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Taboos, truth-telling, and an F-word


For as long as I have been politically conscious, there has been a strong taboo against using certain words in public discourse. One of those words is the H-word — Hitler. (Nice people lower their voices when they say the name.) That taboo led to what we call Godwin’s law, which posits that if any online political discussion goes on for long enough, it becomes almost a certainty that someone will use the H-word. Another one of those words is the F-word — fascism. Again, I lower my voice. These are words that nice people don’t use.

The moment one uses either of these words — I like to call them rhetorical bludgeons — he is deemed guilty of rhetorical excess and automatically loses the argument. The assumption underlying the taboo is that this is America, we’re better than that, and that American democracy could not possibly ever fall into fascism or produce a demagogue like, you know, the H-guy.

But, just as a thought experiment, what would happen if the F-word ever became the right word? Our public discourse and therefore the front line of our defenses would be paralyzed until we came to our senses.

And so I am encouraged to see the F-word increasingly finding its way into print as the Trump phenomenon grows. Andrew Sullivan used the F-word in a long article in the May issue of New York magazine. Yesterday, Robert Kagan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, used the F-word in an op-ed in the Washington Post, “This is how fascism comes to America.”

We have always known that, if fascism ever did come to America, religion would be right in the middle of it. From the very first colonists, American religion has always had a strong stink of evil in it.

For far, far too long — decades, actually — Republican politicians and the vilest of preachers have gotten away with incendiary rhetoric. Older Republicans have been imbibing this rhetoric for almost 40 years now. Who are these people? Matthew MacWilliams, an academic who studies authoritarianism, published an article back in February that said:

“A voter’s gender, education, age, ideology, party identification, income, and race simply had no statistical bearing on whether someone supported Trump. Neither, despite predictions to the contrary, did evangelicalism.

“Here is what did: authoritarianism, by which I mean Americans’ inclination to authoritarian behavior. When political scientists use the term authoritarianism, we are not talking about dictatorships but about a worldview. People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.”

Yep. We all know these people, the authoritarians, pretty much synonymous with the word Republican. Preachers and Republican operatives have made sure that the authoritarians among us always feel threatened. But now the Republican Party has lost control of the machinery it created to angrify and harness authoritarians for political purposes. A rogue moved in and took over. It’s really that simple. And there’s a word for it.


The New Yorker uses the F-word, the H-word, and the A-word — fascism, Hitler, authoritarian.

The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump


  1. DCS wrote:

    As far as the GOP monster we see before our eyes today — melding government power with corporatism and religious fundamentalism — Ronald Reagan was the Dr. Frankenstein who began stitching together that abomination during the presidential election cycle of 1979-80.

    Your post reminded of a small but important book by media rhetoric scholars Carl Kell and Ray Camp from 1999 that linked the rise of authoritarianism within the Southern Baptist Convention and simultaneously within the reactionary Republican Party, and they trace the moment when GOP leaders began to harness that trend to solidify religious fundamentalists as a voting block. Turning the religion of Roger Williams completely on its head — Williams and Thomas Jefferson were the father’s of “separation of church and state” — Reagan actively courted the new hard-right leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention during the campaign. For the first time in the SBC’s history, they allowed a presidential campaign candidate to speak at their annual meeting. It was a marriage made in hell.

    We take it for granted today that GOP politics and campaign rhetoric is shot through with religious rhetoric, but it was not always the case. In my own research, I have explored the (surprising to us) role of what was known as the Progressive Wing of the Republican Party, which was particularly powerful in the 1920s and ’30s. But as Kell and Camp so carefully record in this academic, but highly readable, book, Reagan was the mastermind who turned Nixon’s Southern Strategy into a Southern Religion Strategy in 1979. It is that fateful political moment that we see reaching full flower in the noxious, hate-filled zeitgeist known as Trump Mania. But it’s much more than that. The unholy melding of religion, business and politics is now the entire scaffolding of the modern Republican Party. That’s a far cry from the “wall of separation” Jefferson extolled in the famous Letter to the Danbury Baptists of 1802.

    Kell and Camp’s book: “In the Name of the Father: The Rhetoric of the New Southern Baptist Convention”

    Amazon link:



    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: I am always grateful for your scholarly historical perspective.

    We must never allow Southern Baptists to forget the sins of their past. They split over slavery in the 19th Century and again over Civil Rights in the 20th. And though they eventually apologized for their racism, their apology isn’t worth two cents, because the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole has always been on the wrong side of everything having to do with moral progress, and still is.

    My using the words “the stink of evil” actually is far too mild, because we are talking about an activist, sermonizing, crusading, aggressive evil.

    Not every Baptist saw it that way, including my own Southern Baptist father. Also, I very much believe that Billy Graham was a good man. In 1963, Billy Graham bailed Martin Luther King out of jail. But the vile Franklin Graham has returned to his dark Southern Baptist roots.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  3. DCS wrote:

    In a case of perfect timing, the Washington Post ran a guest column that hit the Web today with this headline: “This is how fascism comes to America” —

    The author is Robert Kagan, who is not exactly a bleeding-heart liberal. He is a one of the leading architects of the neoconservative movement, which is essentially the military-industrial pillar of the religion-business-politics alliance discussed in my previous comment. His column is worth a read.


    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: You must not have noticed that that’s the article I cited in the post.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  5. DCS wrote:

    Sorry for one more comment, David, but Kagan quickly encapsulates the point you were recently making about the hidden danger of majority rule as mob rule within a pure democracy regime:

    “Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.”

    Madison and Jefferson fretted allowed about this in many of their letters. This also is why Hamilton was a quasi-monarchist — he didn’t trust the unwashed masses. I think Jefferson and Madison were more right in putting more faith in the people, who can certainly make mistakes but who also can come to their senses. That is the warp and woof of our constitutional history.


    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  6. DCS wrote:

    Sorry, David, I read right past that in my daily surfing routine. I should slow down and smell the coffee. 🙂

    It’s interesting, though, that the F-word would so prominently move from Web site comment threads to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and other august pillars of mainstream journalism. I think people like Kagan and other thought leaders of the GOP are seriously becoming frightened by the horror show that this campaign has become. They should be frightened because it IS frightening, at least to anyone who has a historical thought in his head.


    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Permalink
  7. daltoni wrote:

    P.S. What you say about Kagan not being a bleeding-heart liberal is worth noting. The Brookings Institution used to always be referred to as “liberal.” Ha! Maybe 40 years ago. Now it’s corporatized and packed with libertarians and conservatives. I have a bit of an inside take on that, because an old friend is a senior fellow there. He is very conservative. True, these elite Ivy League conservatives retain a thin tether to reality, but they’re still at least half crazy, as opposed to the full-on barking mad crazy of garden variety right-wingers.

    Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

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