Elections are an imperfect tool to measure the value of political rhetoric, and last November was no exception. Years of relentless warnings about looming tyranny were followed by the rare defeat of a sitting president. If and how the two were related is anyone’s guess: exit polls don’t provide “fear of fascism” as an option to mark voters’ top concerns. Moreover, the results were so ambiguous that they do not lend themselves to clear conclusions. Democrats won both the White House and Congress on painfully slim margins and could not slow down the Republican Party’s continuing radicalization. This haziness means that events have done little to resolve the fascism debate. Some, like New York Magazine journalist Eric Levitz, claimed that Joe Biden’s triumph vindicated those who used the epithet. Not only did they help convince CNN and other media organs to take a stern anti-Trump stance (Stanley is a frequent talking head), but they did so while pushing the Democratic Party left on economic issues. Skeptics similarly did not change their mind. Political scientist Corey Robin argued after the election that Trump’s underperformance compared to other Republicans exposed him as weak and ineffective, “almost the complete opposite of fascism.”
But if there is a lesson to be drawn from the last elections, it may be that correctly naming our most radical opponents is not the key to political triumph. Both during and after his campaign, Biden persistently avoided talking about his opponent. The rare occasions he did so, like when he commented on Trump being “an aberration” or “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had,” were the exceptions that proved the rule; he remained focused on specific policies. Similarly, Biden’s rhetoric was thin on historical analogies. Unlike his predecessor, whose “Make America Great Again” and “America First” slogans were clear references to nativist and racist historical movements, Biden hardly invoked the past. His inaugural address is a telling example: it zoomed through the Civil War, the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and September 11 in half a sentence, mentioning them as a testament to the nation’s resilience before focusing on the themes of unity and healing. Progressive commentators spend little time reflecting on such rhetoric, bland and uninspiring as it seems. Perhaps correctly naming the enemy isn’t as important to mobilization on the left as the fascism debate suggested.
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