Although the modern far right is more angry, violent, and visible, thanks to cable news, America has never lacked for hyperbolic, cartoonish criticism. At the outset we shared with the Romans an eagnerness to style our opponents as kings, tyrants, monarchs, despots, or emperors, evoking potent memories of past injustices.
Monarchs were an understandably sore spot for early Americans: they’d suffered under the caprices of one within living memory, and struggled with mind and body to first expel and then ensure against the return of the same. For decades, any political deed carried with it the fear of kingship. America’s first experiment with federal government, the Articles of Confederation, failed because we were too suspicious of central authority, but understandably so. George Washington painstakingly crafted himself into an exemplar of democratic authority, first surrendering his military commission, to prove that America’s liberator would not, in fact, turn into a modern Pompey/Cromwell/Napoleon; then ensuring a civil title for the President, bereft of the trappings of monarchy; and, finally, resigning, to cut short any expectation of lifetime rule.
Modern political namecalling, for better or worse, has evolved significantly. By the 1950s, our domestic political opponents began to take the names of our foreign opponents — those inclined to state power, and those who opposed the sitting President, became “Communists.” It was Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI) who began to sever the term from its dictionary meaning: opposing the Senator was enough to make you a Communist, regardless of your opinion of international socialism. Although a few commentators still employ the traditional slurs (“monarchist”), modern epithets — like “Nazi,” “Socialist,” and “Communist” — now occupy the field, carrying with them McCarthy’s definitional disconnect. Lest we forget, socialism requires state ownership (not regulation!!) of the means of production; communism requires that plus the abolition of private property; and Nazism requires a similar command economy, plus the brutal repression of all political dissent. None have happened here, and none will happen here, either.
If this is to be the mode of modern American namecalling, though, I fear we’ve lost something special. The style of calling our opponents “monarchists” had the ring of history and classicism to it. Cries of “monarchism” embodied a uniquely American approach to state power, to so hate monarchy as to make it the prime evil, and while I don’t doubt that Communism and Nazism are in fact greater evils, when it comes to archnemeses, you never forget your first. The weight of history keeps the “monarch” insult well grounded, too, while overuse has unmoored and devalued the evil inherent in, say, the “Nazi” label. If we are to better honor our history, and the victims of modern atrocities like Nazism, it might be best to return to the old style of namecalling. If we can’t civilize our political discourse, at least we might civilise it.