Radical Vocabulary: Post-Election Words to Know


Sometimes you want help understanding the meaning of a word, but you’re not sure whether you can trust a dictionary to give you a definition that is rooted in anti-oppression.

Most dictionaries were originally written by white, wealthy, educationally elite, straight, able-bodied men, which means normative assumptions and prejudices about how words should be used were written into them. And although dictionaries—like words themselves—have evolved, not all of their definitions give you the information you really need, or adapt quickly enough to provide you with fully current meanings of words.

Having a radical vocabulary can help you use language to unpack oppression, violence, and hate—and in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, this couldn’t be more essential. So here’s a list of the top words to know since the election. 

Alt-right (noun or adj.) 

A recently developed affiliation of far-right conservatives, organized largely by way of social media, whose primary common ground is white supremacy. More from me on alt-right.

Authoritarian (adj.)

“Favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom” (Oxford). More from The New York Times on authoritarianism.

Autocratic (adj.)

Used to describe an autocracy: a government run by one person or group with unlimited power. A dictatorship is an autocracy run by a single individual.

Demagogue (noun)

“A leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power” (Merriam-Webster).

Fascism (noun)

An autocratic, totalitarian political philosophy, movement, or regime that “exalts nation and often race above the individual,” practices “severe economic and social regimentation,” and forcibly—often violently—suppresses opposition (Merriam-Webster).

Lawrence Britt identified the following fourteen key characteristics of fascism in 2003: (1) powerful and sustained nationalism, (2) disdain for human rights, (3) use of enemies or scapegoats as a unifying cause, (4) supremacy of the military, (5) rampant sexism, (6) controlled mass media, (7) obsession with national security, (8) unification of church and state, (9) protection of corporate power, (10) suppression of labor power, (11) disdain for intellectuals and the arts, (12) obsession with crime and punishment, (13) rampant cronyism and corruption, and (14) fraudulent elections.

In the words of Mussolini, under fascism the individual “is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential” and the state alone decides what liberties are “essential.”

More from Slate on fascism.

Gaslighting (noun)

A form of psychological abuse that makes a person constantly doubt their own experiences, memories, and sanity, where the perpetrator destabilizes, discredits, and/or overrides the target person’s reality.

The word comes from a 1944 movie in which a man attempts to drive his wife insane by accusing her of stealing or losing items he has moved, as well as constantly telling her she is imagining things, such as the dimming of the gas lights in her bedroom when he switches on lights in the attic above.

More from Teen Vogue and Everyday Feminism on gaslighting.

Islamophobia (noun)

“Exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility” toward Islam (the religion) and Muslims (those who practice Islam), “perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life” (Center for American Progress).

The root -phobia gives the impression that Islamophobia is based in fear, but in a culture where anti-Muslim sentiment is rampant and based in the primacy or superiority of Christianity as the dominant religion, the term Islamophobia more accurately describes hostility toward Islam than fear. By way of Islamophobia all Muslims, as well as Islam itself, are inaccurately portrayed as constituting a threat.

More from the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Islamophobia.

Kakistocracy (noun)

A government run by “the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens” (American Heritage). More from Daily Kos on kakistocracy.

Kleptocracy (noun)

A government run by a person or group that puts status and personal gain first, at the expense of the people (Merriam-Webster), and/or uses their power to steal the country’s resources (Oxford).

Misogyny (noun)

“Entrenched prejudice against women” and/or hatred of women (Macquarie).

Nationalism (noun)

“Loyalty and devotion to a nation” paired with the belief that your nation is superior to others and the desire to promote your nation’s culture and interests over those of other nations (Merriam-Webster). See also white nationalism.

Neo-Nazi (noun and adj.)

A person or group that seeks to revive the tenets of World War II–era Nazism: namely, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and a love of Hitler. Other common characteristics of neo-Nazism include xenophobia, homophobia, militarism, and terrorism.

More from Martin Frost and Southern Poverty Law Center on neo-Nazi.

Normalize (verb)

To render something normal.

In the current political climate, normalize is being used to describe the process whereby things that are shocking, immoral, or offensive come to be understood as everyday occurrences, standard or usual, and/or not particularly noteworthy. For example, when mainstream media provide “conventional coverage of an unconventional candidate” (see Forbes), it serves to downplay things like Trump’s racism, sexism, dishonesty, conflicts of interest, and authoritarianism and makes it seem as though his extremism isn’t actually extreme.

Populist (noun or adj.)

A style of politics that claims to represent the “common people” of a country, in opposition to “the establishment.”

John Judis of The Guardian distinguishes left-wing populism from right-wing populism in that left populists “champion the people”—all of the people, except those at the very top—“against an elite or an establishment,” and right populists “champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favoring a third group,” such as immigrants, people of color, or Muslims.

In the case of Trump, as Jamelle Bouie of Slate explains, his supposed populism can’t be separated from his racism. The only “people” Trump claims to represent are white (and able-bodied, straight, gender conforming, Christian, U.S. citizens, and so on), and his appeals to them are based in blaming everyone else for the nation’s problems.

Post-truth (adj.)

“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” (Oxford).

Note: Post-truth may be a new and trending word, but the concept itself is as old as politics, which have always relied more on emotion and belief than on facts. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her classic 1967 essay, “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.”

Racist (adj. or noun)

Conscious or unconscious support of racism in any form.

Note: Racist is not a slur and naming something or someone as racist is not commonly an act of aggression. One does not need to overtly engage in outright hatred toward non-white people in order to be racist; “passively” supporting or engaging in a status quo that puts more value on whiteness and dominant culture than on non-white peoples and cultures also supports racism, and is thus racist.

Racism is “a system of oppression maintained by institutions and cultural norms that exploit, control, and oppress” those who are not white in order to maintain the social and material privileges and supremacy of white people (People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond).

Totalitarian (adj.)

Of or relating to “a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible” (Wikipedia).

Xenophobic (adj.)

The literal definition of xenophobic is “unduly fearful of what is foreign and especially of people of foreign origin” (Merriam-Webster). However, when paired with nationalism and racism, xenophobia becomes less about fear and more about prejudice, hostility, and antagonism toward anyone who is not seen as “American” in the eyes of dominant U.S. culture.

White nationalism (noun)

A sector of the U.S. right-wing political sphere characterized by a white supremacist ideology. More from me on white nationalism.

Want to add to any of these definitions, or suggest additional rad vocab? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me!

Note: This piece was updated on December 26 to add the terms Islamophobia and kakistocracy to the list.

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