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A Republican lexicon

Ivonne Rovira
Ivonne Rovira

Many progressives are confused by the Right’s vocabulary. They use the same words we do, but in ways that make no sense. How can that be? Because, like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, words mean whatever they want them to.

Take racist. When progressives or even everyday people say “racist,” they mean someone is treating someone of another race, color, religion, or ethnicity as lesser than others. When Republicans say “racist,” they mean a person who has pointed out that someone is treating someone of another race, color, religion, or ethnicity as lesser than someone else. Think Bizarro World or Opposite Day.

Or take law and order. For most people, that means that a country has a system of laws that applies equally to everyone, regardless of race or financial status. Clearly, that’s not what the Right means by that phrase. For them, “law and order” means the opposite, frankly, where harsh laws (think the powder cocaine versus rock cocaine laws, or Fox News frothing at the mouth over Black Lives Matter protests) apply to Black and Brown folks and their political opponents but not anyone the Right likes.

For example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis insisted on a draconian anti-protest law – that he then wouldn’t enforce against a protest by Miami Cubans. Nor does DeSantis see any contradiction between calling peaceful BLM protesters “rioters” and throwing the book at them, and then lauding the Canadian truck convoys that shut Toronto down in a way BLM never has anywhere. After all, aren’t those truckers White? As the late Peruvian President Óscar Benevides said: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.” Yeah, that’s how the GOP sees it, too.

One of the most confusing vocabulary words used by the Right is the word freedom. As the great linguist and strategist George Lakoff points out in his fantastic book Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea, the left and the right do not mean the same thing by this word.

Voting rights are being threatened, good-paying jobs eliminated or exported, benefits cut or eliminated. Public education is being gutted and science is under attack. The media is being consolidated, corporate regulations eliminated, the civil justice system threatened, public health programs cut. Unions are being destroyed and benefits taken away. There are new bankruptcy laws limiting access to capital for ordinary people. And we see the promotion of a new form of free-market colonialism in the guise of free-trade agreements and globalization, and even the use of the military to support these policies.

But for radical conservatives, these developments are not movements away from freedom but toward their version of freedom. Where most Americans in the last century have seen an expansion of freedoms, these conservatives see a curtailment of what they consider “freedom.” What makes them “conservatives” is not that they want to conserve the achievements of those who fought to deepen American democracy. It’s the reverse: They want to go back to before these progressive freedoms were established. What they want to conserve is, in most cases, the situation prior to the establishment of traditional American ideas of freedom: before unions and worker protections and pensions, before civil rights legislation, before public health and environmental protections, before Social Security and Medicare, before scientific discoveries contradicted fundamentalist religious dogma.

You saw that contradiction play out about commonsense COVID protections over the last two years. MAGA crowds bellowing about the “freedom” to do as they pleased, regardless of how it infringed on the freedom and safety of others. Supposedly pro-life politicians, with a straight face, defending killing millions to protect the freedom of their millionaire donors to maximize profits. Defending the right of their child to infect other children, because it’s all about unlimited freedom for me and none for thee.

I will end with the most jarring disparity in vocabulary between normal people and the Far Right. When normal people say the First Amendment and freedom of speech, they mean that people are allowed to say what they want without interference from the federal government. You know, the definition that’s in the first spot in the Bill Rights.

But that’s not what the extreme Right means by it. They mean that they are allowed to say whatever they want — libelous or not — but that no one else is allowed to even criticize them. You know, what the rest of us would call a cornerstone of fascism. But don’t take my word for it.

It's old news that the Far Right is disturbed that private corporations have decided that they want a measure of control over their business places and products. So they claim the First Amendment — which only applies to the government — is being violated. Some of them are just idiots (cf. #PresidentDunce, Marjorie Traitor Greene, and Lauren Boebert); however, some — like double-Ivy Ted “Cancun” Cruz, double-Ivy Ron DeSantis, and Yale Law School graduate Josh Hawley — know better. They may play idiots on TV, but it’s a scam.

But in addition to inventing First Amendment rights that don’t exist, the MAGAverse wants to take away First Amendment rights that do exist if you’re not singing from their hymnal.

Take Florida’s lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez: She was furious that the NCAA and Disney had the nerve — the bloody nerve! — to speak out against Florida’s proposed “don’t say gay” law. As she told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham:

Indeed, these feckless CEOs, the ‘woke’ corporations — they’re too busy bowing down to the altar of the CCP [China’s Communist Party]…. They will criticize our legislation. They will try to bully us, like the NCAA did, like Disney’s doing. How dare they? They have no right to criticize duly elected legislators that are passing common-sense legislation, to criticize and to threaten. Governor DeSantis and I won’t stand for it!

In other words, it’s bullying to challenge extremist Republicans who want to bully LGBTQ kids and their families. I guess because the kids are strong enough to handle it, and the Far Right is too fragile? (Maybe I can find them a safe space. Oh, wait! They already have one: Fox News! I forgot!)

But the greater point is that Nuñez clearly thinks that the First Amendment only applies to people who agree with her. For her, mercy; for the rest of us, we don’t even get the benefit of the law.

So when you hear a Far Rightist use words to mean the opposite of what the rest of us understand, just know that it’s part of the plan: to gaslight so many of us that they can get what they want. It’s an old tactic, used by autocrats forever.

Don’t give in to it. Instead, insist on shared meanings. As Timothy Snyder said in his book On Tyranny,

Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

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Ivonne Rovira

Ivonne is the research director for Save Our Schools Kentucky. She previously worked for The Miami Herald, the Miami News, and The Associated Press. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

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