Back in the 1970s, the fantasy writer Marvin Kaye wrote a short story titled “Damned Funny,” about a man named Drake and a comical, bumbling imp sent from Hell named Tiny Tom (no relation, I assure you) who offers him a deal in return for—what else?—his soul. Drake is an arrogant sort who doesn’t really believe in Hell; he even snorts at the idea that it might look like some medieval woodcut. Tiny Tom, meanwhile, is merely a prancing goofball in red longjohns, and so Drake confidently makes the deal.
You know how this ends. As Satan hurls him into The Pit at the story’s conclusion, Drake thinks: This looks a lot like a medieval woodcut.
You’re probably wondering what on earth this has to do with politics and the upcoming elections. Bear with me.
The 2022 midterms are only a year away, and I fear that many of us are not really ready for the kind of political battle that lies ahead. I suspect, as Michelle Goldberg wrote recently, that we’re all exhausted and even in despair. I know I am; I was more optimistic about the future of American democracy two years ago than I am today. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said to Goldberg, I have that “pit of the stomach feeling that we’re not OK, and it’s not clear we’re going to be OK.”
It’s all enough to make you throw your hands in the air and give up. Don’t do that.
There’s a lot to talk about in the coming weeks and months, but I’d like to suggest one small but immediate measure to improve the efficacy of prodemocracy efforts: Grow up, and speak like adults.
By this I mean that it’s time to ditch all the coy, immature, and too-precious language about former President Donald Trump and the Republicans. No more GQP, no more Qevin McCarthy, no more Rethuglicans and Repuglicans. No more Drumpf. No more Orange Menace.
And no more of The Former Guy, which I know is popular among even many of my friends and colleagues in the media. All of this trivializes what should be the deadly serious business of stopping the attack on American democracy by an authoritarian leader and his party.
I realize that some of these names come from the too-online communities of social media (although I started noticing Rethuglicans at least a decade ago). I’m a part of that and I’ve broken my own rule here (and probably will again) with some snickering name-calling. But it’s time for the coalition of prodemocracy voters to stop doing it.
When we use silly and childish expressions, we communicate to others that we are silly and childish, while encouraging ourselves to trivialize important matters. Worse, we accidentally mythologize Trump by being unwilling to say his name, as if he were some sort of metaphysical being, making him into a Balrog or an arch-demon or one of The Old Ones Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken, instead of merely reminding ourselves that he is Donald J. Trump, the vulgar and stupid con artist from Queens, the sad little boy who wants to wreck America because his father didn’t love him enough.
So, too, should we simply call the Republican Party by its historic name, because each time we do so, we remind ourselves that this was once a serious political party that is now controlled by fringe propagandists and seditionists. To call the GOP anything but its traditional names is to let today’s Republicans off the hook while ceding to them the name of a party that once had meaning and gravity.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t mock and denigrate Trump and his minions. I do, and so should you. Naming lunatics and shaming poltroons is essential to a healthy democracy. (After all, I’m the person who called J. D. Vance an asshole in The Atlantic. But I’d like to think I made a solid case for doing so.) If you’re going to ridicule the Republicans, by all means, have at it—but do it like an adult with something to say instead of a witless grade-schooler. Be the adult alternative to the bedlam around you.
I confess to a more practical concern here as well. If the battle for democracy is going to hinge on reassembling the coalition that blunted Trump’s advance in 2018 and then drove him from power in 2020, then it should not employ in-jokes and frat-boy humor that will make normal people hesitant to leave control of the government in the hands of the Democrats and their allies. A lot of people agree that Trump and his enablers are awful, and they shouldn’t have to consult Urban Dictionary to join in the criticism.
Likewise, juvenile nicknames too easily blur the distinction between prodemocracy voters and the people they’re trying to defeat. If you’ve ever had to endure friends or family who parrot Fox-popular terms like Demonrats and Killary and other such nonsense, think for a moment how they instantly communicated to you that you never had to take them seriously again.
Now ask yourself if you want to be viewed the same way.
I know this might seem like a long discussion about a small complaint in the face of our current politics. But as 2022 and 2024 approach, Americans are headed into a fight for the rule of law and a constitutional democracy. And defending those values at the ballot box and in the public square requires well-spoken and resolute adults who will not be baited into regressing into childhood.
Yes, I know the “most important election ever” claims are usually overblown; I’ve railed against such language myself. But they’re not overblown now. As my Atlantic colleague David Frum has warned, the last time Trump was in office was a test run; this time, “the velociraptors have figured out how to work the doorknobs.” A Republican-controlled Congress could well hand the White House to Trump, or some other Republican, purely because they want to, and then Trumpist appointees in the executive branch will ensure that they never have to give it back.
This is why the story “Damned Funny” came to mind when thinking about all this. It’s a cautionary tale about being distracted by the comical sideshow while heading straight to perdition. It’s easy to do. Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Louie Gohmert and others are, in every sense, clownish and ridiculous. Madison Cawthorn—whose name sounds like a minor character in a bad Victorian novel—is the very caricature of an ambitious young ignoramus. Lin Wood ranting at Sidney Powell is like the Iran-Iraq War restaged as bad dinner theater.
But behind every one of these ludicrous public figures is someone further back in the shadows who is deadly serious. While you’re thinking up funny names for these capering showboaters, there’s a Kash Patel or a Jeffrey Bossert Clark who is on the phone, calling and texting, working the lines and doing the kind of blocking and tackling that could undermine the Constitution of the United States.
Such people couldn’t care less if you call them Repugs or GQPers, so long as you’re laughing instead of noticing what they’re doing. And like Drake getting pitched into the chasm, there’s not much point in yukking it up only to find out, far too late, that all is lost.
(You’ll notice that I haven’t picked a fight here over the word fascist. I’m a political scientist, and that word has a distinct meaning to me, but that’s neither here nor there. I simply don’t think it’s useful. It’s a word that has been overused by the American left since the 1960s, and even now people hear fascist and think of Hitler or Mussolini and thus dismiss the term as just so much hysteria. It makes the rest of America roll its eyes, and it will not go very far in fighting the antidemocratic coalition that has coalesced under Trump.)
We have to keep a sense of humor, always. But this is a time for supporters of democracy—for the responsible adults—to speak with resolve and urgency. Mango Mussolini and Cheeto Jesus are funny, sure, but they’re unhelpful. Every time someone says “former President Donald Trump,” however, it should help to remind all of us of the stakes in the coming two years.
Perhaps the final word should go to Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction, as he warned the other gangsters that time was running out and they needed to take their work more seriously: “Come on, gentlemen. We’re laughing our way right into prison.”
A sound warning in any number of circumstances—but especially now.