Conservative intellectuals and activists have grown gloomy. Sure, the Obama-Clinton battle is a source of some cheer, but Iraq, the federal deficit, and impending recession weigh heavy on their minds. David Frum implies his movement is foundering when he talks about a “Comeback”—the title of his newest book—for conservatism. And Jeffrey Hart now derides George W. Bush as a traitor to the conservative cause. Once a totemic hero (recall a classic book from 2006: Fred Barnes’s Rebel in Chief), President Bush now presides over that aforementioned disheartening trio—an unpopular war, a stunning budget deficit, and a deeply troubled economy. So it seems a potent moment for conservative soul-searching. Instead, conservatives have become today’s anti-empiricists, steadfast in ideology, unwilling to accept the fate of their own arguments—simply, loud and angry.
A year ago in Slate, Tim Noah documented a “Coulterization” of right-wing intellectuals who “pump up the volume” and throttle their opponents. The formula is set for young writers on the right who are privy to the world of blogs and cable television and talk-radio—much sexier outlets than those available in the salad days of William F. Buckley, Jr. Young conservative intellectuals must first choose a snazzy, eye-popping title for their books: The Party of Death; If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d be Republicans; The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. Then they must go for the jugular, reduce the enemy to shreds. Blame liberals for everything. Play to readers’ preconceptions. Enter the right-wing echo chamber—Fox News, talk-radio, blogs—then sit back and watch the Amazon sales rank hit single digits. None of this is intended to change minds, but rather to rally the troops and make money. None of this, most certain of all, is a serious attempt to develop new ideas or encourage thinking.
And now: Liberal Fascism. Jonah Goldberg, a nationally syndicated columnist and writer for National Review, has produced a conservative tome with a flashy title and New York Times bestseller status. But Goldberg does not follow the formula of Ann Coulter (he famously fired Coulter from the National Review for an over-the-top editorial she wrote, and she retorted by calling him and his staff “girly-boys”). His name-calling is more creative and ambitious, more like Karl Rove’s nasty genius than Tom DeLay’s clumsiness. For years the left criticized the right for an authoritarianism that bled into fascism. Now, Goldberg pulls a switcharoo. You think I am a fascist? Well, you are a bigger fascist than I could ever be. A surprise tactic in the ongoing culture war.
The result is a contorted book that is consistently derisive of America. Liberal Fascism opens with George Carlin blathering on the Bill Maher show about George W. Bush and American corporations behaving fascistically. This extemporaneous outburst is deemed as “intelligent as discussions about fascism get in America.” Soon after, we have a breathtaking paragraph that jumps from William Jennings Bryan to Hugo Chavez to Benito Mussolini to Vladimir Lenin. But Goldberg’s ire is directed as much at the center as the extremes.
In terms of economic policy, the more you move to the political center, as defined in American politics today, the closer you get to true fascism. If the far left is defined by socialism and the far right by laissez-faire, then it is the mealymouthed centrists of the Democratic Leadership Council and the Brookings Institution who are the true fascists, for it is they who subscribe to the notion of the Third Way, that quintessentially fascistic formulation that claims to be neither left nor right.
Passages like this make me—a self-professed liberal—anxious to subsidize Goldberg’s book tour, to ensure his message—an exhausted conservatism of absurd declarations—is heard by all. I am hungry for a world in which conservative intellectuals go to the past and label just about every president elected by the American people a fascist. For, what conclusion can one draw from this historical reinterpretation except that some conservatives must deeply distrust the ability of Americans to choose leaders who best represent their ideals? That American history does not smile on the conclusions drawn by right wing pundits? That conservative intellectuals are not populists with faith in the American people—as they have assured their base for numerous years—but bitter about the values held by the American people? Take Goldberg’s list of twentieth century American presidents elected to office: Wilson, fascist; FDR, fascist; JFK, more than you might think; LBJ, yes. Assertions of this kind confirm one of my own preconceptions: Conservative thought contains a nasty and cantankerous streak that is suspicious of the decency of the American people and thus of American democracy itself.
