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:
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.