On the Proper Name for the Trump Era: ‘Democracide’, ‘Ochlocracy’, or Something Else

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday I posted an item about the challenge of calling the Trump era by its proper name—and explaining why the Dutch writer Rob Riemen, in his new book To Fight Against This Age, argues that it’s destructive and misleading not to use the plain term “fascism.”

Readers have written to endorse (or oppose) the wisdom of using the “fascist” label, and to suggest other terms. Despite the Atlantic’s new policy of featuring most reader-interaction in a new online Letters section, which will identify reader-writers by their real names, for now I’ll quote some of the incoming traffic the way I have in the past, without using people’s names. Here we go:

Kleptofascism. From a reader on the East Coast:

I propose “Kleptofascism.” This is very much a kleptocracy that demonstrates fascist tendencies. I even suspect they would relax some degree of their authoritarianism if it meant they could steal more from the land and the people, up to a point, after which the authoritarian tendencies they so obviously revel in would kick back in. In the end, they are trying to strike an unholy balance between the two destructive tendencies, and I am lost as to which is more destructive, in the long term.

Perhaps I should add that authoritarianism can be (theoretically) a net positive, given the right dictator, but there is no idealized mathematical model in which kleptocracy can, by definition. Not that this distinction matters to this country in this day. But it’s an inherent tension that may be worth exploring for weaknesses. Maybe that way liberty lies.

* * *

Shamocracy. From a reader on the West Coast:

If we're just looking for ingenious words, I would suggest "Shamocracy," which combines the notions of "sham" and "shame."  A quick online look suggests that those two are not eymologically related.  "Sham" seems to have emerged only in the late 17th century, with no lengthy pedigree before it, while "shame" goes back to Middle This and Old That.

* * *

No, just ‘fascism’. Another reader:

The OED:

“fascism: An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.

“The term Fascism was first used of the totalitarian right-wing nationalist regime of Mussolini in Italy (1922–43) the regimes of the Nazis in Germany and Franco in Spain were also Fascist. Fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach.”

Well OK then.

And, similarly:

I've been a bit reluctant to toss around the term "Fascism." In the back of my mind it kinda seems that some specific historical figures own the branding.

Then I see this from Trump's speech on Monday: "Somebody said treasonous. Yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean they certainly didn't seem to love our country very much."  Fascism.

It would be interesting to find out who "somebody" is—and if they happened to be on Fox sometime before Trump gave the speech.

* * *

Ochlocracy. From a reader at a well-known university:

I would propose that we have witnessed a shift into ochlocracy, or mob rule as it is informally known. Here's some [very] cursory research I did on the subject. Hope you are curious enough to give it a gander.


And from another reader:

I have a suggestion for what to call this era: attempted democracide

* * *

A view from overseas.

Shithole America.  That's how I feel.  Don't believe me: take a look at your President.


I have started calling the Trump presidency “The Era of Bad Feelings” with an apology to President Monroe and the “Era of Good Feelings”.

* * *

Please stop saying ‘populist’. From a well-known writer:

The Populists were strong believers in localism, in financial regulation, in the breakup of large economic entities, and in a strong role for the state, including nationalization of the financial system. They began as cross-racial coalition builders and fell later into racism

I covered the last great Southern populist and knew him and his voters well. To read over and over that Trump is a populist would make he tear out my hair, had I any.

* * *

A historical comparison: the under-valued Gerald R. Ford.

I’d like to cite Gerry Ford to amplify your point about perfunctory “America is an idea” rhetoric in inaugurals. (Re: Calling the Trump Era...”)

Younger Americans with fresh memories of the charismatic Obama may pine for another shimmering hero to follow this orange menace. Great leaders are rare. Often it’s miracle enough to find some modest enough to admit he is “a Ford, not a Lincoln.”  

The last time we woke from a “long national nightmare” we had Gerry Ford at the helm. In his inaugural he spoke of professing the “same oath as George Washington.” And transfer of power rhetoric was not perfunctory but explicitly addressed in multiple ways for effect. “I am acutely aware,” he said “that you did not elect me with your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me with your prayers.” Continuing, Ford admitted he did not win office through “secret ballot,” but neither did he ascend through “secret deals,” unequivocally denying what the most cynical were assuming. “I am indebted to no man, and only one woman, my wife Betty.” These statements exemplify the “America is an idea” point you briefly addressed, and the often taken for granted truth that the president’s first duty is to serve the common good.

Thirty days later, Ford committed political suicide by pardoning Nixon, was vilified for it for 20 years, and lost a close election (to another decent man) because of it. It wasn’t until 20 years later when his fiercest critics, led by Ted Kennedy, acknowledged that in 1974 only Ford saw the national need so clearly.

[JF note: For the record, Jimmy Carter—who fought bitterly against Ford in the 1976 campaign, and of course unseated him—used the very first words of his own inaugural address to thank Ford “for all he has done to heal our land.” Those words were meant to acknowledge Ford’s judgment and public-mindedness. (I know about this first-hand.)]

I’d pay any price to have in waiting a man as honest and steady, if plain and dull, like Gerry Ford right now. Presidential greatness comes in many forms and is not always shiny and charismatic.

* * *

A historical comparison from Europe:

I wondered if you might find it useful to look up Umberto Eco’s essay: Ur-Fascism? Eco discusses the diagnosis of fascism in clear and simple language (by his standards anyway). It was published in The New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995) and is now available as a pdf to download ...

Perhaps it’s only the famed politeness of Americans that leads to the avoidance of using fascist and racist to describe Trump and his followers. I hope so.

There is a similar muffled debate this side of the Atlantic: a weird hesitancy in public discourse when it comes to the far right. However, I fear it is nothing more than a textbook example of sticking your head in the sand. If you pretend it’s not so then it cannot be so. For example, when British MP Jo Cox was assassinated by a fascist gunman, even the BBC veered away from using ‘assassination’ in its bulletins. Instead they opted for less politically weighted words like ‘murder' and ‘killing’, yet the political motive was brutally clear.

* * *

And finally for now:

Great job of slinging mud at our president and the man who may one be known as the greatest president this country has even had and the greatest statesman the would has even known.

One has to wonder where how you will be graded… will it be on a lists of journalist or a list of mud slingers.

Stop crying and sucking your thumb! Hillary lost! Get over it! Get out of bed and do something positive for your country.