The Fear of Tyranny that Could Unite Us: The Politics of Devil Terms Part 2

The Fear of Tyranny that Could Unite Us: The Politics of Devil Terms Part 2

As a communication scholar, I found the social media reaction to last week’s article about socialism as a devil term fascinating (if also disturbing). This week’s article will dive into some—er, differences of opinion I hold with many of the commenters. But it will also get into some unexpected common ground I found in the comments section among those who support the current US administration and those who dissent from its rhetoric and policies: a fear of tyranny.

NOTE: This article is a long one. Thanks for your patience. This stuff is complex; I believe and hope you’ll find it worth your time.

Never Been Called THAT Before

So let’s get started by saying that this week was a first. That is to say, it was the first time I’d ever been called a “Liberal Nazi.”

I’ve been joking with friends ever since then about the odd pictures that raises in my head: mostly images of hippies dancing around with long hair and bell bottoms, but with Hitler mustaches on.

An Important Dissonance

Joking aside, this dissonance in my head is actually really important. It shows a strong dissonance between two seemingly oppositional but disturbingly conflated visions of progressive Democratic politics in America as projected by conservatives these days.

One image projects progressives as impractical idealistic free love advocates floating around to music making peace signs.

The other image envisions progressives as an angry mob, advocating policies that would necessarily lead to bleak post-apocalyptic scenarios of totalitarian government control and dead bodies of dissenters everywhere.

Signs of “Devil Terms”

As I said, this is a really important contrast, not least because it illustrates such cognitive dissonance. This cognitive dissonance, and especially these specific visions of the demonized group or person as simultaneously predator and prey—are evidence that points strongly to the usage of a “devil term.”

As I defined in last week’s article, “devil terms” can be terms that have actual dictionary definitions that are reasonable and normal. But when they are used as “devil terms” they mean their most extreme forms—and often are completely distanced from dictionary definitions.

“Devil term” usages cast ideologies, individuals, and groups who are associated with them as predators, as things to be fought at all costs. And having studied the abuse of devil terms in order to create totalitarian regimes, I get particularly nervous when those who advocate for the “least of these” and the common good get cast as predators. That’s why I started my devil terms discussion with “socialism” as the primary focus.

Grounding Ourselves in Dictionary Definitions

As I’ve described, many devil terms also have accurate dictionary definitions that point to a range of outcomes. “Socialist” as described in the last article is one such term. If you’re from the right and hear the term socialism and automatically jump to the fear-based conclusion without clarifying what is meant, that’s not cool.

“Nazis,” on the other hand, is a devil term/descriptive term that is a bit harder to distinguish. Even in its most just forms it indicates a regime whose principles really went down the most toxic paths. This makes it more difficult at times to distinguish between the accurate and devil-term usages–and expertise is often needed to do so.

Up until the last couple of years, I was happy to agree with the old adage that “bringing in Hitler was always a way to immediately lose the argument”–because in most cases the terms were used only in imprecise “devil term” usages. It wasn’t until fascist rhetorics seeped more obviously into rightwing politics across the globe that I (along with others informed by historical contexts) started to use it more descriptively than I previously would have.

Nazis Were Not Socialists

My research in the communication discipline (which put in a ton of research effort after WWII to avoid sending us down similar paths again) is that which tells me that the idea of a “socialist Nazi” or “liberal Nazi” isn’t accurate.

The Nazi party actually took on “socialist” in its name, but it was definitely not socialist. It actually very right-wing rather than left-wing, as every encyclopedia definition of Nazi notes (just google it!)—and when the party rose to power it turned the country from a democracy into a totalitarian fascist dictatorship that was out to hurt those who they saw as the “enemies of the state.”

Once the party rose to power, all other parties were deemed illegal, and everything was owned by the state. This is often the fear-based connection those on last week’s FB posts seemed to be making between socialism and Nazis—the idea that “big government” of the kind advocated for by socialistic policies would always lead to the outcome of the worst kinds of totalitarian government by the worst people.