Goldberg argues that conservative writers must rework all our historical presuppositions. By examining the past through the lens of the present, Goldberg provides the right with an alternative to Howard Zinn—simplistic and polemical history that highlights political conclusions and irons out all complexities. Goldberg's claim that it was not conservatives, as conventional wisdom would have it, but rather liberals who embraced the racist trappings of European fascism reflects his larger objective of rereading history by eliminating it. “In order to see how this conventional wisdom is built upon a series of useful liberal myths, and therefore understand the real lineage of American liberalism, we need to unlearn a lot of false history and categories we take on faith.” This project succeeds, if it does, because we live in a culture of amnesia, desperately unaware of its own past, populated by young people who do not know if the Civil War came before or after Hiroshima. Goldberg jumps in with both feet.
There must be some legitimacy to Goldberg’s arguments, right? You can’t conjure “liberal fascism” out of thin air. To be sure, the war-socialism of Woodrow Wilson (Goldberg’s beginning point when he turns to American history) looks awfully statist and repressive, especially in the context of American political history. But it is better to use the term “corporatist”—as many (mostly leftist) historians have—to explain the collusion among organized labor, government, and corporations. Corporatism suggests a more cooperative and voluntary form of collective action between these three actors. Unlike fascism, there is no apotheosis of the state—precisely what makes corporatism more in keeping with American ideals. The problem is that “corporatist” lacks panache. Picture the author’s agent with a proposal entitled “The Corporatist Ideal in the Liberal State.” Thus Goldberg’s challenge is to excise any democratic or libertarian dimension in the liberal tradition and boil its statist aspect down to fascism.
The argument quickly turns sophomoric. Consider Goldberg on the presidency of JFK: “Recall the key themes to Mussolini’s cult of personality: youth, action, expertise, vigor, glamour, military service.” Get it? But then the qualification comes: “It would be unfair to label” Kennedy a fascist, Goldberg concedes. “But,” he argues, that three-letter word saying it all, “his obsession with fostering crises in order to whip up popular sentiments in his favor demonstrates the perils of infatuation with fascist aesthetics in democratic politics.” So, when Kennedy freaked about the botched Bay of Pigs operation or recoiled as white southerners tossed firebombs into the buses that carried the Freedom Riders through the deep south, it really was like those Nuremberg rallies.
In Goldberg’s method, context is nothing, analogy everything. This is polemical history at its worst. Georges Sorel’s work on “myth” and his idea of syndicalism are quickly slammed up against Al Sharpton’s lying about the Tawana Brawley case. There is the comparison of today’s rich liberals to Edwin Bechstein and Hugo Bruckman who were “wealthy supporters of Nazism” back when fascism was still associated with someone named Hitler. This companionship is “reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s account of Leonard Bernstein’s fundraising party for the Black Panthers.” “Reminiscent” strikes me as an odd word. Am I missing something about chronological order? But in Goldberg’s world, if the association is established, then it is time to move on. This sort of quick and easy merger of past and present reaches its culmination in one of the book’s most remarkable moments. “Is there any doubt,” Goldberg asks, “that a young Hitler would have given [the Robin Williams film] Dead Poets Society a standing ovation?”
Of course, one can argue that Goldberg is not a scholarly historian bound to the standards of narrative. And certainly all historians pick and choose. But this book is a compendium of random crime reports. We move from a chapter on FDR (fascist) to one about student protests in the 1960s (fascist). That chapter does not open with the founding of Students for a Democratic Society or white student participation in the civil rights movement during the early 1960s. Nope, it opens with the thuggish antics of black nationalists at Cornell in 1969. Soon, Goldberg is moving from Tom Hayden—who is compared to “Mussolini, Woodrow Wilson, and the New Dealers”—to Jacques Derrida and deconstruction.
