Usage data tells us that the most frequently searched word on the Merriam Webster website is fascism. Over the course of the dictionary’s digital existence, no other entry has been as popular to look up with our literate public. Imagine what this says about its mostly American audience. Of all the ideas that could drive our curiosity, it is a political label — and one filled with negative meaning rather than hope, inspiration, or national ideals — that we feel the need to understand more than any other.
Undoubtedly, this trend was long fueled by the ignorant anti-Obama segments of our polity, and just as surely, those searchers have been supplanted in the last year by the shrieking opposition to Trump. To both, the political label has been bandied about by editorial voices on the attack, inciting fear and framing public conversations with accusations. This denigration — this slur — This is fascism! — has become so common as to prompt widespread searches yet so poorly understood as to require definition.
Everywhere, dire warnings that fascism is at work in our country — threatening our freedom — inspire fear via the dramatic labeling. A fascist does such things! These are the signs of fascism! Self-proclaimed — and possibly legitimate — experts charge on social media, and in op-eds, and through television appearances that the threat of fascism is upon us. You must understand, this is fascism!
In response, audience members turn to the dictionary for understanding. What is this fascism? How do we define it? They have become familiar with the label, but the concept is still strange. This begs the question, what good is the label? Why fear the word? Isn’t what is bad about fascism the things that define it, rather than the word itself? So, why the urgency for labeling? Words are representations; it isn’t the letters in that particular arrangement that threaten.
Here is the problem with politics — with political terms and theory: people too often value the labels in themselves. Look, they say, this thing is a sign of fascism. Or, look here, this other thing is a sign of fascism. They stir up concerns that fascism is upon us. But, what is the point of showing the evidence to convince someone of the danger in the label, instead of the word being shorthand for terrible occurrences afoot? It’s as if people care more that they should win others over to the vocabulary than that they object to fascist actions.
We know the threats that come from fascist movements because we know the historical stories of their deeds. Think of the Nazis’ Final Solution or the White Terror in Francoist Spain. The tragedies and harms that we have record of show us what we should fear repeating. The word fascist doesn’t matter; it’s what it represents that brings us harm. We should hope to avoid reliving — or experiencing a variation of — the terrible events we know to have occurred under former fascist regimes.
So, it is the history of these powers that should inform us, but we are bludgeoned instead with terminology, which sends us running to the dictionary for understanding. There, Merriam-Webster gives us examples to describe fascism that, ironically, echo the evidence presented to alarm us of fascist creep in our political culture. Our understanding circles, and dizzyingly, we flit between sources with understanding before us but resisting true comprehension.
What good does it do us to debate whether fascism has come to our country instead of simply committing ourselves to act on the matters that present to us? We are too consumed with political theory, neglecting the historical evidence that enlightens and — more importantly — dropping our focus from participating as our current story unfolds. The purpose of categorization is understanding, but it becomes a distraction if the labels replace our care for actual experience — or worse, responding to abuse. Be moved by historical tales and the histories we are now making. React to your present. Let later scholars define it.