I was first called a fascist in the early months of 1991.
Back then I was the editorial page editor of my undergraduate student newspaper and had spent the past several months preemptively railing against the coming Persian Gulf War. This made me quite popular with left-wing punks on campus. At least until the war got underway and Saddam Hussein began lobbing SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv, even though Israel had vowed to stay out of the war. That's when I realized that in opposing the war I had downplayed Hussein's recklessness. So I issued a partial mea culpa.
The lefties on campus didn't like that one bit. Or so I learned when I showed up at a house party on the night my contrite editorial appeared. One of the lefties answered the door, saw me standing there, and immediately slammed the door in my face, punctuated by a proclamation of "Fascist!"
That was the first time, but it was hardly the last. The most recent instance came a few weeks ago in response to a column titled, "What Trump gets right about immigration." What Trump gets right, I argued, is that borders matter, citizenship matters, particularistic forms of solidarity matter — and that efforts to dissolve them will have the paradoxical effect of strengthening the hand of nationalists. Which means that the best way to contain nationalism might be to stop treating nationalism as if it's always and everywhere morally unacceptable.
That was enough to inspire a left-wing friend of mine to momentarily lose his cool on Facebook and call me an apologist for fascism. Strangers made less restrained versions of the same claim on Twitter.
In case you had any doubts, I am not a fascist and never have been. But it doesn't matter. In the high-stakes hothouse of the 2016 election, committed partisans on the left view any affirmation of nationalism as an expression of the most extreme, inhumane, cruel, anti-liberal form of nationalism in human history.
The same dynamic plays out in the opposite ideological direction. In recent years, libertarian-minded conservatives have frequently denounced me as a communist or a "statist" because I favor some government regulation of the economy, some redistribution of income and wealth, and some provision of social services by the state. For those who oppose nearly all such government action, a defense of a modest amount of it is indistinguishable from the most extreme, inhumane, cruel, anti-liberal form of statism in human history.
This tendency of extreme naming is poisonous. It's also deceptive, distorting political reality and intensifying the centrifugal forces that encourage the polarization of our politics. Calling me a fascist or communist, identifying the single respect in which my position shares a commonality with totalitarian ideology while ignoring the multitude of ways in which they diverge, clarifies nothing. On the contrary, it distorts the truth, making it harder to understand where I'm coming from by assimilating my views to those much more extreme than my own.
It simply isn't true that everyone situated to your right is indistinguishable from the most extreme right-wing position. The same holds for those situated to your left.
This goes beyond ideology. I can assure you that it's possible at one and the same time to be a severe critic of Hillary Clinton and to think she's clearly a better choice for the presidency than Donald Trump. I know it's possible because that's my position. Why do so many liberals assume that my Clinton criticisms imply that I favor Trump? And so many conservatives that my qualified Clinton support makes me a Hillary shill?
Hardest of all might be the effort to maintain a modicum of fair-mindedness about Trump and his supporters — to concede that Trump is unsuited to the presidency in all kinds of ways and that a loud faction of his admirers is clearly motivated by racial and other forms of animus while simultaneously acknowledging that the Trump phenomenon as a whole can't be reduced to the moral status of a KKK rally.
As we careen toward Nov. 8, Trump's countless critics in the media increasingly show no interest in having their race-driven narrative disrupted — and display outright hostility toward anyone who would encourage such disruption. What besides indifference or blindness toward racial injustice, they wonder, could explain the stubborn refusal of some to acknowledge that Trump's candidacy is obviously (and just about entirely) an expression of hatred toward people of color?
One thing is certain: A little over a month from now, the election will be behind us. What remains to be seen is whether the centrifugal forces that have gripped us so severely throughout the past year will weaken somewhat, allowing us to back away, if only for a time, from our entrenched, polarized positions.
That's one possibility.
Another is that our quick-tempered tendency to think the worst of those who disagree with us will continue to deepen, with everyone on the other side of the partisan divide looking ever-more like moral monsters. In that unhappy eventuality, the political contest of 2016 may soon seem tame, as our politics devolves even further into a metaphorical act of slamming doors in each other's faces.