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Fun With Fascism

Jonah Goldberg takes on an old smear.

By 3.20.08

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Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
by Jonah Goldberg
(Doubleday, 487 pages, $27.95)

In a certain sense, Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism is long-overdue. The idea that Goldberg endeavors to debunk, namely that fascism was a right-wing phenomenon, has gone unchallenged for far too long. The Soviet propaganda that labeled any socialist not beholden to Moscow "on the right" has endured longer than the Soviet Union itself.

In another sense, Goldberg's book has hit the shelves, and the bestseller list, at the perfect time. This election season illustrates just how much the ideologies that Goldberg examines have come to inform our politics.

A number of critics have made fools of themselves by sneering at Goldberg's book based on the cover, inferring that it must be a shrill polemic that merely tosses the left's favorite epithet back at them. This misses the point: Goldberg isn't using "fascist" in the usual sense of "evil politics." Goldberg insists that "fascism" has a meaning -- an elusive meaning, but a meaning nonetheless.

Scholars have never quite come to a consensus on how to define fascism. Goldberg's approach is to let the record speak for itself.

He begins by exploring the largely undiscussed history of the relationship between Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, and American Progressivism -- a relationship that, he meticulously documents, was marked by mutual admiration and emulation -- and draws out the threads that connect them as he traces the history of what came to be called "liberalism."

Those threads include:

* The marriage of nationalism to socialism. This springs from the insight that, pace Marx, homeland trumps class: The proletariat feels more connected to their fellow countrymen than to the workers of the world.

* Totalitarianism, the idea of a state that encompasses all of society. Mussolini defined "totalitarianism," a word that he coined, as "Everything in the State, nothing outside the State," and he meant this in a good way: The state would take care of everyone. The corollary, of course, is hostility to individualism and classical liberalism.

* Militarization of politics and society. This doesn't mean support for a strong military, but rather exporting the values, images, and organizing principles of the military into society as a whole.

* The need for "great" leaders, and personality cults around them.

* The belief that politics can replace religion, and the view that the state ought to be vehicle of spiritual rebirth.

* Obsession with action, and impatience with the vicissitudes of democracy and constitutionalism.

GOLDBERG ARGUES, controversially, that the first fascist dictator was not Mussolini, but actually Woodrow Wilson, whose style of governance had all of the above elements. Wilson used World War I as a pretext to criminalize disloyalty, mount extra-constitutional attacks on his political enemies, and trample on the freedom of the press.

We generally remember Warren G. Harding's call for a "return to normalcy." What we forget is that returning to normalcy involved releasing political prisoners.

During a 1912 campaign speech, Wilson declared that "there is one principle of Jefferson's which no longer can obtain in the practical politics of America" -- that being the principle that the government that governs least governs best.

Voters didn't have much of a Jeffersonian choice in that election. Theodore Roosevelt was running against Wilson on a platform of "New Nationalism" -- a nationalism heavily inflected with socialism. Writes Goldberg:

Since Wilson ended up governing largely as a New Nationalist, the subtler distinctions between his and Roosevelt's platforms do not matter very much for our purposes. America was going to get a progressive president no matter what in 1912. And while those of us with soft spots for Teddy might like to think things would have turned out very differently had he won, we are probably deluding ourselves.

This brings us to our current election cycle. The next president of the United States will be one of three people, all of whom are unmistakable exponents of what Goldberg calls liberal fascism.

JOHN McCAIN IS a huge admirer of TR. His career has been marked by an instinctive enthusiasm for regulation. He brags of a military career chosen "for patriotism, not for profit," clearly viewing civilian life as debased.

Goldberg's Afterword, "The Tempting of Conservatism," holds up McCain and the "National Greatness Conservatives" who backed him in 2000 as an example of how progressivism can enthrall conservatives. (Possible good news: McCain has praised free markets in the course of this campaign -- for the first time in his political career, according to McCain biographer Matt Welch.)

Hillary Clinton's calls in the '90s for a "new politics of meaning" and for the state to act as the "village" that raises our children has deeply totalitarian implications that Goldberg discusses at length. In 1996 she declared that "there isn't really any such thing as someone else's child." Assessing her worldview, Goldberg labels Clinton "The First Lady of Liberal Fascism."

Barack Obama's enormous rhetorical talents have already earned him an extremely creepy personality cult. His wife declares that her husband "will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism... And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed."

None of this is to say our next president will be another Hitler or even another Wilson. Their politics aren't evil. "The lethality of a poison depends on the dosage," writes Goldberg, "and a little fascism, like a little nationalism or a little paternalism, is something we can live with -- indeed, it may even be considered normal."

Still, it would be nice if one our potential leaders would give us some hint that there are parts of our lives that the government has no business interfering in.

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About the Author

John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.