Trump’s “coup” was surely quixotic. But it delegitimized our electoral system in the eyes of a large minority of the public, while also creating incentives for Republican officials to administer elections in a more partisan manner going forward. Before November 3, Georgia’s Republican secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, was a rising star in GOP politics. After the Peach State went blue, and Trump cried fraud, both of Georgia’s GOP senators called for Raffensperger’s resignation, all for the crime of administering an election that a Democrat won. America’s aberrant practice of having partisan officials oversee elections has always been hazardous. Now that Republican secretaries of State know that presiding over a Democratic victory won’t just cost their party in the short term but, quite possibly, cost them personally in the long run, the temptation to tailor election rules to the GOP’s advantage will be all the greater.
In the face of all this, it is hard for me to see much cause for alarm at liberal alarmism. Criticizing media hyperbole and semantical imprecision can be an end in itself, and I don’t begrudge anyone their God-given right to be quarrelsome on the internet. But some who object to descriptions of Trump as “fascist,” or his legal machinations as a “coup,” or his migrant detention facilities as “concentration camps” insist that their antipathy to such histrionic diction has high political stakes. And I really don’t think it does.
Language will never perfectly represent a world whose complexity is beyond human comprehension. All of our abstract concepts are expedients manufactured to facilitate shared understanding and useful action. Debates over whether to call Trump’s politics “fascist” are fundamentally arguments about whether it is more useful to embrace a definition of that term expansive enough to encompass both the Führer and the Donald, or to heed the many distinctions between Trump’s politics and Mussolini’s. I’m partial to the latter view as an academic matter. But in a partisan political context, it seems plausible that emphasizing the commonalities between the president’s politics and a political creed that Americans are socialized to regard as antithetical to their ideals is worthwhile. Trump has spent his presidency broadcasting incendiary lies about vulnerable minority populations while promising that national decline can be reversed through the extralegal expulsion and monitoring of such internal enemies. The impulse that led Trump to pardon an unrepentant war criminal or separate migrant children from their families as a form of asylum deterrence — which is to say, the impulse to dehumanize the powerless for political or ideological gain — reaches its apotheosis in Auschwitz. Of course, our country has hosted its own genocidal horrors, the legacy of which is more closely bound up in Trumpism than any foreign analog. But if describing Trump’s politics as fascist makes Americans more alert to Trumpism’s hazards, then the description is defensible. And much the same can be said of calling his ham-fisted attempts to retain power undemocratically a “coup.” [Continue reading…]