“Populism” is an innocuous-sounding description for the xenophobic nationalism that is now sweeping much of the world. But is there something even more sinister at work?
In The Language of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer, a Jewish scholar who miraculously survived World War II in Germany, describes how Nazism “permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms, and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously.” As a result of this inculcation, Klemperer observed, “language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.”
A similar phenomenon exists today in countries where a far-right politics has achieved success, be it Britain in the age of Brexit, Poland under Jarosław Kaczyński, or the United States under President Donald Trump. In recent weeks, politicians with such ideologies in these countries have increasingly found themselves painted into a corner, and have resorted to ever more outlandish lies. While the Brexiteers remain insistent that crashing out of the European Union would not be devastating for the UK economy, Kaczyński has been busy trying to blame the murder of Gdańsk mayor Paweł Adamowicz on the opposition, instead of his own party’s rhetoric. Trump, for his part, has continued to manufacture a crisis on the Mexican border to justify his demands for a wall.
Yet for all of the focus on these leaders’ lies and violent rhetoric, not nearly enough attention has been devoted to the subtler applications of far-right rhetoric in recent years. History shows that illiberal movements can advance their agendas not just through elections, but also by infiltrating the common parlance of political debate. And as we’ll see, the evidence today suggests that far-right “populists,” authoritarians, and, indeed, fascists have been self-consciously waging a battle of words in order to win the war of ideas.
The Art of Semantic Warfare
How did Trump manage to wrest control of the Republican Party away from the conservative establishment in the US? Part of the story is his supposed “authenticity,” which is really another way of referring to his rhetorical style and diction. In his tweets, White House pool sprays, and campaign-style rallies, Trump’s use of language has proven effective for advancing his brand of us-versus-them politics, at least among a core base of ardent supporters.
Trump’s rhetoric did not come out of nowhere. In 1990, Newt Gingrich, then a Republican member of the US House of Representatives from Georgia, wrote a memo for the party training organization GOPAC that bears directly on US politics today. In “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” Gingrich compiled two lists, one of “Optimistic Positive Governing Words,” the other of “Contrasting Words.”
In the first list, Republicans are instructed to use the following terms to define their “vision of public service”: “conflict,” “courage,” “debate,” “listen,” “mobilize,” “pro-flag,” “pro-children,” “pro-environment,” “pro-reform,” “strength,” “tough,” “unique,” and “we/us.” And in the second list, they are given labels to apply to their opponents: “corrupt,” “corruption,” “decay,” “destroy,” “destructive,” “greed,” “hypocrisy,” “ideological,” “liberal,” “lie,” “permissive attitude,” “sick,” “threaten,” “traitors,” “unionized bureaucracy,” “welfare,” and “they/them.”
Gingrich’s memo is very similar to the “Metapolitical Dictionaries” used by the European far right. For example, in the French ethno-nationalist Guillaume Faye’s 2001 book, Why We Fight: Manifesto of the European Resistance, and the Swedish fascist leader Daniel Friberg’s 2015 manifesto, The Real Right Returns: A Handbook for the True Opposition, the reader is introduced to a compendium of specific terms that are meant to steer political debate. The lists include words such as “globalism,” “populist,” “alien,” “cosmopolitanism,” and “anti-racism,” defined in ways that are now familiar from the political right.
Historically, fascist movements have characteristically been very highly attuned to the importance of semantic warfare and the ways in which speech practices shape and form habits of thought. Just as Hitler, in Mein Kampf, expressed grudging admiration of the Western Allies’ World War I propaganda tactics, so should we recognize the sophistication of contemporary fascists’ use of language. Only then can we push back against it.
Fascism You Can Take Home to Your Mother
Consider, first, the term “alt-right,” the coinage of which is often attributed to the American white nationalist Richard Spencer, though an early appearance in print seems to have been in a December 2008 article by the historian Paul Gottfried. Spencer is proud of his coinage, and fiercely competitive with others – including Gottfried – who claim also to have contributed to the term’s popularity.
“The beauty of the Alt Right brand,” the white nationalist publisher Greg Johnson writes, “is that it signaled dissidence from the mainstream Right, without committing oneself to such stigmatized ideas as White Nationalism and National Socialism.” This is not to say that Johnson himself is uncommitted to those “stigmatized ideas.” As the author of the book The White Nationalist Manifesto, he openly acknowledges that the “alt-right” was originally “heavily influenced” by white nationalism, and eventually merged with it.
Johnson applauds the introduction of the “alt-right” label, then, because it masks the movement’s anti-democratic nature. For this reason alone, those who do not count themselves among the alt- right should not use the expression at all. There are already more accurate terms for the same ideology, namely “fascist,” which captures the historical connotations that “alt- right” is intended to strip away.
