What’s in a name? – Shakespeare
Webster G. Tarpley, Ph.D.
October 30, 2018
Persons of good will are fresh from a major mobilization to stop the Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court, and are now seeking to break the Republican control of Congress as a first step to getting rid of Trump. But these struggles are being needlessly weakened by a widespread misconception of what our opponents are, how we should identify them, and how we should best fight them.
When Kavanaugh was confirmed, we had to endure the disgust of news reports that this event had “cemented a conservative majority” on the Supreme Court for decades to come. But such an account is totally misleading. If there were really a conservative majority, our troubles would be far less than they really are. A conservative majority would respect tradition, keep precedents, and slow the pace of change and moderate it. That is not at all what Kavanaugh and his ilk at the Federalist Society want. They want rapid, extreme change directed against the American people. They want to demolish the existing structure of American law by turning the clock back to over a century ago, before the Great Society, New Frontier, New Deal, Progressive Movement, and in many cases before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. They want to strip away rights that have been recognized for a hundred years and more.
WHAT DOES CONSERVATISM MEAN?
Conservatism in its traditional meaning comes down to valuing the status quo and wanting any reforms or changes to be done carefully and slowly. Oxford Dictionaries online define conservative as
“…tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions: traditional; marked by moderation or caution; marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners….”
The same source defines a conservative as “a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.”
Wikipedia writes that conservatism is “a political and social philosophy promoting traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. The central tenets of conservatism include tradition, human imperfection, organic society, hierarchy and authority, and property rights. Conservatives seek to preserve a range of institutions such as monarchy, religion, parliamentary government, and property rights, with the aim of emphasizing social stability and continuity.”
Does any of that sound like Trump and his fanatical backers bent on shaking up and disrupting the prevailing U.S. system of government? We think not.
This account usefully adds that “The more extreme elements—reactionaries—oppose modernism and seek a return to "the way things were."
Trump, Kavanaugh & Co. are not conservatives. In fact, to call them conservatives is doing them one of the biggest public relations favors imaginable. It sugar-coats their crimes. It trivializes and minimizes the threat they pose to the country.
As Obama recently observed in Cleveland on September 14:
“Look, none of this [the GOP ideology] is conservative. This is not normal. What we’re seeing, it is radical. It’s a vision that says that it’s more important for those who are currently in power to protect that power even if it hurts the country.”
We would suggest that the proper term for most present-day Republicans and their allies is REACTIONARIES – and that for a number of historical, political, and psychological reasons.
The moment has come when we must stop calling the enemy what he likes to be called, and what he deceptively calls himself -- a name which makes him seem far less threatening than he really is. We should start calling the enemy a name that conveys the infamy, opprobrium and peril of what he really represents. We need to show that we will decide on names, because we are morally and intellectually stronger.
We need to re-discover the immense polemical, analytical, and historical potential of the term REACTIONARY, which accurately describes much of what goes on in the current GOP regime.
The general habit of labeling the Trump forces, the right wingers, and most Republicans as “conservatives” was always a serious mistake, and has gradually attained the status of a grotesque and surreal distortion as these anti-state and anti-popular forces have become more radical. In the case of Kavanaugh, he is not in any way a conservative full of respect for settled law, traditions, precedents, and the legal doctrine of stare decisis. He is the radical enemy of all these things. He wants to wreck them, to overthrow them. He is a theoretician of the form of dictatorship known as the unitary executive, which places the president so far above the law that he cannot be investigated while in office, much less subpoenaed or indicted.
TRUMP’S PERMANENT AUSTERITY DICTATORSHIP IS NOT CONSERVATIVE
The task given to Kavanaugh by the right-wing activists of the Federalist Society (another misnomer!) is to push society backward towards barbarism and away from the existing status quo, to wipe out the results of the Great Society, the New Deal, and the Progressive Era and replace them with an authoritarian regime which we can best call the Permanent Austerity Dictatorship. Kavanaugh would conjure up a different and sinister version of the US of today. Kavanaugh’s goal is a regime with no right to vote, no barriers to racial and ethnic discrimination, no right to unions and collective bargaining, no protections for the poor and weak against the rich, the powerful, and the evil, and no reasonable regulations to safeguard the health, safety, property, and dignity of the people. This makes Kavanaugh a REACTIONARY.
If the term conservative means anything, Kavanaugh does not qualify as a conservative. His role on the high court would be to overturn, overthrow, and strike down the pillars of more than a century of modern American jurisprudence. He will attack settled law, precedents, and traditions. He will make a mockery of stare decisis. No settled law will be safe. He will, in short, do the very opposite of what an actual conservative would do. Kavanaugh is a REACTIONARY.