The biggest problem is the conspiracy theory underlying this book: Crises in our past are conjured by liberal politicians imposing their will on a hapless public. We have an intriguing treatment of the Roosevelt administration forgoing any mention of international depression, skyrocketing unemployment, farm foreclosures, or bank failures. It is a story that leaves everything else out, focusing instead on sinister politicians or bored intellectuals laboring under “ennui with the status quo,” and inventing crises in order to provide meaning to their lives. Kennedy’s “entire presidency” revolved around “the creation of crises commensurate with the greatness he yearned to achieve.” Like the Cuban Missile Crisis? You can imagine what Goldberg thinks about global warming: a tricky plot manufactured by Al Gore to foist his critique of industrial civilization on a passive public. “Environmentalism is fascistic not because of its airy and obscure metaphysical assumptions about the existential plight of man . . . Rather, its most tangible fascistic ingredient is that it is an invaluable ‘crisis mechanism.’”
All of this turns the American public into a dummy, hoodwinked by politicians who trump up crises and foist bad ideas on the republic. Did people worry about their bank accounts or job statuses during the Great Depression? No, they just listened passively as a fireside-chatting politician concocted a fascistic plan. Where Howard Zinn depicts the “people” always in the right, always good, their fights for social justice consistently blocked by greedy elites, Goldberg’s people are dupes from the get-go, the politicians conniving fascists. Goldberg puts Zinn’s simplistic populism into reverse.
Even I—with my assumption that Goldberg has an unlimited taste for absurdity—have a hard time explaining his fixation with attacking the Third Way in American politics (other than its close association with the Clinton Presidency). “The Third Way holds that we can have capitalism and socialism, individual liberty and absolute unity.” This is why it is “utopian and authoritarian.” But is the Third Way not also what Americans want: individual freedom balanced against social responsibility, choice and freedom along with social security (literal and figurative)? What is so bad about holding different values in tension? Unless, of course, you are an absolutist about individual freedom and the idea that government is evil. I have heard the Third Way characterized as triangulation, unprincipled, waffling, wishy-washy, evasive. But fascist?
Need Goldberg be reminded that the Third Way tried to shed statist dimensions of liberal and socialist political thought? Under the leadership of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and numerous left-leaning intellectuals, the Third Way pursued a belief in civil society, not the state, as a space where social problems should be solved. It harbored a faith in voluntary and local service as an alternative to government bureaucracy, and espoused a philosophy that tried to balance rights against responsibilities. In America, the Third Way included policies like AmeriCorps and “welfare reform,” not the top-down, big government programs of the Great Society. This was a public philosophy that led Bill Clinton to declare “the era of big government” as “over.” How exactly is this fascism, if we believe that fascism glorifies the state? Quite simply, it is not. But then Goldberg does not seem to care much about historical or political accuracy, just polemical acrobatics and smears.
Anyone who has noted Goldberg’s subtitle knows this book promises to explain Hillary Clinton. When first advertised, the subtitle did not have the “Politics of Meaning” in it, just “Hillary Clinton.” Both versions of the subtitle, however, began with Mussolini. And Goldberg has a field day with Hillary’s relation to liberal rabbi Michael Lerner and her book, It Takes a Village. The language of the village “draws from a mythic and mythical communal past.” You see, “It may not be as powerful as all that Teutonic imagery the National Socialists threw around. But is it any more rational?” And what is really so fascistic about Hillary Clinton? “Clinton argues for the diffusion of parental training,” including videos in doctors’ offices about “how to burp an infant.” Videos about burping babies are the new gateway drugs to soma-based fascism. The tragedy, according to Goldberg, is that people get suckered because they are stupid. For if Clinton (Bill in this case) “was fascist, it was because that’s what we as Americans wanted.”
With the idea that the American people desire fascism—that “Americans wanted” Bill Clinton’s version of fascism dressed up as the Third Way—we get to the “secret” of Goldberg’s thought. It was at this moment in reading that I thought this book should not have been entitled Liberal Fascism but American Fascism. I was reminded here of the apoplexy that conservative intellectuals drove themselves to in the face of Clinton’s popularity during the later 1990s, when they spoke endlessly of the “death of outrage” among an American populace willing to deal leniently with their wayward president. I was also reminded, strange as it might sound in discussion of a conservative book, of the radical left during the 1960s with its chants of “Death to Amerika,” the sort of stock characters that populate Liberal Fascism. Goldberg’s is a conservatism that cannot hide its contempt for the American people or its angry admission that Americans do not believe wholeheartedly in a peculiar philosophy that merges absolutist libertarianism with objective morality on issues like abortion and acceptance of the sort of big state necessary to fight wars like the one in Iraq. This is conservatism declaring fascist any complex thought that tries to balance values different from its own or that believes there are possibilities that exist between rigid claims of individual freedom and state paternalism. This version of conservatism expresses its alienation from values that seem to course throughout the American middle and that have won political popularity as well as intellectual energy—precisely the “Third Way” that Goldberg derides.
