Arts & Culture » Book Review

Liberal Fascism?

It's more than an oxymoron and less than Jonah Goldberg's new book makes it out to be.




The next time you're stuck in traffic and chance puts you behind one of those cars plastered with political bumper stickers—I mean all over the bumper and the trunk, sometimes even the rear window—ask yourself, why is it that nine times out of ten these people are left-wingers? Why are they so shrill? Then consider the texts. There, before your eyes, are the essential points of a uniquely American brand of fascism, reduced to bite-size bits of propaganda.

Oddly, car bumpers are one of the few places (maybe the only place) where Jonah Goldberg leaves the American left unmolested in his haranguing new book, Liberal Fascism. He does seem to have missed an opportunity. Fascism is inveterately hostile to religion: "Curb Your God." It thrives on action and grand designs: "Think Globally, Act Locally." It fetishizes youth: "Listen to the Wisdom of Children." It seeks to persecute an enemy it blames for all grievances, real or imagined: "Impeach Bush, Torture Cheney." It points the finger at international conspiracies: "War Is Shell & ExxonMobil & Halliburton & Conoco-Phillips & ChevronTexaco & BP..." It's collectivist, expansionist, and nature loving: "One People, One Planet, One Future." Fascism, above all, demands a leader sensitive to the feelings that course dimly through the crowd, someone who gives voice to its yearnings, however vague, who can magnify them, make them important, and focus them back onto himself so that he appears as their inevitable embodiment: "Obama '08."

Very well, you might say, but would Heinrich Himmler, speeding down the Autobahn in a Mercedes as long as a beer hall, swastikas snapping briskly over each fender and black-helmeted motorcycle escorts roaring front and back—would the Reichsführer-SS have been pleased to announce on his own bumper that "Hate Is Not a Family Value" or that "War Is Not the Answer"? Here we come to the core of Goldberg's argument: liberal fascism bears a family resemblance to the "classical" fascism of Himmler and his pals Hitler and Mussolini, but it's different in that it's a nice fascism, what he likes to call "smiley-face" fascism.

Can fascism be nice? What about the secret police, the pogroms, the concentration camps? To Goldberg, none of that is intrinsic to fascist ideals; theories of racial purity, fanatical nationalism, and a militarized state were merely the particular form taken by fascism in one country, Germany, at one time. In Italy, on the other hand, Fascism—capitalized because it was coined there—was about nationalism but not race. Goldberg tells us that Jews were in fact overrepresented in the Italian Fascist Party until late in the 1930s, and that Mussolini and Spain's Generalissimo Franco, another archfascist, each did his best to keep his country's Jews out of the hands of the Nazis. The seed of fascism, planted in different soils, yields different fruits. In America it yields not the gestapo but the politically correct; not "Jewish science" (their brains are different), but diversity and ethnic studies (their perspectives are different); not The Triumph of the Will (youth, beauty, and passion crush the bourgeois moral order), but Brokeback Mountain (the bourgeois moral order crushes youth, beauty, and passion); not the jackboot, in brief, but the Birkenstock.

In our vernacular, fascism has degenerated into a mere epithet: cameras posted at intersections to catch red-light runners may be fascist; likewise drug testing, strict parents, Christian fundamentalism, and a democratically elected president subject to removal by Congress. Its force as an epithet comes straight out of its association in the popular mind with militarism, violence, dictatorship, and genocide. Liberal Fascism presents itself as an attempt to bleed all these connotations out of the word, leaving behind something that can be used objectively to refer to a class of social and economic policies. Fascism used to be a relatively precise term like that—before the Holocaust came to light. Again and again in the course of his book, Goldberg feels compelled to interject a paragraph that boils down to "No, I don't think liberals are Nazis." His aim, though he doesn't put it this way himself, is to turn an epithet back into a description and then hang it over the left wing of American politics.

