Column: Two words

James Bornemeier
James Bornemeier

It became alarmingly evident some time ago that this raucous and scary run-up to the presidential nominating conventions was like no other in recent history.

There is a level of anger, name-calling, swagger and outrageous oratory — although that word hardly seems appropriate for the coarse verbal bombast being unleashed by the candidates — to make your neck hairs dance.

There’s no doubt the situation gives many people a satisfied glow that, finally, the gloves have come off and political taboos have been flouted as if they are ancient guidelines for decorum that needed to be dispensed with long ago. At this point it seems unlikely that the bad genie can be put back in the magic bottle. Once you start attracting adoring crowds with this rhetoric, it becomes part of the playbook going forward. Like oil prices, you hope that it reaches a line that will not be crossed. Why would you think that?

Cataloging the various over-the-line improprieties serves no purpose and only makes the head throb a bit more actively. What I have seized on lately is the frequency with which two words have entered the national discussion: “socialist” and “fascist.”

If you are following along in this primary season, you have encountered “socialist” many, many times. Bernie Sanders, nipping, if not gnawing at Hillary’s heels, has been a happily committed socialist since the 1970s.

I first heard of him after I migrated to Vermont at the beginning of that decade. Bernie was a member of the Liberty Union Party, which each election put up a slate of candidates for every constitutional office. The party typically rotated its cast of candidates so that one election he or she would vie for governor, the next year secretary of state, the next year treasurer and so on. They didn’t win.

But Bernie was the most entertaining by far and in 1980 won the mayoralty of Burlington, the state’s biggest city, as a socialist on the Independent Party line.

I had left the state by then but kept my eye on Bernie. He turned out to be a pragmatist who won over much of the business community and is given a lot of credit for saving the grand Lake Champlain frontage from rapacious development. He got elected to Vermont’s lone House seat and now is one of its senators. He’s an independent, but in the patois of Washington, he “caucuses with the Democrats.” He’s well-liked, seen as a man of his word and has got some stuff done on veterans’ issues.

He is burning up the campaign trail and truly is an orator. If you hear him live, as I have over the years, you might find yourself unexpectedly standing and shouting, maybe for the sheer fun of it or maybe for something more serious. But the word “socialist” doesn’t seem to set people’s hair on fire, maybe because early on those whose hair is particularly flammable figured the word would be an instant deal-breaker on the national stage.

Instead, Bernie is leading a movement.

The other word is “fascist.” This is a word that doesn’t tend to rise to the top of political pundits’ chatter in this country. It’s a word that has such dreadful power and evil trappings that it would seem to have no place in the 2016 races. But it has found a place.

On January 14, Elizabeth Drew, a respected writer and blogger, posted this for the New York Review of Books, under the title “Politics of Frustration”: “The anger, fear, resentment, racism and frustration that are playing into the current political climate make for a turbulent situation. This is a situation prone to undermining our democratic system. It’s not an overstatement to say that this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We’re not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed.”

On January 20, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times OpEd columnist, had this to say in a column titled “What If?” in which he lists a number of dinner-ruining conversational gambits:

“What if our 2016 election ends up being between a socialist and a borderline fascist — ideas that died in 1989 and 1945, respectively?”

Neither Ms. Drew nor Mr. Friedman would be welcome in the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page brain-storming sessions, but neither are they lefty crackpots.

Two political words, both with histories, one global and American, one European. Socialist: Eugene V. Debs, an American union leader, who ran for president five times as a socialist in the early 20th century. Fascist: The Third Reich.

What more can be said?