In fact, to call him a conservative destroys the main case against him.
It is therefore appalling to hear and read commentators (some of whom are well-meaning) holding forth about Kavanaugh as “very conservative.” Or, for that matter, to hear that Trump, Bannon, the Koch Brothers, Sean Hannity, Limbaugh, or the Alt Right are “very conservative.” But these are people who want to create a polity more anti-historical and more oppressive than anything found in America since the Civil War. They are not conservatives. They are REACTIONARIES, and very radical ones at that.
TO CALL TRUMP A CONSERVATIVE IS LITERALLY ORWELLIAN
The epidemic misuse of the term conservative is one of the most egregious current examples of the abuses of language targeted by George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s thesis is that political prose usage is designed to dupe, to manipulate, to sugar-coat atrocities, to hide the truth, and to undermine the very concept of truth. Much of his argument applies to our time:
“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language–so the argument runs–must inevitably share in the general collapse…. [But] the point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the concern of professional writers.… [Clichés, obfuscation, euphemisms, and misnomers] …will construct your sentences for you–even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear….The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like an octopus squirting out ink….I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”
The reform proposed by Orwell is similar to the one suggested here: recognize that calling such figures as Trump, McConnell, and Kavanaugh conservatives is indeed Orwellian, and then start fixing your own usage:
“[O]ne ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. … Political language …is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase … or other lump of verbal refuse–into the dustbin where it belongs.”
KAVANAUGH WILL SHRED PRECEDENT TO SERVE TRUMP
Again: if Kavanaugh were really very conservative, he would pose much less of a problem. A principled conservative would defend the existing precedents and points of settled law. So there would be no overwhelming threat to Roe v. Wade, which secured the right to abortion. Nor would Casey v. Planned Parenthood, which secured the continuance of Roe, be in danger. A conservative justice would respect them implicitly, not tear them down. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) would also be safe, since this is by now also settled law. The same goes for child labor laws, wages and hours, federal minimum wage, and other regulations in a myriad of fields.
The most recent judicial monstrosities from the reactionary Scalia court (the Citizens United open door for foreign and corporate campaign dark money, the Janus attack on union finances, the Heller gun orgy, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder) have tended to involve the striking down of precedents from the New Deal and the Great Society eras. Labeling the justices who voted for these horrors as conservatives does nothing but camouflage them and help them appear far more moderate than they are.
If Kavanaugh wants to place Trump above the law, he will have to strike down the unanimous 8-0 decision in United States v. Nixon (1974), which forced Tricky Dick to disgorge the Oval Office tapes. An actual conservative would have trouble doing this. But Kavanaugh is eager to do it. So it makes no sense to call Kavanaugh a conservative and then delude oneself that this pathetic formulation represents an effective attack on his dictatorial tendencies. For far too many, it might appear as a compliment. But Kavanaugh is actually a reactionary -- at minimum.
We are proposing a simple action which would have had the potential of helping to stop the Kavanaugh candidacy and could still shave a percentage point or more off the vote totals of Republican candidates. Right now, these Republicans are being allowed to get away with calling themselves conservatives when they are in fact militant reactionaries and right wing extremists. If we examine what conservatism is supposed to mean, we will quickly find that the party of Trump and Pence, Jim Jordan and Steve Bannon, Judge Roy Moore and Newt Gingrich is not conservative in any meaningful sense, but should rather be called right wing extremist, right wing radical, right-wing fanatic, or – as proposed here – REACTIONARY.
REACTIONARY is the historically established and adequate term. It reflects reality and is thus a much-needed way of telling the truth. To call these people conservatives is a dodge, a cop-out.
With the stakes of the 2018 election comparable to those of 1864 and 1940 in historical importance, it ought to be inconceivable that we allow a brutal adversary to decide on his own reassuring, non-threatening, sugar-coated name as suggested by his own focus groups and think tanks. Anyone who is content to let Republicans go on calling themselves conservatives is a fool and a coward who has already surrendered, and is unfit to be a leader. We of the anti-Trump camp must now prepare a campaign to impose a label on the Trump faction which is scientifically accurate and polemically effective, meaning negative for them.
CAREFUL CHOICE OF WORDS CAN HELP DEMOCRATS GAIN A POINT OR MORE
There can be little doubt that a general policy of naming Trump and his followers as the REACTIONARIES they are, if systematically and permanently carried out by television anchors, radio commentators, newspaper writers, Internet bloggers, and social media could soon be imitated by Democratic candidates, leading to an identity crisis in significant parts of the enemy coalition. The resulting disorientation could, as already noted, reduce the reactionary vote by a percentage point or two – perhaps enough to decide the outcome.