The thing is that socialism is descriptively defined by a system in which the goal of any government programs which held by the government as a way of meeting the common good (again, google it! Even Wikipedia will do!). While totalitarian governments have sometimes claimed to be socialist, once they become totalitarian they can’t descriptively claim that title.

The Ironies in Being Called a “Liberal Nazi” by Conservatives

So now that we’ve discussed that, back to being called a “liberal Nazi.”

In the first case, I find it fascinating that those who often advocate for laissez faire policies toward businesses and individuals alike would be so critical of those progressives who were also descriptively advocating for people to feel free of oppressive control.

In the second case, I find it fascinating in a disturbing way that those who are so scared of government control would be snapping at others who are also deathly afraid of tyranny. (See, progressives are genuinely deeply concerned about that whole tyranny thing right now.)

But it also didn’t surprise me too much that my commenters were directing their fear at “leftists” and associating us with the “devil term” use of socialist. If you believe the devil term use of “leftist,” and associate it with totalitarianistic governments because of your belief that the “god term” of freedom is only associated with “free enterprise,” then you are unlikely to actually see people on the other side of the fence as people you can’t work with toward any sort of common good.

Our Common Ground: The Very American Fear of Tyranny and Corruption

The thing is that the comments section discussions did show me we have things in common, and one of those strong common grounds is the fear of tyranny.

In many ways, this fear arises from collective trauma from WWII, but it’s also been a really common American fear since the founding of the country.

Our country’s founders were so terrified of tyrants—the official current term is that of kakistocracy, or government by the worst of us—that the entire set of Constitutional checks and balances were founded to try to stave off such a system of government by the worst of us. (We can thank Mad King George III for that!)

I believe this is the common ground we could unite on if conservatives were willing. See, after this week’s comments section discussions, I believe a lot of fears of socialism are really misdirected fears of corruption, totalitarianism, and kakistocracy.

Not a Perfect Union from the Beginning

Here’s the irony—the founders feared kakistocracy, but also had these problems with abusing their own power against those who were seeking their right to be seen as fully human neighbors. They themselves owned slaves, and committed genocide against Native Americans, and definitely didn’t see anyone but white men and especially rich property holders as worthy of the vote.

To put it a different way, this country was founded BOTH on fear of tyranny AND by (the same) people who wanted the power of tyranny for themselves.

It was founded by those who feared others controlling them from further up the hierarchy, and from those who feared people from lower in the hierarchy rising up.

BOTH of these things were encoded in the Constitution and other founding documents. We’ve had both of these fears encoded in our founding documents since the beginning.

What We Could Unite Over

Conservatives and progressives in the US differ over a lot here—especially over that latter fear about those rising up from lower in the hierarchy.

From my view having lived around people who have held both views (and having voted both ways myself), conservatives seem to want to maintain that latter fear, at least in terms of rhetoric and policies. Fears of “identity politics” specifically seem to reflect an anxiety about those lower in the hierarchy not “keeping their place.” Demonizing the party who supports the bids for equality–not dominance, but equality–is another way to avoid making room for valid critiques about these concerns.

In the view I’ve come to hold, progressives are pointing out the valid problems with this view in light of the founders’ stated aims of all people really being created equal and having as much human dignity and pursuit of happiness, etc. as possible.

I especially wish more from the conservative side would dismiss some of their unjust fears about “those lower down rising up” to work with progressives on the more important emergency. This emergency is also what we all have in common: the threat of potential tyranny from those in power.

Progressive Americans’ Fears of Tyranny

See, progressives are spending a lot of time angry right now. Conservatives have that figured out. But progressives are not frustrated only because “their girl lost,” as Conservatives tend to say (quite dismissively).

No, progressives are (I would argue validly) angry because they too fear tyranny and have been working to fight it. And they see a lot of clear evidence that the current dominant platform of the conservative agenda has been conflating the founders’ two types of fears in highly disturbing ways that actually mirror fascist rhetoric. The irony is the rhetoric and policies that are emerging from this situation could actually lead to a tyranny of the sort conservatives fear.