The obscurantist application of “alt-right” is in keeping with one of the overarching goals of fascist movements: achieving respectability. As R. Derek Black, the son of the founder of Stormfront, a leading white-nationalist website, explains in a 2017 New York Times commentary, “My dad often gave me the advice that white nationalists are not looking to recruit people on the fringes of American culture, but rather the people who start a sentence by saying, ‘I’m not racist, but …’” Likewise, Johnson, in his inside history of the alt-right, notes that the movement’s early exponents “cultivated an earnest tone of middle-class respectability, avoiding racial slurs and discussing race and the Jewish question in terms of biology and evolutionary psychology.”
Meanwhile, contemporary European fascist movements have gone even further in articulating the goal of respectability. European far-right literature is replete with practical advice on how to make oneself look respectable by comparison to others. Friberg, for example, denounces “political violence” and “revolution” in no uncertain terms.
But this is a calculated ploy. In reality, there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between fascist street violence and fascist political movements, for the simple reason that fascist parties need violence in order to make themselves look peaceful. Without some fascists engaging in violence, fascist parties lack a foil with which to differentiate themselves as the lesser of extremes, or even to position themselves as guarantors of “order.”
The quest for respectability is also at the heart of fascist metapolitical dictionaries, which offer language for making once-extreme ideas seem mainstream. In The Language of the Third Reich, Klemperer notes that, “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.” Fascist metapolitical dictionaries are best understood as vials of poison, to be administered slowly into the vocabulary of the body politic.
Us or Them
Once fascists achieve a requisite level of respectability, fascism itself can start to plant roots. At its core, fascism is based on a particular understanding of social Darwinian struggle – hence the title of Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). And social Darwinism, in turn, is the common bond linking neoliberalism (or economic libertarianism) and fascism. This is why it is no surprise to hear Trump talk constantly of “winning” in business, regularly signaling his disdain for “losers.” Now that he is in the White House, this facile ideology is being translated into a project of national struggle against other countries.
A similar dynamic is also playing out in Europe. In Germany, many of the original members of the neo-fascist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) previously belonged to the center-right Free Democratic Party. The FDP, more than any other German political party, champions a neoliberal governing ideology, and has presented itself as unabashedly “globalist,” favoring lower taxes and more free trade. Understanding how fascism can emerge from economic libertarianism is essential for comprehending the danger Western democracies face today.
Economic libertarianism – which should not be conflated with democracy – is a philosophy in which individual struggle is valorized, and success is the determinant of individual worth. Fascism, by contrast, is based on group worth as the product of group struggle. Fascism thus replaces individuals with groups as the subject and object of analysis. It is a clearly distinct position from libertarianism. But recent history shows there are problematic assumptions that allow one to slip from one view into the other, without noticing. For example, those who believe they belong to a group with superior work habits and a greater capacity for struggle can derive individual worth through mere membership in, and solidarity with, that group.
People who think in this way tend to regard the international market as a battlefield where individual “nations” are locked in combat; when they look beyond the nation, they see a “world of enemies.” But for fascist politics to take root, it is sufficient merely to think that there is a battle between national groups within a country. Either way, the myth of in-group superiority is a valuable weapon. As Faye writes in Why We Fight (emphasis his):
“Whether it’s ‘objectively’ true or false doesn’t matter: ethnocentrism is the psychological condition necessary for a people’s (or nation’s) survival. History is not a field in which intellectually objective principles are worked out, but one conditioned by the will to power, competition, and selection. Scholastic disputes about a people’s superiority or inferiority are beside the point. In the struggle for survival, the feeling of being superior and right is indispensable to acting and succeeding.”
In urging the need for a myth of national superiority, it is characteristic of fascists to accentuate impending catastrophes, which will always be sufficiently extreme to require not just individual grit and remorselessness, but groups of individuals aligned as nations. The disasters of the future will wreak so much havoc and require so much competition for scarce resources that there will be no place whatsoever for compassion. Fascist ideology thus catastrophizes the future as a means of asserting its own necessity in the present.
Eschatologies, Real and Imagined
It is nice to think that Western democracies are less vulnerable to the temptations of fascist thinking than they were in the past. And yet, unlike in the past, today’s fascist movements are responding to eminently plausible catastrophic threats. That means there can be no room for complacency.
For Hitler, the motivating catastrophe was an impending global food shortage, which never did make much sense. But when Faye writes about a looming environmental catastrophe, it is not so easy to dismiss him out of hand. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear in a special report this past October, catastrophic global warming could well define humanity’s future in the next few decades.
