Pale’ocracy and Other Names for This Era

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.

Following this article, and this reader-response note, more responses on the most accurate way to name the political challenge of these times.

Pale’ocracy. A reader recommends this term, “because of its varied and versatile potential definitions:”

--First, the Greek word pale’ is defined as “to wrestle,” broadened to mean “to struggle, fight, conflict, contest.” That’s deep Trumpism, especially because of his participation in, admiration for and understanding of professional wrestling. (It is one of the few things he really does understand.)

--Second, broadening the prefix to paleo, you get something old or ancient, and in modern contexts, referring to cavemen. I do not have to flesh this out.

--Third, pale (with no accent mark) is an accurate representation of Trump’s favored skin tone (besides orange, of course), favored peoples, and favored nations.

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I've been using another term to describe this time: Trumpistan.  There is something of the Central Asian despot to Trump: corrupt and megalomaniacal like Saparmurat Niyazov building a statue of himself that rotates with the sun.  

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From a reader who grew up in a “shithole” country but has lived in the U.S. for many years:

I agree with you and Mr. Riemen that it’s fascism.  Additionally, I’d like to offer that it is ‘Corporate’ fascism....

Re-watch The Firm by Grisham. Corporate is actually much more corrupt than the Republicans. All those management training programs exist only to brainwash and corrupt young college and graduate students to cheat, lie, steal, be greedy, become adulterous, etc. For many of them, these training programs are their first introduction to corporate life. Those chosen (when not friends and family) must have exhibited some quality that said ‘you can corrupt me’ and I am fine with it, and in fact I want it.   

I watched it for over 30 years at [a series of major banks and corporations]. The corporate autocracy is well, alive and still thriving.  In fact, whenever they are being challenged, they dig in. I saw it as it happened at [a major international bank] 2007-2012. They closed ranks after the financial meltdown and during the money laundering investigation and subsequent fine…. No one on the staff challenged the corporate autocrats, they want their paychecks and bonus. My manager at the time constantly reminded us how she wants her bonus this year, every year.

To me Trump is corporate fascism… The republicans just want their paychecks and post-government contracts, right? So, they continue to support him.

Please keep me confidential. I am from [a shithole], though citizen and New Yorker for 40 years.

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Focus on the GOP:

It's pointless to conduct the debate on Trump's turf.  The best strategy is to ignore him and hammer away relentlessly at the Republicans for treason, corruption, and malfeasance.

The rot did not set in with Trump…. The only questions the media needs to ask our politicians are: how are you not corrupt, how isn't this treason, and why are you hurting your own constituents?

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I  have tried another approach about Trump with a number of people. Responces have been rather interesting. Even, I suspect, a Trump voter was stopped short and had to think about it.

I have said in various forms:  "Trump is foam on the surface of a great wave called digital media and globalization. It will be with us for the next 30 years, long after Trump is dead and buried."

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A darker view of historical parallels:

I’ve been reading the Volker Ullrich biography of Hitler - The Ascent, which covers up to 1939. The period up until 1933 is fascinating, and I am struck again and again by the parallels to what is happening in the U.S. under this administration…

I definitely come down on the side of Riemen that, but for the longevity and roots of our institutions (and the press!), we could be sliding towards Fascism. I’m trying to stay positive…

Any comparison involving Germany is of course perilous. It’s so difficult for those hearing it to resist conflating generic “fascism” with the specific exterminationist horror of Nazism. So while the German descent from Weimar democracy, to fascism, to the black night of Hitler is more fully documented than other cases, comparisons with Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy leave more of the spotlight on the fascist system itself.

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And finally for today, a view from Canada on the collective American responsibility for what is happening to American values:

As a lawyer, a student of history and a very concerned observer from just across the border in what Trump would presumably call a "non-shithole" country, I agree fully with your analysis of the threat posed by Trump to the American values of constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

I am appalled by the "drip, drip, drip" assault on these values by Trump and his enablers. I suspect that the public, even the best informed among us, is slowly becoming numb to the daily assault - beaten down to the point that we're ready to throw up our hands and dismiss each new assault as: "it's just the President being the President". This is, of course, exactly what Trump wants. But, as you and others have pointed out, the movement towards autocracy and fascism by stealth is too dangerous to be shrugged off. It really is the slow death of a once-glorious idea by a thousand cuts.

One of the most frustrating things to a foreign observer (aside from the fact that we have no capacity to directly intervene to try to help) is the irony that the assault on democratic values and institutions is being lead by the nation that has done so much throughout history to foster and protect those values throughout the world.

Although other liberal democracies (such as Canada and the European democracies) eventually developed similar values and institutions through gradual evolution, America was the first to enshrine, glorify and apply those enlightenment values. As you pointed out, they have become part of the American psyche, the basis of its pride and the American brand abroad. It is this moral authority - not just military power - that enabled America to rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII with modern democratic constitutions and institutions; retool their economies; and construct and lead a system of international alliances, trading rules and financial institutions that have fostered peace and prosperity for 75 years.

The contrast between the America that was willing to lead on the basis of democratic values and institutions and the current Trump Administration is startling…. To say that America will pull back from NATO, the UN and multilateral trade agreements unless other countries "pull their weight" misses the point entirely: America when it was truly great was willing to take the lead and bear the disproportionate burden of a leader because it recognized that its own peace and prosperity depended on fostering and protecting its values throughout the world….

One thing that I've learned as a student of history is that that there is indeed an "arc" to history and that historians tend to judge harshly those people who made conscious decisions to put themselves on the wrong side of that arc. If Americans sleepwalk while their elected President, aided by his enablers, consciously undermines democratic values and institutions, fosters racism and nativism, thumbs his nose at environmental protection and debases America's position in the world, I fear that they will eventually be looked upon in the same way that we now view the German people in the 1930s: complicit in the rise of fascism and the Nazi party.

As I said, I am a frustrated foreign observer.