Progressives are angry because the current conservative agenda has been so busy communicating fear of tyranny from both directions at once that conservatives can’t quite see how they’ve been complicit in potential tyranny’s rise to the top.

The Right and Devil Term Usages of Nazi

As someone who came up subjected to listening to Rush Limbaugh when I had no choice in the matter, I believe it started with people like him who have been calling the left “Nazis” (specifically, not-so-cleverly, “feminazis”) for decades.

Over the last couple of years this kind of “devil term” usage viewing progressives as “the real Nazis” in ways that conflate both kinds of the framers’ fears of tyranny has become so mainstream that otherwise seemingly rational people seem to be thinking that this kind of unjust usage is the only “real usage” for the word.

As a result, they get offended when people on the left point out that the right is the only side with a descriptive sect that calls themselves Nazis.

Denying the Evidence

I’ve heard a lot of conservatives recently describe their frustration at the seeming conflation by progressives in the last couple of years between conservatism and Nazism, and with the KKK, and with extremist white nationalist groups.

They think progressives are “just as bad” as conservatives. This interpretation comes because they assume progressives, including experts on fascism, are using these comparisons only as “devil terms” rather than dictionary-style denotations.

These people distance themselves from white nationalism in theory. The problem is that these commenters will often  outwardly and vocally support both polices and rhetoric that they may not realize bears a descriptive resemblance to fascist and supremacist rhetoric and policies.

Tyranny in Sheep’s Clothing

The most important of these hallmarks are those that attack the separation of powers and frame those very checks and balances to the executive branch as enemies to the current head of the executive branch.

Sadly, those decades of people like Rush Limbaugh framing liberals as the enemy seem to have filtered through into the mainstream of conservatism.

This means that even those who decry the current administration in theory, and put down the specific language of people like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter, have come to see “leftists” from a “devil terms” attitude–and still defend or dismiss concerns with the accurate descriptions of fascist rhetoric and policies of the current administration. They certainly don’t vocally speak up against it even if they do disagree.

The New “Extreme Moderates”

I believe this framing is why so many previously reasonable people are now in denial about the fascism that’s filtered its way into the mainstream of conservatism as the “right” has jerked the country to the extreme right.

As a result, those who have shifted right with the country tend to think of themselves as “moderates” for decrying the “Unite the Right” protestors while defending inhumane scapegoating practices like family separation.

Many also treat terms like “racist/misogynist/xenophobic,” etc. as though they are only and ever “devil terms” describing some sort of “innocent until proven guilty” legal framework. This, again, reflects an unhealthy if at times unwitting reflection of fascist rhetoric.

The Problem with Seeing the Opposition as Enemies

One of my commenters carried this position to the point where one of them listed “disrespect of the president”—not “disrespect” of the office of the president, mind you, but essentially critique of the president himself and his words and rhetoric—as something that they thought should be labeled as a criminal act. And they classified Democrats broadly as those worthy of having committed this “crime.”

I hate to tell you this, conservative friends, but that’s not an American political system Constitutional “checks and balances” style approach to executive power. That’s actually an expression of the same kind of fascistic rhetoric that totalitarian regimes such as the Nazis have expressed. And this is the first kind of tyranny our country’s framers specifically set up our government to warn against.

The Problem with Seeing Checks and Balances as Threats

See, as I said, the US government was set up to have checks and balances against various types of tyranny taking over. The problem is that those who have recently advocated for “small government” have often actually been decreasing the ability for power to have checks and balances over corruption both in and outside of the government–and have at the same time left more space for other entities to gain undue power over our government.

What ought to be a shared concern of all Americans right now, in my view, is that both the rhetoric and policies/behavior of the current executive branch are enacting quite a bit of this “enemy of the people” rhetoric toward people who represent those very checks and balances.