Moreover, as Black reminds us, the US has a long history of ethno-nationalist and fascist thinking. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, believed that the struggle between nations made it necessary to instill in US citizens a myth of American nationhood. And, judging by a recent profile in The Atlantic, Gingrich today espouses an ideology that is more or less the same as that found in Faye’s and Friberg’s books.
Indeed, Gingrich is fixated on evolutionary biology, and seems to believe that humankind’s evolutionary heritage is best represented by the brutality and ugliness of human politics. According to The Atlantic, he thinks we should “see the animal kingdom from which we evolved for what it really is: ‘A very competitive, challenging world, at every level.’” In other words, what some might see as “viciousness,” Gingrich sees as a “natural” life-or-death struggle.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Superiority
At the same time that fascist ideology propagates national superiority as a necessary myth, it also necessarily embodies that myth. Hence, in Mein Kampf, Hitler declares that
“… all that we admire on this earth – science, art, technical skill and invention – is the creative product of only a small number of nations … All this culture depends on them for its very existence … If we divide the human race into three categories – founders, maintainers, and destroyers of culture – the Aryan stock alone can be considered as representing the first category.”
In a similar vein, Faye insists that, “The contribution European civilization (including its American prodigal) has made to the history of humanity surpasses, in every domain, that of every other people.” Nowadays, one can find gentler versions of this idea being promoted by European far-right politicians who have long since gained respectability. Such is the nature of semantic warfare.
Consider the concept of “European Enlightenment,” which has no singular philosophical meaning. As a taxonomical category, it could include philosophers as fundamentally opposed as Hume and Kant. Some of its figures, not least Kant, were the chief proponents of concepts that fascists roundly reject (namely, universal human dignity).
Nonetheless, European far-right politicians have subtly adopted talk of the Enlightenment as a way to smuggle in more bald-faced claims of European superiority. For example, Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever, an outspoken Flemish nationalist, recently started referring to the Enlightenment as “the software” of “the grand narrative of the European culture.” Borrowing from British philosopher Roger Scruton, he argues that “the European Enlightenment” and nationalism are complementary, rather than opposed. In De Wever, one finds significant overlap with Faye. For example, both condemn liberalism and socialism as leading to “open borders,” “safe spaces,” “laws that protect feelings,” and the dissolution of parental authority.
By contrast, consider the case of Steve King, a Republican member of the US House of Representatives from Iowa, who recently caused a controversy by asking how language like “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” had “become offensive.” King apparently did not get the memo about striving for respectability. But the rest of his party did. Following a public outcry, congressional Republicans stripped King of his positions on the House Judiciary and Agriculture Committees. Though he had made similarly offensive statements in the past, the Republican Party saw an opportunity to assert its relative respectability. And so, King was thrown to the wolves for expressing views that many of his fellow party Republicans – beginning with its 2016 presidential nominee – no doubt share.
From an American perspective, European fascists like Faye and, to a lesser extent, Friberg might seem too exotic to pose any real danger. Their simultaneous invocation of the Enlightenment and renunciation of its ideals is a strategy that is foreign to America’s own civic traditions, and their hysteria about race-mixing remains completely impermissible in the US (and, indeed, across much of Western Europe). One does not hear many American politicians – or even members of the so-called intellectual dark web – touting Nietzsche.
And yet, reading European fascists’ metapolitical dictionaries is deeply disconcerting, because one finds that much of the language – and the concomitant ways of thinking – has already achieved mainstream status.
Faye, for example, denounces anti-racism as a doctrine that “encourages discrimination in favor of aliens, the dissolution of European identity, the multiracialization of European society, and, at root, paradoxically, racism itself.” When that was written in 2001, it seemed ridiculous. To say that anti-racism is racism is a classic fascist inversion of ideals (war is peace, corruption is anti-corruption, authority is freedom). But now consider what has happened in the intervening years. The concept of “reverse racism” has become mainstream.
When Faye asserts that anti-racism is the “[t]ouchstone of the self-righteous” and “the most advanced expression of postmodern totalitarian ideology,” his diatribe becomes obviously unhinged. But aside from the level of hyperbole, is his argument really so different than the brilliant Columbia University linguist John McWhorter’s description of “Antiracism” as “a new and increasingly dominant religion?”
