Am I a Fascist?

Jonah Goldberg’s tendentious history of liberalism.

Why did Jonah Goldberg write Liberal Fascism? To find out, you must wade through 391 pages of tendentious scholarship. A mighty jackbooted procession—Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Herbert Marcuse, John F. Kennedy, Saul Alinsky, Ralph Nader, Hillary Clinton—goose-steps across the page to illustrate Goldberg’s apparent belief that, with the exception of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and everything published in National Review (where Goldberg is contributing editor), every word previously written or spoken in favor of mobilizing the citizenry was either proto-fascist, fascist, or heavily influenced by fascism. On Page 392, though, Goldberg emerges from his dusty carrel and gives it to us straight:

Ever since I joined the public conversation as a conservative writer, I’ve been called a fascist and a Nazi by smug, liberal know-nothings, sublimely confident of the truth of their ill-informed prejudices. Responding to this slander is, as a point of personal privilege alone, a worthwhile endeavor.

Liberal Fascism, then, is a howl of rage disguised as intellectual history. Some mean liberals called Goldberg hurtful names, so he’s responding with 400 pages that boil down to: I know you are, but what am I?

Among the liberals I know, you don’t, in fact, hear the word fascist bandied about much, and if somebody blurts it out to describe contemporary conservatism, the most common reaction is a rolling of the eyes. It’s a provocation rather than an argument, much overused by the left during the 1960s and now mostly absent from mainstream political discourse. The only exception would be the term Islamofascism, adopted mainly (though not entirely) by the right to describe the reactionary views of violent Muslims intoxicated with hatred for the West. Weirdly, that word doesn’t appear once in Liberal Fascism.

Before proceeding further, I should disclose that previously I’ve written about Liberal Fascism as a publishing phenomenon, speculating from the promotional material that Goldberg—who, when he was an editor for National Review Online, fired Ann Coulter for writing about Muslims, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity”—was now adopting Coulter’s uncivil, ranting style as his own. That got under Goldberg’s apparently thin skin, and in a recent interview he called me a “jabbering fraction of a man” for making the comparison, an outburst that went a long way toward proving my point. (When Coulter ran afoul of Goldberg and National Review Editor Rich Lowry, she called them “girly boys.”) So did Goldberg’s provocative book title and his red-meat chapter headings: “Franklin Roosevelt’s Fascist New Deal,” “The 1960s: Fascism Takes to the Streets,” “Brave New Village: Hillary Clinton and the Meaning of Liberal Fascism,” etc.

On the other hand, it’s inconceivable that Coulter would put as much effort into one of her screeds as Goldberg has clearly put into his. For the most part, Goldberg lays out his argument knowledgeably and calmly. He seems to have done his homework, which was not inconsiderable. He means to be taken seriously by people who care about ideas. All right, then. Let’s take him seriously.

Goldberg’s argument begins with the observation that well into the 1930s, the American progressive movement had more admiration than scorn for Benito Mussolini, who coined the words fascist and totalitarian, and even for Adolf Hitler. This isn’t news to anyone with even a glancing familiarity with American history. Goldberg further argues that fascism initially evolved from and positioned itself as a muscular brand of socialism (hence Nazi, an abbreviation for “National Socialist German Workers Party”). Also true, and also known to most educated people.

Goldberg then points out that the wartime presidency of the progressive Woodrow Wilson curtailed free speech to a frightening degree and argues that this had something to do with Wilson’s admiration for Otto von Bismarck, who fathered both the modern welfare state and the fascist Kulturkampf. According to Goldberg, Wilson’s belief in an expansive role for government (example: creation of the Federal Trade Commission) was linked to his less-admired taste for government repression (example: the Palmer raids). Well, maybe. A simpler explanation for the latter would be that throughout American history, presidents have tended to trample on the Bill of Rights during times of unrest, starting with the Alien and Sedition Acts, which was signed into law by President John Adams 17 years before Bismarck was born.

“Woodrow Wilson,” Goldberg declares, “was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator.” That would be news to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts Republican who successfully opposed U.S. entry into the League of Nations. Throughout Liberal Fascism, the respect-hungry scholar wrestles with the invective-spouting provocateur. Here Goldberg is, for instance, trying very hard not to call Franklin Roosevelt a fascist:

This is not to say that the New Deal was evil or Hitlerian. But the New Deal was a product of the impulses and ideas of its era. And these ideas and impulses are impossible to separate from the fascist moment in Western civilization. … Franklin Rosevelt was no fascist, at least not in the sense that he thought of himself in this way. But many of his ideas and policies were indistinguishable from fascism. And today we live with the fruits of fascism, and we call them liberal.

Thirty-five pages later, Goldberg can hold back no longer. “[I]t seems impossible to deny that the New Deal was objectively fascistic,” he crows, imposing without irony a Marxist analysis.

