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A liberal’s experiment in calling DeSantis a ‘fascist’ and what it says about labels

Republicans and conservatives have taken to labeling as “socialists” many liberal political figures who do not call themselves by that term. Here’s what happened when a liberal suggested Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is a fascist.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February.
REUTERS/Octavio Jones

To the degree possible, without engaging in excessive political correctness, I have believed that it’s best to allow politically active people to describe their own views. You could go too far with it, of course, if someone is clearly lying about positions he or she has taken or refusing to acknowledge words and labels that apply to their views.

But I long noted that, for obvious and dishonest purposes, actors on the political right have seen an advantage in labeling progressive/liberal players in the U.S. political drama as “socialists.”

There are some, a very few like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who embrace the s-term. But most Democrats don’t. They call themselves “liberals” or “progressives,” meaning that they generally favor more, rather than less, government action, especially action to help the needy. 

The exact spot on the spectrum where “liberalism” crosses the line into “socialism” is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. But, to the degree possible, and leaving room for discussion over just where the line is, I would say it’s best to err on the side of allowing people to choose their labels unless they abuse the courtesy.

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The same might be said of the terms “conservative” and “fascist.” Conservatives are right of center on the ideological spectrum, and fascists are farther right. But the precise border-line is hard to specify. I suppose fascists are also known for a tendency to admire radical, even violent leaders who are often not respectful of democratic norms. You know: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco.

For what seems like many years, Americans on the right have arrogated to themselves the power to define the line between liberals and socialists or, to put it more bluntly, have started calling liberals “socialists” and their liberal policy proposals “socialism,” even though the authors and promoters of those programs do not generally embrace the “s-word” for themselves or their policies.

Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer was particularly obnoxious in this regard in his role as leader of the National Republican Congressional Committee, referring in the committee’s communications to dozens and dozens of liberal Democrats, who do not call themselves socialists, as “socialists.”

Emmer’s motives were obvious. Swing voters, and Americans in general, are leery of the s-word and will tend to balk at any policy proposal that can be successfully labeled as “socialism.” 

As a lifelong liberal myself, the motives behind this rhetorical strategy were obvious, and obnoxious. Instead of arguing the merits of a proposal, just label it with a politically toxic term, specifically the s-word.

It has long occurred to me that if liberals adopted the same strategy, they would start labeling conservative policy ideas as “fascist” and our public policy argument could devolve into an insipid you’re-a-socialist; yeah-well-you’re-a-fascist idiocy, roughly the opposite of a constructive discussion of policy differences across left-right lines.

But, strangely, I suppose, at least pre-Trump and even in the early days of Trump, the name-calling came mostly from one side. 

Republicans and conservatives have taken to labeling as “socialists” many liberal political figures who do not call themselves by that term. And Republicans have done so with ever-increasing frequency over recent years. But, for whatever reason (feel free to speculate on the reason), left-leaning American political figures have not replied to the repetition of “socialist-socialist-socialist” with chants against right-leaning political figures as “fascists-fascists-fascists.”

Maybe, after the long grotesque incivility of the Trump era, that’s changing. I still don’t want to go there, but since the dawn of the Trump period I certainly felt the impulse. 

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I would gladly argue that Trump and his enablers were closer to being “fascists” than many liberals were to being “socialists.”

So I perked up when longtime liberal (and former Secretary of Labor) Robert Reich decided that, turnabout being fair play and all, he would drop an f-bomb (the f-word in this case being the word “fascist”) on a leading Republican and see what happened.

Reich, referring to some recent far-right rhetoric coming from Florida’s Republican Gov. (and likely 2024 presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis, put out a tweet that read: 

I don’t mean to condone Reich’s little experiment in turnabout-equals-fair-play play. But it resonated with that old thought of mine that if Republicans could decide which Democrats could be labeled with the s-word, maybe Democrats will decide which Republicans can be labeled with the f-word. (Fascist, that is, not the other f-word.)

Reich got, I suppose, the reaction he expected from conservative publications like The Washington Examiner, for example, which huffed:

“Ultra left-wing elitist and former secretary of labor during the Clinton administration Robert Reich tweeted earlier this week, “Just wondering if ‘DeSantis’ is now officially a synonym for ‘fascist.’” This insulting slur has no basis, of course. 

“This is just what left-wing ideologues do when they discuss Republican politicians who pose any threat to the existence of their political ideology.

“It’s not grounded in any reality and is a sham. Yet, it never stops any of them from repeating the lie. Anyone the Democrats don’t like or disagree with is a fascist. … Any person using such hyperbolic, unhinged name-calling is not a serious person, and anything they say should not be deemed credible.”

Reich noted  that “Fox News’s digital outlet took umbrage as did many others, with rightwing rage at my tweet ricocheting through the echo-chambers of Republican social media.”

Maybe I hang out in the wrong circles, but the idea that liberals are constantly calling conservative “fascists” did not resonate with my experience.

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And I don’t really want to see liberals start throwing around the f-word (fascist) too loosely when talking about conservatives. Mostly, I was just amused at the outrage of the right, which uses the s-word to describe liberal policies roughly a million times (or do I mean a billion, who cares when you’re having fun) more often than liberals call them by the f-word.

I’d be interested to know if Fox has ever taken any right-wing journal or personality to task for overusing the s-word (socialism) when denouncing any liberal Democrat who advocated policies that would tax rich people a bit more so the government could help poor people a bit more and other Bolshevik ideas like that.

The full Reich piece is here.