The most deeply rooted of these popular ideas about fascism is that it's a phenomenon of the political right; without question, the best thing about Goldberg's book is the way he turns this on its head. Mussolini, who created the brand, was raised a Marxist, authored one socialist tract after another, and edited a journal called Class War. He admired Lenin, who returned the favor. His support for World War I forced him to break with international socialism, but Goldberg insists this was not a move from left to right; rather, it was from "Workers of the World Unite!" to national socialism, socialism in one country. To achieve this end Mussolini became a maestro of political theater and thuggery, but that doesn't mean he abandoned his principles. In the first platform of the Fascists we find universal suffrage, repeal of titles of nobility, the eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, workers' representation in government bodies, reform of old-age pensions, "sequestration" of war profits, and nationalization of arms manufacturing. Also, to quote the program directly, "a large progressive tax on capital that would amount to a one-time partial expropriation of all riches." Call him a dictator, a populist, a popinjay—even, if it will make you feel better, a fascist—but you cannot call Il Duce right-wing.

Goldberg reprints the platform of the National Socialist German Workers' Party—yes, that's the Nazis—in its entirety. It leaves the same impression, with one big difference: "Only a member of the race can be a citizen." The Nazis exploited anticapitalist rhetoric no less than the Fascistas, and the notion that Hitler was but the puppet of wicked industrialists has long since been tossed into the dustbin of history, as the Marxists, who dreamed up this fantasy, like to say. Even so, you would sooner nail a blob of mercury than puzzle out the ideology of Adolf Hitler. He worshipped power and he hated Jews; beyond that—a maelstrom. But if the Nazis campaigned as socialists, why are they now regarded as monsters of the right? According to Goldberg, this error stems from Stalinist propaganda that declared nationalism an enemy of the class struggle and, for that reason alone, right-wing. On their side, the Nazis loathed Bolshevism not because it was left but because they believed it was Jewish.

Goldberg portrays Fascism and Nazism as collectivist revolutions, one based on the nation, the other on race. Both were totalitarian (another Mussolini coinage) and both advocated a "third way" between laissez-faire capitalism—a policy of the true right wing, its failures all too evident in the 1930s—and the abolition of private property under Communism. Collectivism, governmental involvement in all areas of life, a chimerical "third way" between the dogmas of left and right, all of it packaged and sold to the masses as an emotional "religion of the state"—when Goldberg says "fascism," this is what he means. Here is the genetic code, he claims, that has directed the evolution of American liberalism.

Regarding its two biggest icons in the 20th century, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, his case is a good one. Most of us know that Wilson campaigned against involvement in WWI and then, following his reelection, immediately went to war. In Liberal Fascism you may be surprised to learn how he used the war as an opportunity to centralize control over not only industry but also public opinion. Goldberg calls Wilson's Committee on Public Information "the West's first modern ministry for propaganda." Its object, according to its director, was to inflame the American public into "one white-hot mass" of "100 percent Americanism." In addition to its printed output, the CPI assembled an army of 100,000 "Four-Minute Men," patriots prepared to give a short speech about the war anytime and anywhere. (Several million such speeches were delivered.) The Department of Justice likewise created the American Protective League, more than a quarter-million vigilantes who spied on neighbors, read mail, listened to phone calls, and rounded up draft dodgers. Wilson's crowning achievement in this line was his Sedition Act, which made virtually any criticism of the war illegal. Under its authority several hundred periodicals were denied use of the mails, and 75 were banned outright. Most impressive of all, some 175,000 people were arrested simply for expressing their opinions.

Goldberg shows how all this machinery was put together by avowed leftists and Progressives, the founders of modern American liberalism. We are ever being told how much liberals like "change" and how much they like to see the government do the changing: WWI gave them their chance to climb into the saddle, and they rode hard. This is hardly news; what is original to Goldberg, I believe, is the connection he draws between Wilson's wartime measures and FDR's New Deal. Many of the personalities were the same—FDR himself had been assistant secretary of the navy—and they looked back with fondness to a time of bold experimentation by a class of Progressive intellectuals and technocrats. The economic crisis of the 30s gave them the "moral equivalent of war"—a Progressive slogan—to undertake social engineering on a grand scale. Most of the New Deal's "alphabet soup" programs descended from agencies pioneered under Wilson's war socialism.