The ability of the anti-Trump coalition to impose a different and pejorative name against the will of the oppressors will also show which side is intellectually and politically stronger – and this is a factor of inestimable worth.
All in all, this simple reform of political terminology represents the easiest, cheapest, quickest, and most effective tactic available to anti-Trump political forces in the current situation. All that is required to get the ball rolling would be for a nationally syndicated columnist, a cable television news personality, a radio talk show host, or a leading website to embrace this long overdue reform. The time is now!
From the time of Gorgias the sinister sophist in the age of Plato, down to the verbal contortions of the protean Frank Luntz, anyone engaged in politics has been forced to appreciate the tremendous importance of controlling the use of words and names in the struggle for intellectual and moral hegemony. American history is full of examples. If you in 1864 you were forced to call your opponent a Peace Democrat, then you would have an uphill fight against an opponent whose name sounds reassuring and even attractive. But, if that same opponent is commonly referred to as a Copperhead, and therefore a traitor, then half your battle is already won.
MASS TRACTION, NOT POLITICAL CORRECTNESS
Modern American Democrats and leftists have shown little understanding for this decisive principle. For decades, they have insisted on calling the health care plan they recommend by the strange, confusing, and sometimes menacing term “single-payer,” even as polls showed that demanding Medicare for All –based on the familiar, proven and beloved program – would have conferred a distinct advantage. They have insisted on calling for a Robin Hood Tax on speculation, which once again sounds alien and threatening to many, when the direct and honest term Wall Street Sales Tax offers far better traction. Many in the Democratic Party are obsessed with names, but too often from the standpoint of political correctness and ideological purity, rather than effective polemics and political traction.
But now, in the fall of 2018, the issue of what to call the Trump-Republican political faction has become an existential one for our country. This includes the impact of these terms on the plans of the Kavanaugh court.
If you ask the Trump backers, they will of course generally demand to be called conservatives. This is understandable, since they are actually reactionaries, or worse. So this demand is self-serving and absurd.
As noted, conservatives have historically and recently claimed to believe in tradition, custom, precedent, protocol, and convention. They support traditional ways of doing things. They accord great authority to custom, even when its rules are unwritten. In legal affairs, they say they support stare decisis, meaning scrupulous respect for earlier court rulings seen as binding precedents. They believe that there are long-established ways of doing things, and that these protocols should be adhered to unless there is a compelling reason to depart from them. Conservatives generally cannot avoid a certain respect for the status quo, since existing reality has been brought about by real historical processes, and cannot be simply negated en bloc. If there are to be changes, then these changes should be gradual, and grow out of the current situation in what they call an organic way. In other words, changes should not be sweeping and arbitrary, but rather should grow out of elements that are already implicit in what exists. Conservatives also value prescription: some people have to be told what to do, and this reflects the authoritarian nature of this belief structure. They are devoted to the concept of hierarchy, which they sometimes imbue with a religious justification.
The basis for their respect for norms and protocols is the high regard in which conservatives hold religious, social, economic, and government institutions. Conservatism may be seen as the conviction that the existing institutions are axiomatically capable of solving all the problems of the present human condition. New institutions are usually not needed.
Conservatives don’t like change. They are usually suspicious of change. People like Trump, Bannon, Kavanaugh and the rest of their phalanx of true believers and incendiaries are bringers of big change, cataclysmic change. Trump, Bannon, and Kavanaugh are radical reactionaries, not conservatives.
Thus, anyone can see that the Trump political faction is not at all conservative on virtually all the key points just listed. Indeed, Trump and Kavanaugh are the very opposite, the antithesis of conservatism. Trump claims to be an enemy of the existing set hierarchies known as the Establishment. Trump says that his mission is to break up the traditions and customs typical of Washington DC. He regards the status quo as his enemy, the realm of “American carnage,” bad deals, “crippled America,” “the swamp,” and thus of absolute negativity. Trump’s record indicates a strong preference for a radical, utopian and non-organic break with the past, carried out with none of the care and prudence which an actual conservative might bring to this task. We can thus conclude that applying the term conservative to Trump is an absolute misnomer, a violation of the truth in labeling laws. It is Orwellian.
