Politics can do cruel things to language, as George Orwell noted quite some time ago in “Politics and the English Language“:

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive….
[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

It is not hard to find examples that support Orwell’s thesis in recent years. Self-deportation. Abundance of caution. Strict constructionist. You get my drift.

And, in 2016, I think we’re going to have a new political mutation of an old word: passionate.

When describing Donald Trump’s supporters, that’s the word that keeps cropping up. You can’t open up a newspaper without reading that “Trump has built a passionate following of disenchanted voters who have given him a solid lead among Republicans in public opinion polls.” When GOP rivals are asked about Trump, they tend to start by praising the passion of his supporters.


What does passionate mean, however? For Trump’s supporters, it apparently means being uncomfortable about espousing a minority viewpoint that used to be a majority viewpoint, and believing in fantasy solutions to actual problems.

The homeless man was lying on the ground, shaking, when police arrived early Wednesday. His face was soaked, apparently with urine, his nose broken, his chest and arms battered.
Police said two brothers from South Boston ambushed the 58-year-old as he slept outside of a Dorchester MBTA stop, and targeted him because he is Hispanic. One of the brothers said he was inspired in part by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump….
Trump, told of the alleged assault, said “it would be a shame . . . I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”

[FRIDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE: Trump later clarified on Twitter: “Boston incident is terrible. We need energy and passion, but we must treat each other with respect. I would never condone violence."]

When I first read this I was ready to write a long-winded rant about Trump’s reaction. Fortunately, Vox’s Dara Lind beat me to the punch with a short-winded rant:

When people are committing hate crimes in your name, you do not call them “passionate.” You do not say they “want this country to be great again.” You say they do not represent you or your beliefs. You talk about why your followers are different from people who beat up homeless men because they’re “illegal.”
Donald Trump isn’t explicitly saying it’s okay to beat people up because of how they look, but at least two men have interpreted it that way. And instead of telling them, and the rest of his followers, that that interpretation is unequivocally wrong, he’s — at best — framed it as a moderately regrettable downside of his movement’s “passion.”

So let’s be clear. When Trump’s supporters are described as “passionate,” that’s political code for “angry” and “frustrated” and “occasionally prone to acts of racist violence.” And since Trump’s GOP rivals have decided appeasement or buckpassing are the best responses to Trump, his “passionate” supporters will find very little criticism within the Republican political establishment. The occasional brave conservative op-ed aside, this means that for the next 15 months, we’re going to hear “passionate” as signifying one thing but meaning another.

Orwell would be proud.