the use of that epithet used to be reserved for extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. No longer. Even mild-mannered Joe Biden has admitted what virtually any person familiar with politics and political history can see: the Republican “MAGA philosophy” is–if not full-on–at least “semi-fascism.”

If we look at the 1920sand ’30s versions of fascism, some things are different but other elements are frighteningly similar.  As the reviewer noted, anti-democratic ultranationalism — one definition of fascism — looks different today, but overall,  MAGA Republicanism “employs many of the rhetorical tropes of traditional fascist politics.” Those tropes include a focus on racial purity, a proud anti-intellectualism, and especially the invocation of “a mythic past and appeals to blood and soil.”

The two books focused specifically upon fascism that were reviewed by the Times were “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them” by Jason Stanley, and “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” by Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Both authors emphasized the importance of “alternative facts”–invocation of a mythical past, and the absence of a shared factual reality.

The invocation of the past is politically strategic. “It is never the actual past that is fetishized,” Stanley writes. He notes that monuments to the Confederacy were erected long after the Civil War ended in part as propaganda to whitewash the horrors of slavery. Fascists, both authors suggest, want to destabilize the shared sense of reality that is necessary for democratic dialogue. They seek to create what one might call an air of QAnon-like unreality, in which elected officials and government institutions are targets of bizarre claims — including, for instance, that they are covers for child sex-trafficking rings.

And of course–as we have seen in the most recent electoral cycle–there is a constant drumbeat of “othering”–an insistence of the dramatic differences between “us” and “them.”

The classic debate between liberty and equality is distorted by fascists, who see equality as a denial of a natural law whereby some people are inherently more deserving of power than others. For fascists, democracy makes unequal people equal, and tries to equate “them” with “us.” Fascist rhetoric is designed to divide citizens into two distinct classes: the sons and daughters of the soil, who are the true citizens of the nation, and the “other” — the foreign, the rabble, the lawless.

 I know my constant insistence on the importance of civic literacy can seem tiresome–the carping of an academic convinced of the supreme importance of her area of “expertise.” But a citizenry unfamiliar with the history of their country and unacquainted with the most basic premises of its system of government is uniquely vulnerable to the distortions that turn one American against another.

Just one example: Voters who don’t understand why the Founders separated Church from State are easy targets for revisionists who deny both the history that impelled that separation and the fact that the language of the First Amendment was intended to erect it. They are receptive to the fascist claim that their God has made them the rightful custodians of the country.

The philosopher Santayana warned that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”