Fascist Language in American Political Discourse

Fascist’ is commonly used by both sides of the political spectrum to discredit the other. Its connotations are rich and varied, but its primary use is to insinuate that another’s viewpoint is hate-filled, totalitarian, antiquated, dangerous, stupid or just plain wrong. Being fascist is an accusation that has been leveled at figures and groups as varied as Trump and Bernie Sanders, the NRA and Antifa. In short, ‘fascist’ is quickly losing its specific and nuanced meaning, and instead, is becoming a slur to be used against anyone with whom you disagree.

I want to cut against this grain and show that when talking about fascist language we must be precise about what we mean. By fascism I mean a politics where the individual’s primary identity is a group based on arbitrary features that have no substantial reason to determine the value of an individual. For example, features like race, ethnicity, gender or religion. In Fascist Politics, the well-being and prosperity of such groups are prioritised over those outside of the group. This  creates a narrative of of ‘us’ Versus ‘them’. Fascist language perpetuates an ideology that dictates ‘my group and its members are inherently more valuable than any other’. Such rhetoric is becoming common place in contemporary American political discourse. Moreover, fascist language has been and is a major threat to equality and freedom, and historical examples serve to justify concern over its use in the political arena today.

One trope of Fascist language is an evocation mythic past. Nostalgia for this period is mixed with anger toward the individuals or groups that are perceived to have ruined it. Hitler spoke of a nation full of pride and prosperity which he claimed was ruined by the jewish people.. When you identify another group as an existential threat, it is a short step to consider severe and widespread persecution of this group as necessary self-defense. In a New York City campaign speech Trump declared, ‘Our country lost its way when we stopped putting the American people first’. This approach is different but nevertheless suggests that the American people, as a distinct entity, were betrayed by some shadowy ruling class who put their interests over those of the common people; it is not accidental that conspiratorialists such as Alex Jones rally behind the Trump banner. Indeed, it is important to note that this mechanism of fascist politics is based on the popular perception of the past, not what actually occurred. An example of this is Trump and many other, predominantly right-wing, figures denouncing the removal of confederate statues in southern states’ urban centres. They have created a narrative that these statues were attacks on a proud Southern white history that had little to do with racism or slavery. Unarticulated is the fact the vast majority were erected in the 1920s to provide a visual reminder of black oppression in Jim Crow states. Jane Dailey, a professor of history at the University of Chicago writes, “the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past. But were rather erecting them toward a white supremacist future”. The language used by Trump encourages individuals to see the removal of statues as attacks on their group, and its proud history, from someone or some group other than themselves. In the speech he goes on to blame globalists, immigrants, muslims, the Clintons and China for undermining the American people’s ability to be great; the underlying semantic idea is simply ‘they’ are exploiting ‘us’.

Fascist language isn’t just restricted to narratives about a mythic past. Another popular trope is anti-intellectualism. The quest to undermine the respect and veneration for academic expertise is a common trait in fascist regimes. Crucially, linguistic distinctions are undermined; the nuanced content of what someone says becomes less important than whether their assertions are for or against ‘us’. In 1933 the Nazi government decreed that the German people should burn material ‘which acts subversively on our future or strikes at the root of German thought, the German home and the driving forces of our people’. On the 10th of May of that year the majority of student unions across Germany held book burnings in which all books regarding leftist thought or which praised democracy or Judaism were combusted. The narrative currently pushed by the Trump administration and a litany of media outlets ranging widely from TheDailyStormer to The Atlantic, is one against the restriction of free speech on university campuses Beyond reducing funding for universities, the Trump administration is actively promoting conservatism in high institutions. Concurrently, Ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it a top priority to “protect and promote free speech”. However, this is somewhat of a misnomer, indeed, given the legal protections of academic freedom, universities are the freest arenas for any sort of speech in the country; especially when it comes to political discourse. Indeed, when universities do crack down on speech it is not conservatives who lose out. Data compiled by the Niskanen Center shows that of the 45 cases where a faculty member was fired, resigned or demoted due to their speech from 2015-2017, 28 were for speech deemed too liberal. As opposed to 16 who were punished for speech deemed to conservative. Quite simply the Trump administration, and prominent figures in right-wing media outlets such as Tucker Carlson or Ben Shapiro, have appropriated the language of free speech advocacy to distract from their own form of political correctness; they are trying to promote a use of language that protects ‘us’ from criticism. The question we should ask ourselves is this: which is more of an affront to free expression, a private institution revoking an invitation to a speaker, or a country’s political leadership aggressively ostracizing dissent and free thought in every single all institutions of higher education? Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro’s purge of left-wing academics upon his electoral victory serves as an example of where such rationale terminates.