The rest of Goldberg’s argument unfolds as follows: Wilson begat FDR, who begat contemporary liberalism. The only reason the United States didn’t remain a fascist country like Italy or Germany or Spain was “American exceptionalism,” i.e., the public’s resistance to tyranny over the long term. But Democratic presidents from Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton continued either to impose fascism or to bring the country terrifyingly close to it. To demonstrate this, Goldberg is obliged to render an ever-more-flexible definition of the word fascist.

Was Bill Clinton a fascist president? Well, he certainly believed in the primacy of emotion and the supremacy of his own intellect. … But I think if we are going to call him a fascist, it must be in the sense that he was a sponge for the ideas and emotions of liberalism. To say that he was a fascist is to credit him with more ideology and principle than justified. He was the sort of president liberal fascism could only produce during unexciting times.

Who knew fascism could be boring?

By this point, Goldberg’s reasoning has progressed from unconvincing to incoherent. Modern liberalism, he argues, is linked to Nazism because both contain a cult of the organic (Hitler was a vegetarian) and both embrace sexual freedom (Himmler ordered his men “to father as many children as possible without marrying” in order to achieve the Aryan ideal). Eventually, Goldberg backs himself into asserting, in effect, that any government that does more than prevent abortions and provide for the common defense is inherently fascist. Granted, he gives a wide berth to the common defense. In a token criticism of President George W. Bush, Goldberg cites as evidence of fascist influence not the de facto suspension of habeas corpus and refusal to follow the Geneva Conventions, which go unmentioned, but rather Bush’s extension of Medicare to cover prescription drugs.

So, what’s more fascist, liberalism or conservatism? It’s a moronic question. The United States is not, nor has ever been, anything close to a fascist country. But if compelled to choose, I should think it’s more useful to consider what political thinkers had to say about fascism not before the full extent of its horrors became known to the world but after. As it happens, the Canadian Web site Sans Everything unearthed two obituaries for Francisco Franco, the fascist Spanish dictator, in the Nov. 21, 1975, issue of Goldberg’s beloved National Review. One, by F.R. Buckley (William’s brother) called Franco

a Spaniard out of the heroic annals of the nation, a giant. He will be truly mourned by Spain because with all his heart and might and soul, he loved his country, and in the vast context of Spanish history, did well by it.

The other, by James Burnham, stated, “Francisco Franco was our century’s most successful ruler.” If John Kenneth Galbraith said anything like this, I missed it.

[Update, Feb. 1: Goldberg replies here. Among Goldberg’s key points:

1.) “I haven’t liked Tim Noah for years.” I never meant to suggest that Goldberg only started disliking me recently. It actually dates back to 2000, when I noted in a column that Goldberg had appropriated, without citation or correction, some patriotic but factually challenged spam about the Founding Fathers. Myself, I reserve personal dislike for people I’ve actually met personally, and I’ve never met Goldberg.

2.) “Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t this a complete nonsequitur?” The reference is to my noting that Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge defeated President Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to put the United States in the League of Nations. What Goldberg is missing is that if the U.S. Senate was able to defeat Wilson on his absolute highest priority, then he couldn’t have been much of a fascist. Fascists wield more power than that.

3.) “Using the word ‘objectively’ is simply not objectively Marxist (was Orwell a Marxist?)” It’s true that during World War II Orwell called pacifists “objectively pro-fascist.” But he came to regret this usage  as the “propaganda trick” that it is:

We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are “objectively” aiding the Nazis: and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. … This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people’s motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions. … The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult.

4.) “There’s ample evidence [Franco] wasn’t even a fascist, but simply a strongman.” Technically, no one discussed in Goldberg’s book except Mussolini is an authentic Fascist. But Franco meets the standard-usage definition more than adequately. Goose-stepping soldiers? Check. Suppressor of personal freedoms? Check. Slaughterer of enemies real and imagined? Check. Slave labor? Check. Allied with Hitler and Mussolini? Check (though Spain * stayed neutral in World War II). Pathologically Brutalist architecture? Check. (See Fallen, Valley of) Goldberg has an interest in downplaying Franco’s fascism (and scarcely mentions him in his book) because Francoism lacked the socialist roots that for Goldberg are a defining characteristic of fascism. Others have downplayed Franco’s fascism, but that’s mainly out of embarrassment that after the war he became a U.S. ally.

5.) “I am unaware of NR ever advocating a Franco-style regime in the United States.” Well gee, thanks for that. The hedge implicit in “I am unaware of” is mildly discomfiting, but lets assume that’s a rhetorical flourish and not an expression of honest doubt.

Correction, Feb. 1, 2008:An earlier version of this column stated, erroneously, that Mussolini’s Italy also stayed neutral during World War II. In fact, Italy was allied with Germany and Japan until July 1943, when Mussolini was removed from power by King Victor Emmanuel II. At that time, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies; eventually it joined the war on the Allies’ side. Mussolini escaped to Northern Italy, then under German occupation, and ran a puppet state there until April 1945, at which time he was captured and killed by Italian communists. (Return to the corrected sentence.)