We were reading from Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, a book that has appeared at exactly the right time:
If politicians, journalists, and even kitchen-table debaters adopted the habit of defining their terms, we would understand each other better — and begin the process of restoring language.
Gessen’s words brought up a pet peeve of mine regarding the mainstream media: At what point in an ongoing story should reporters and editors drop the euphemisms and start using terms that more accurately describe unsavory public figures and their actions?
“Who cares about your pet peeve?” Swamp Rabbit said.
We all should care, I told him, because the country is still reeling from some of Donald Trump’s worst abuses of power thus far, including using the U.S. military to disperse protesters in order to stage a photo op on Lafayette Square, and threatening to deploy 10,000 troops to put down protests in Washington, D.C., and other cities.
The sad fact is that most major media outlets are only now coming to terms with the role they played in enabling Trump by refusing to recognize that he was, as Gessen puts it, “probably the first major party nominee who ran not for president but for autocrat.”
“What’s she mean by autocrat?” Swamp Rabbit said. “Is that the same as dictator?”
Good question. I told him an autocrat is an all-powerful leader and so is a dictator. But the word autocrat isn’t supposed to convey the same menace as dictator. According to one online site, “An autocrat lacks the personality cult or charisma of a dictator and this probably restrains him from taking extreme decisions that could severely hurt his people.”
Swamp Rabbit was still confused. “So why does Gessen use the word autocrat? Trump has a cult following and he don’t care who he hurts. Don’t that make him a wanna-be dictator?”
Another good question. I told him that Gessen and respectable journalists everywhere prefer to avoid using explosive terms like “dictator” because such terms make them sound like their arguments are rooted in emotional bias rather than in reason. The last thing a mainstream journalist wants to be called is biased.
“That don’t make no sense,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Trump has been lying forever but it took them reporters a couple of years to call him a liar. And it took them even longer to call him a racist, even though he made a million racist remarks and spread the lie that Barack Obama was a Kenyan. Biased is beside the point if you got your facts straight.”
I heaved a big sigh. “I don’t know, rabbit. This is the first time the media had to deal with a president who is totally, unabashedly rotten — a guy who would shred the Constitution if he could — and with an entire political party that would shred it with him in order to stay on top. Autocrat fits.”
Swamp Rabbit shook his head. “Autocrat is too polite. It don’t quite say it.”
I shrugged. “You say potato, I say po-tah-toe.”
“I say lying racist wanna-be dictator. That’s Trump.”
Footnote: Surviving Autocracy is about a lot more than just Trump, but Swamp Rabbit’s point is a good one. There’s no sense in trying to make an argument if we don’t define our terms, right?