Sexual anxiety is another mark of fascist language present in contemporary political discourse. Having watched the Nazi party rise to power in Germany, the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich argued, that the political rise of the Nazi party was through the exploitation of societal sexual anxiety. The language surrounding sex in public political discourse has often centered around notions of the purity of ‘us’ and the corrupting force of ‘them’. White supremacists have long had an obsession with purity, but this, despite being implicit, is still the basis for a lot of right-wing political rhetoric in 2018. For example, there has been furor in the British media over the past 16 months due to the exposition of a number of sexual trafficking rings in the UK. Take this headline from the Murdoch owned British newspaper the Sun: “Pakistani men ARE raping and exploiting white girls… and it’s time we faced up to it”. The specification of national and ethnic background implies that this is an attack of another group on our own. ‘Their’ savagery is ruining ‘our’ purity. Tragically, the story of individual suffering and exploitation is cast aside, and instead the story is appropriated to serve the narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Indeed, this is only exacerbated when one considers how this headline implies that we ought to protect ‘our’ women from ‘their’ men. This sort of language was also utilised by left-wing figures in British politics. For example former shadow secretary for women and equality and Labour MP Sarah Champion addressed the issue in another article in the Sun. Her emphasis on the racial background of both perpetrator and victim show that fascist language is prevalent across the political spectrum.

Language of this sort is not just a problem in the media, or in the upper echelons of US government, but also at grassroots of political organisations. An example of this comes from the internal Whatsapp group of the Florida International University’s chapter of Turning Point USA- an organisation whose mission is to “educate students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” Despite this, the concern of the exclusively male group-chat was the sexual corruption of white women. This was expressed through a meme showing a white blonde Swedish woman being raped by a headdress donning Syrian ‘Pepe the frog’. While this occurs, a fellow Syrian ‘frog’ holds a gun to a white male’s head--presumably the woman’s partner. Memes, are just another form of written language, they convey concepts through visual symbols..

Despite the prominence of language that is framed in the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative in right-wing discourse, it is hardly exclusive to it. Although effective for achieving short-term egalitarian gains, the predominant trend amongst the American left to embrace identity is an example of the fascist paradigm in question. It often is harmless, and frankly, a lot less extreme than identity based politics on the right. Quite fairly, white nationalism is often described as a form of identity politics. Nonetheless, this style of thought, whereby groups are divided and pitted against each other, has the same terminus as its equivalent on the right. Take for example a tweet from Georgetown professor Christine Fair which reads, “Look at [this] chorus of entitled white men. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.” This tweet was posted shortly after the conclusion of the Kavanaugh hearing and shows an example of reappropriating the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ paradigm against a more dominant political group. Regardless of our opinion of the context surrounding this tweet, we ought to recognise such language’s inherent danger. The nonchalant advocacy for violence shows a belief that ‘they’ ought to be considered less valuable. This shows that fascist language is not exclusively a quality of the right-wing of America politics, and can be found right across the political spectrum.

Many have seen it appropriate to trace violence, such as the recent attack on a Pittsburgh synagoge, directly to President Trump’s rhetoric. Indeed, his rhetoric is often fiery, muddled and crass. Nonetheless, his, nor any other individuals’, fascist language is by no means the beginning and end of the problem. Any one of us who has an emotional connection to our communities finds rhetoric that purports to defend their self-interest and their group appealing. The buck ultimately lies with us all. When the stakes are so high, we cannot allow such affinities to become a platform for devaluing, and ultimately, dehumanising those who we have less in common with. Trump has said, “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word: Fear” and this shows us why we ought to resist language that tries to scare us. Lessons from history show us the risk of letting such language pass. Whenever language is used which, implicitly or explicitly, attempts to justify inequality on the basis of unsubstantiated claims regarding the superiority or inferiority of a particular groups racial or cultural background they ought to be challenged.

Fascism is a specter that has far from passed, and, looking at the language used in American political discourse in the present, it seems like it is here to stay. The tropes I have described here have always existed amongst certain elements of American society. Just as the African-American was yesterday’s rapist, the Mexican is today’s. Distrust and the reverence of a mythic past have long been features of American society too. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that recent developments in American politics have brought the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative to the mainstream and made it more opaque than any time since World War II. What should concern us is that just as commentators warn us against the rise of fascist attitudes today, the commentators of interwar Europe gave warnings then and to no avail. Just as language acted as the fuel for violence then it seems it is doing so again.