In this period Progressives came to be known as "liberals," but collectivism, propaganda, a heavy government hand in the economy, and a remarkably casual attitude toward the Constitution were still the order of the day. Goldberg effectively depicts the New Deal as the American version of what he calls the "fascist moment" of the 1930s, a time when countries all over the world were experimenting with collectivist solutions. Until he invaded Ethiopia in 1935 Mussolini had been a hero to many on the American left, and the word "fascism" had nothing like the pejorative punch it does today. (Ronald Reagan, an old New Dealer himself, fuddled his opponents in his first year as president by refusing to back down from his statement that "Roosevelt's advisors admired the fascist system.") The very term "liberal fascism" was coined in 1932 by H.G. Wells, an ardent socialist and a frequent counselor to FDR. He believed, as did many in those days, that the time for a decisive and scientific transformation of society was long overdue.

A lot of people are still waiting. Liberal Fascism asks the question: who are they and what, exactly, are they waiting for? Its answer is that today's liberals are direct political and intellectual descendants of Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and, like all members of the extended fascist family, they believe that by manipulating the levers of government they can bring us closer to a utopian glow they see just over the horizon. The state is their religion, so naturally they fight for collectivism over individual liberty, for social welfare over personal responsibility. To Goldberg's liberal fascists, power over the state means the power to transform society—"change" in their current lingo.

But liberals have done more than simply tend the torch of fascism. Goldberg would have us believe that from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to Hillary Clinton's "politics of meaning" they've fed it so much fuel that we now have a fascist bonfire of inanities roaring before us. This is unfortunate. Goldberg is pretty convincing through the New Deal and his "fascist moment," but the closer he gets to the present day the sillier his book becomes. It starts to read more like a hectoring political column and less like the provocative yet sober history it has been. He's like a kid so excited by his new popgun that he shoots at everything he sees.

The Kennedy Administration, for example, follows the "fascist playbook" with its crises, appeals to unity, martial language, use of mass media, technocratic solutions, and, of course, its "cult of personality for the national leader." (On Ronald Reagan, however, Goldberg maintains a discreet silence.) When runners John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists at the Olympics in Mexico City it was "derivative of fascist aesthetics." The Black Panthers, paramilitary racial fanatics who viewed murder as a legitimate tool of politics, were American brownshirts. Plus Hitler was a vegetarian, hated smoking, and worried about the humane treatment of animals, so Goldberg has a jolly time there, too. Student radicals of the 1960s read Marcuse, who was a protege of Heidegger, who was an unrepentant Nazi—presto!—more fascists.

None of this is mere overstatement: Goldberg, like Dr. Frankenstein, has lost control of his own creation. In his careless hands fascism reverts back into an epithet, now directed at the left, which he flings around with just the kind of promiscuity he's denounced in others. On page after page he chastises left-wingers for being left-wingers—for believing in revolution, for turning to government to solve social problems, for an emotional, feel-good response to politics—and then calls them fascists thinking he's made much more of a point than he really has.

An idea of his approach may be gleaned from the connection he attempts to draw between fascist eugenics and modern American prochoice politics. Goldberg writes: "After the Holocaust discredited eugenics per se, neither the eugenicists nor their ideas disappeared. Rather, they went to ground in fields like family planning and demography and in political movements such as feminism.... So forget about intent; look at results. Abortion ends more black lives than heart disease, cancer, accidents, AIDS, and violent crime combined."

There are left-wingers who get a thrill out of calling George Washington a racist because he owned slaves; Goldberg does the dozens right back at them by calling prochoice advocates fascist, lumping them in with those who'd prefer to see fewer blacks born, period.

Goldberg can make you smile as he succumbs to his own idea (the "new pan-human ethnicity" at work at Whole Foods) and he can make you wince ("the white male is the Jew of liberal fascism"). But in the end, like anyone who abuses the f-word, Goldberg simply bores you with his lack of imagination.v


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