Too Many Enemies of “the People”

Whether or not conservatives agree with progressive views on other problems, this “enemies of the people” language that’s been coming out of this administration and those that support it ought to disturb all of us equally, because it comes straight from the rhetoric of tyranny-from-above those framers were so concerned about.

The Importance of the Fourth Estate

See, those same founding documents I’ve mentioned set up a free press as the “fourth estate”—essentially a branch of government outside of government that was meant to be a watchdog on what was happening in government (again, this is easily googled). The free press isn’t perfect, but its Constitutionally-sanctioned job is to call out problems for Americans to protest or respond to with their votes. So that they could be a “check and balance” on any presidents that were genuinely abusing their power.

So yeah, “enemies of the people” rhetoric about the free press ought to make us nervous—the Founders, in setting up the checks and balances, were more concerned about checking potentially authoritarian leaders than anything else. That makes it every citizen’s job to keep the government on track, as helped by the imperfect free press.

Attacks on All the Other Checks and Balances

And the founders specifically expected there to be at least two parties, two houses of Congress, and three branches of government as healthy checks and balances in order to avoid tyranny.

It is neither okay nor remotely normal that the current head of the executive branch has been trashing all of the people of those other branches of government, including the judicial branch that is investigating the executive branch. It is neither okay nor normal that his supporters, including the ones who see themselves as decrying white nationalists, should be conflating opposition and disagreement as “unamerican” and “criminal.”

If we truly fear Holocaust, if we truly fear genocide, and if we all truly fear tyranny, then we need to stand up and refuse to give into the fear that’s being stoked through this “enemies” language.

Because this enemies talk, this “criminals” talk as applied to dissenters—it matters. It is not to be dismissed or denied. It is real. And it is a sign of attempted tyranny. (And those who are Christians saying this stuff? Wasn’t there something like “Love your enemies” that Jesus said pretty prominently?)

We all need to take it seriously without presuming that it will reach its ultimate outcome. It doesn’t have to. See, if we do our part, the checks and balances WILL HOLD. But we all have to stop believing the rhetoric of tyranny to get to where we can work together toward that end.

The Signs of the Times

I realize that any conservatives who are reading this might not even have gotten this far.

But I will say this anyway, in case you’re still reading: the fact that progressives have been demonized by conservatives to the point where many conservatives won’t believe anything progressives say about public policy. The fact that it’s gotten to the point where conservatives jump to extreme conclusions about how our progressive representatives ought to be thrown in jail for doing their jobs. That ought to be a caution to you. That’s not normal political rhetoric. It’s the language of potential tyranny.

And if you disagree with such rhetoric, we need your voices of dissent to call that out when you hear it. You don’t have to agree with progressives on everything. Just agree with what you can. And I’m really hoping we can agree that the rhetoric of tyranny is something we should decry.

We Can Work Together

We may not agree on all our policies—and I don’t pretend that progressive policies are perfect—but descriptively calling out racism and fascist rhetoric isn’t creating problems, it’s hovering up problems so we can address them. And especially those who call themselves Democratic Socialists that I know are firmly committed toward that common good thing. Let’s work together toward the most perfect union we can find, please.

For a start, let us rise up together and defend the checks and balances. And in doing so, let’s stop demonizing the least of these and those who defend them, please. Our countries’ history may show that’s a deeply American thing to do, but since our country is not perfect that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem to be solved.

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s keep working to fight toxic patterns wherever we may find them to make a better world for us all.


Note: If you hadn’t already figured it out, this article is an opinion piece.

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3 thoughts on “The Fear of Tyranny that Could Unite Us: The Politics of Devil Terms Part 2

  1. As an almost 60 year old trying to understand the collective and Archetypal forced at play here I truly appreciated this writing. I’ll read it again because there is a lot to process. I just wanted to say thank you for the sanity amongst the crazy…

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The Fear of Tyranny …

by DS Leiter Time to read: 13 min