So, with this in mind, does Goldberg's book suggest that the conservative mind is frying out on its own contradictions and absolutism, marginalizing itself to the point of irrelevance? It would be interesting to know how many people who bought Goldberg’s book are already persuaded conservatives. I can only speculate. And I would be the last to argue that polemics like Goldberg’s will exhaust themselves to the point of dropping off the map of American political debate (why should they when they create best-selling books?). But one thing is clear: Goldberg has now infused historical inquiry with the rancor of right-wing pundits. The result is a further cheapening of public debate. When some critics on the left look around at the lasting damage done by conservative ascendancy over the past few years, they bemoan the resurgence of the imperial presidency, the protracted war in Iraq, recession, or political corruption. All of these are legitimate and serious complaints. But we would be remiss if we did not pay closer attention to the ways in which conservative ascendancy has also engendered rants like Goldberg’s that help coarsen our public discourse and diminish our understanding of the complexities of American history.
To have a serious discussion about liberalism’s legacy and the conservative critique of the tradition would be a fine thing. A historical reexamination of both traditions would be welcome at our present moment. But books like Goldberg’s only offer angry noise. He begins by referring to “besieged conservatives” who have to sit “dumbfounded by the nastiness of the slander” liberals “shout” at the right. Closer to the end, he states, “The simple fact of the matter is this: liberals are the aggressors in the culture wars.” Here we gain insight into the right’s own “mystical assumptions about the existential plight of man,” to quote Goldberg. From everything I can tell, Goldberg wrote his book during 2006, when conservatives dominated the Presidency, Congress, and the Senate. When they had Fox News, the Weekly Standard, and a slew of Web sites. And yet even with all this, conservatives, for our young right-wing pundit, remain perpetually angry rebels contorted with rage against a liberal establishment that stands magically hegemonic.
This sense of persecution colors the end of Goldberg’s book, in which he shares his own mindset in ways that are telling. He recounts a televised debate during the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention. It was between Goldberg’s hero, William F. Buckley, and Gore Vidal (whose politics are more wacky than liberal), and Vidal kept calling Buckley a fascist. Buckley finally lashed out: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” Goldberg explains that Buckley “regretted” the move. But Goldberg admits “deep sympathy for Buckley’s frustration.” Goldberg believes his book “has served much the same purpose as Buckley’s intemperate outburst” but with more “civility.” Throughout, the book expresses this sad narcissistic mix of self-pity and grandiosity.
To argue that liberalism is fascism suggests Goldberg wants a future of pitched and unproductive intellectual battles. This book turns debate into finger pointing and history into a political scorecard. It suggests that George Carlin’s blathering on Bill Maher’s show is the best that the other side has to mount. It sees debate as William Buckley’s threat to punch out the enemy. And Goldberg’s attitude toward those coming battles is clear. “When someone asks me why my support for federalism won’t lead to Jim Crow,” he explains, “I have answers at the ready. No such similar intellectual effort exists, or is required, on the left.” The all-powerful left need only yell at an audience that is a sucker for fascist ideas. Goldberg does not want debate, he wants liberals to sulk into corners, to suffer the blow provided by Buckley’s extemporaneous and homophobic outburst against Vidal. Goldberg’s book is like a conservative opening a door only to slam it over and over against liberals who might enter. His version of historical reconstruction—much like his vision of intellectual debate—is political football, not a source of reflective thinking. And in that way, it suggests that conservative intellectuals face the exhaustion of their own project—an endgame in which discussion and debate are replaced by vitriol and contempt.
Kevin Mattson is author and editor of several books, including Liberalism for a New Century co-edited with Neil Jumonville. His forthcoming book is Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America.
Age of Anxiety