Or, consider the issue of “political correctness,” defined by Friberg as “a pejorative normally used for a set of values and opinions from which individuals are not allowed to deviate without falling victim to social and/or media sanctions.” In the two excerpts below, both from Friberg’s work, it is genuinely hard to tell whether the author is Friberg or one of any number of US-based “classical liberals” decrying the latest trends on college campuses:
“The latest innovation [of the far left] is the ridiculous pseudoscience of ‘gender studies’…which, under the cover of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ aims to create an atrophied human being … dependent upon … academics for his or her value system.”
“Anti-racism supports ethnic self-assertion by minorities, as long as the minority in question is not European. This is justified by reference to largely imaginary, reified concepts such as ‘White Privilege.’”
To take a final example, attacks against so-called cultural Marxism seem to have become mainstream within academia. But, as Yale University’s Samuel Moyn recently pointed out, the term itself is a recycled anti-Semitic trope that has been bouncing around on fascist message boards for years.
In reading Faye and Friberg and seeing the many overlaps with contemporary political discourse, it is difficult to avoid the thought that the fascists are winning the semantic war. To be sure, many of the American and European liberals wringing their hands about the “far left” and gender studies would reject Nietzsche and be called, by the far right, “globalists.” These are not fascists. And yet, we should not forget how easy it has been for some thinkers and politicians – Germany’s FDP is our era’s Exhibit A – to drift there from neoliberalism.
The Fascist Singularity
Similar slippages can occur in other areas. For example, some anti-nationalist public intellectuals are increasingly pressing for a debate about IQ differences between racial groups, if only to signal their own commitment to the truth. And others are urging us to recognize the Enlightenment as the signal achievement of civilization, as if it was the Europeans who invented reason and bestowed it on the rest of humankind. As Gingrich understood when he included terms like “debate” and “listen” on the positive side of his ledger, appeals to reason can serve almost any end. Hence, Friberg assures us that reason is on the side of limited immigration.
Likewise, fascist ideologues constantly hold up and defend meritocracy as an ideal. But so, too, do all of the “globalists,” as well as the libertarians in Silicon Valley. In the event of an environmental catastrophe, it is not difficult to imagine free marketeers opting for ultra-nationalism as the best survival strategy, or tech billionaires deciding that society should be run by the “winners” – that is, people like them.
In its original usage, the term “alt-right” encapsulated somewhat distinct anti-democratic ideologies, among them the philosopher Nick Land’s “Dark Enlightenment.” According to Land, democracy is inevitably corrupting, and democratic states thus should be replaced by “Gov-Corps” that are run as corporations and managed by a CEO. The guiding principle would be “No voice, free exit,” meaning that citizens would have no say in policymaking, but could leave whenever they wanted (as if self-exile – one of the harshest punishments throughout antiquity – is cost-free). According to Quartz’s Olivia Goldhill, the Dark Enlightenment has attracted a number of prominent supporters in Silicon Valley, including, apparently, the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who has been channeling some of its tenets in his speeches.
Scholars who write about the Dark Enlightenment have employed the term “fascism” to describe it. The danger now is that distinct far-right anti-democratic movements, from European and American ethno-nationalism to techno-corporatist strains like the Dark Enlightenment, are converging, albeit with supporters who have been drawn in for different reasons.
If It Talks Like a Fascist…
As we have seen, the objective of fascist metapolitical dictionaries like those by Faye and Friberg is to insinuate innocent-sounding terms into public discourse in order to make once-unacceptable anti-democratic ideologies seem benign, thereby lessening public opposition to, if not licensing, anti-democratic action. When the fundamental democratic principle of equal respect is recast as “political correctness,” it is no surprise that people would become more accepting of politicians calling entire immigrant groups “rapists” and “snakes.” When politicians start calling immigrants and refugees “illegal aliens,” it is no surprise that people become more accepting of treating them like they are less than human, snatching their children and consigning them to cages and squalid camps.
I am a philosopher of language and a linguist by training, as well as an epistemologist and a cognitive scientist. I know a lot about what is known about language and thought, and have a good sense of what remains unknown. As matters stand, we can see when certain ways of talking and thinking are gaining a wider purchase, but we have no obvious way of calculating the effects on individuals and society.
Moreover, we do not know if it is possible to adopt the language of hysteria about leftists, unions, Marxism, gender, and immigrants without also adopting other parts of the fascist package. We do not know if fascism is a holistic language game. Here, the best guides come from our own history. Intellectuals from Klemperer to James Baldwin have warned us about the costs of defeat in the semantic war, which we lose by adopting the vocabulary of our enemies.
I am deeply worried that our changing linguistic use is paving the road to anti-democratic outcomes, including modern-day versions of fascism, which will not mirror precisely the forms we have known in the past. Given this danger, it is vitally important not to shy away from labeling the danger for what it is.