Why Calling Your Opponents Nazis or Communists Could Backfire

If they decide to roll with it

Ben Gibran
Mar 2 · 3 min read
The Nuremberg Trials for Nazi war crimes. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia (public domain)

It’s trendy these days to call Republicans ‘Fascists’ or even ‘Nazis’, and Democrats have been labeled ‘Socialists’ or ‘Communists’ by rivals for decades. Though some take this name-calling literally, many use it as a rhetorical strategy to paint their opponents in the worst possible light.

This may seem a smart move at first, possibly dissuading some ‘moderates’ from joining the other side. But do it often enough, and it could backfire spectacularly. The shock value of an epithet tends to decline when it’s over-used and applied more broadly.

This increases the likelihood of your adversary defusing the label altogether by co-opting it as a badge of honor, de-emphasizing its negative aspects and adding positive connotations. What was a derogatory epithet then becomes a beacon, attracting moderates with its provocative ‘edginess’.

A recent example was Hillary Clinton calling some Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables” in 2016. She even added a long list of negative connotations, “They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.” Nobody wants to be ‘deplorable’, right? Wrong.

Trump masterfully did the flip, piling positive connotations on ‘deplorable’, while the negative ones fell by the wayside. He proudly and repeatedly used the term for his supporters, who wore t-shirts with ‘Deplorable’ on the front. On top of that, Clinton was accused of being insensitive for using the epithet!

Some may reply, “If calling someone a ‘Fascist’ or ‘Communist’ ends up with them behaving that way, they were probably heading that way anyway.” But what if they weren’t heading that way anyway? There’s a self-fulfilling dynamic to these labels.

Sure, the terms have negative connotations today that may keep moderates on the straight and narrow. But if ‘Fascist’ and/or ‘Communist’ get debased with common use, then rehabilitated like ‘deplorable’, moderates are less likely to see them as barriers to joining a self-avowed ‘Fascist’ or ‘Communist’ cause.

As the stigma falls away, the attractiveness of a ‘radical’ solution rises in hard times. Especially since co-opting such labels often involves spinning an ‘underdog’ or ‘victim’ narrative that appeals to the dispossessed and downtrodden.

If we are to respect the memory of the victims of Fascism and Communism, we need to be less liberal in applying those terms. There is something to be said for not applying them at all, except in a historical context and even then, only to those who called themselves that.

To call people today Fascist or Communist is to give them an excuse to not only positively rehabilitate those terms as applied to themselves, but also to offer a revisionist history of Fascism or Communism that is more consistent with that positive self-image.

At some point, a calculation has to be made. Is the use of these terms today likely to keep moderates in line, or are we close to a tipping point that could jeopardize not only our generation’s political progress, but also nullify the lessons of the past for future generations?

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Ben Gibran

Written by

Ben writes on the theory and social science of communication, and anything else that comes to mind

Invisible Pillar

An online publication attempting to make the place better

Ben Gibran

Written by

Ben writes on the theory and social science of communication, and anything else that comes to mind

Invisible Pillar

An online publication attempting to make the place better

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