TRUMP CONSERVES NOTHING – DON’T LET HIM PRETEND TO
If the Trumpers want to be called conservatives, they must first tell us just what it is they want to conserve and preserve. After more than 19 months of this regime, it is hard to find anything they want to conserve, other than income inequality and man’s inhumanity to man. From the provisions of the Constitution to federal statutes to Supreme Court precedents, agency regulations, political customs and traditions, the long-established norms of human society, and morality and decency – the Trump machine in its infinite degradation is at war with all of these. Their only interest in the existing system is to learn better how to game it, loot it, and asset-strip the wreckage.
This outrageous situation has created great confusion, as it was designed to. The extremist ideologue Steve Bannon has been described as a “conservative strategist,” even when his announced mission in life was to destroy the Republican Party Establishment root and branch -- something a conservative could hardly want. Was the accused deviant Judge Roy Moore a family values conservative? How about such figures as the right-wing demagogue Jim Jordan? Or Newt Gingrich, who was considered more of an extremist than the Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre?
Today, even a neo-fascist, white supremacist, nativist, xenophobic think tank can be and is seriously designated as conservative. The conservative position on immigration is that of traditional capitalism: immigrants can be useful as workers, not least by using them to drive down wages of currently employed workers. The Trump gang sees this as heresy.
Most dangerous of all, Judge Kavanaugh is portrayed as the conservative addition for the Supreme Court, even when it is already clear that his tasks are largely devoted to demolishing and overturning decades of precedent, negating tradition, wiping out custom and protocol, legislating from the bench based on his own prejudices, and deploying a very pernicious judicial activism. Kavanaugh supports a kind of totalitarianism invented by Scalia and referred to in the Bush 43 administration as the “unitary executive.” Today, we can refer to this project as the Permanent Austerity Dictatorship, which is emphatically a form of single party rule. This is far more than a question of style: Bannon is a slob, while Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell does not look like a bomb-tossing firebrand; however, he has perhaps done more to wreck the traditions of the U.S. Senate than virtually anyone in recent memory.
In sum, these are not conservatives by any manner of means. Starting with Trump and Pence, they are right wing extremists, right-wing fanatics, right-wing radicals, or – most succinctly and effectively – reactionaries. They seek to foment a negative and destructive rebellion against an existing set of reforms in the status quo.
Originally, reactionaries were counter-revolutionaries who wanted to turn back the clock and undo the consequences of the American and especially the French revolutions, returning to the rule of kings, titled nobility, and the Old Regime. Even after Napoleon’s defeat, these old-time reactionaries wanted to return to the same pre-1789 ruling dynasties (not Bonapartists, but Bourbons, Hohenzollerns, and Hapsburgs, with the same official religions, and the same aristocratic privileges.
MURRAY ROTHBARD: “CALL ME A RADICAL REACTIONARY”
After the First World War, reactionary thinkers like Carl Schmitt (Hitler’s lawyer and the patron saint of the Leo Strauss neocons) concluded that the forms of political, social, and economic retrogression which they were seeking could not be attained by an attempt to revert to overt feudal-aristocratic courts and kingship, but rather required modern dictatorship and its more sophisticated forms of oppression in order to be effective. This became the outlook of fascists in Europe right after World War I.
The difference between a reactionary and a fascist is that reactionaries tend to maintain parliamentary formalities as cover, whereas fascists indulge in overt illegal, extrajudicial violence and terrorism. Reactionaries send the police, while fascists also deploy their own armed goons and thugs. Trump’s incitement of violence at his campaign rallies and his embrace of the neo-Nazis of Charlottesville show his strong fascist components.
GOP leaders have sometimes claimed, especially in the time from Nixon to Gingrich to Trump, that they represent a “conservative revolution,” but this is largely doubletalk to sugar-coat the fact that they are reactionaries.
The last word in our call for accuracy in naming the enemy goes to the reactionary libertarian extremist Murray Rothbard, a precursor of the Paul dynasty and the Tea Party. In 1992, Rothbard offered the following remarks on the proper branding of his followers:
“So what should we call ourselves? I haven't got an easy answer, but perhaps we could call ourselves radical reactionaries, or "radical rightists," the label that was given to us by our enemies in the 1950s. Or, if there is too much objection to the dread term "radical," we can follow the suggestion of some of our group to call ourselves "the Hard Right." Any of these terms is preferable to "conservative….”
Democrats and their allies should give the late Murray Rothbard his first choice: let the GOP henceforth be known as RADICAL REACTIONARIES, or just plain REACTIONARIES.
If Democrats would like to gain a point or more, here is a ready and easy way. Stop conceding valuable advantages to a brutal and unscrupulous enemy in political strife! Start exposing them for what they are! Call them REACTIONARIES!