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Book Review: Liberal Fascism
(Jonah Goldberg)

“Liberal Fascism” is really a history book, not the book of political analysis I expected it to be. I didn’t love this book (written in 2007—apparently a 2009 version is updated to include talk about Obama), even though it’s famous among conservatives. I’m not sure why I didn’t love this book. Maybe it’s because despite the book’s aggressive thesis, it is over-careful not to give offense. Maybe I think its thesis is overstated. Maybe it’s because the strain of combining a complete history, intellectual analysis, and polemic regarding the American Left for the past century shows, in lacunae in the book. Or maybe it’s because the style of writing, which I would call “unflashy expository,” just isn’t compelling to me. Nonetheless, I still think the book is very much worth reading, because the history it relates is valuable to know.

“Liberal Fascism” carefully charts the long and sordid record of liberal America’s wholehearted embrace of fascism—that is, of the all-encompassing and all-powerful State as the embodiment of human society. Goldberg writes largely as a corrective to the manufactured twin myths that liberals do, or ever have in the modern era, loved liberty, and that threats to that liberty in America historically originated on the right.

Of course, any educated person is well aware that state-centered leftisms, from Stalin to Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez, are in most important ways identical to the prototypical fascism of Mussolini. Goldberg, however, locates the historical origin of modern American fascism not in Bolshevism, or Mussolini, but in Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives. This is the core thesis of the book—Progressives were fascist, and all American liberals since them have been their heirs and complicit in their fascist program.

Goldberg begins, as he must, with defining fascism. This is necessary because it’s hard to discuss who’s a “fascist,” or has such tendencies, without a clear definition. It’s also necessary because the definition has been deliberately muddied for nearly a hundred years, both by mere typological disagreement, and by those on the Left who use “fascism” as an all-purpose, protean, dismissive epithet for political enemies—first merely enemies of Communism, and now more broadly anyone on the political Right, regardless of whether their beliefs contain anything that is actually tied to actual fascism in some way. George Orwell noted this as early as 1946, when he said “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” For those keeping score, that’s 70 years ago, and not much has changed.

So Goldberg’s definition of fascism matters. “Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure.” “Fascism, at its core, is the view that every nook and cranny of society should work together in spiritual union toward the same goals overseen by the state.” Using this definition, Goldberg draws a mostly straight line from Progressivism and Wilson, through Mussolini, FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, and, presciently, Hillary Clinton—although he is often at pains, frequently too often, to characterize liberal fascism as “nice,” more “Brave New World” than “1984,” and therefore different than European fascisms.

Having gotten definitions out of the way, Goldberg takes us on a history tour, beginning with Mussolini (not Wilson), because Mussolini is what most educated people think of when they think of “fascism.” He places Mussolini in his historical and philosophical context. He covers the commonplaces: that Italian Fascism shared with Nazism its leftist nature, although differing in the Nazi focus on identity politics, and that Mussolini was wildly popular among American Progressives. Goldberg notes that Mussolini’s fascism was heavily influenced by the syndicalism of Georges Sorel and other Marxist variants, all of which were and are beloved of violence and force of will as the necessary drivers of political action (and have much in common with American thinkers like Saul Alinsky, beloved of Obama and Hillary Clinton). Goldberg nods to Rousseau’s general will and Robespierre’s direct action as progenitors of fascism. And, most importantly for his framework, Goldberg points out his other key thesis, using historical examples from Italy and elsewhere, that “Crisis is routinely identified as a core mechanism of fascism because it short-circuits debate and democratic deliberation.”

From here, Goldberg gets to the real meat of the book, which begins with liberal icon Woodrow Wilson. Wilson worshipped power and denigrated individual rights, seeing rights as corporate and expressed through the state, guided by the general will. To the extent Wilson has any specific currency in the modern mind, it’s for the League of Nations and its failure. But Goldberg shows that Wilson was, in fact, “the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator.” Wilson turned America into a form of police state, vastly beyond anything contemplated in the 1950s in reaction to the Communist threat, including putting people in prison for opinions criticizing the government stated in their own homes, along with economic controls and forced “cooperation” between business and the state that seem entirely bizarre to us today. This was accompanied by Wilson’s huge propaganda apparatus, harassment of the press, forced sterilization, and much more—all centered around the state superseding individuals, a focus on whom Wilson thought was outmoded.

As Goldberg points out, discussion of this era of America has been largely suppressed as inconvenient for today’s liberals. Nonetheless, all this was done and accomplished with the active participation and cooperation of the Progressives, and using the same philosophical justifications and motivations as Mussolini, before Mussolini (though Progressives loved Mussolini when he came to power). This was fascism through an American prism, exemplified by fascists such as Herbert Croly, who founded the New Republic magazine and was enormously influential in Wilson’s time. But Wilson could only do all these things because of World War I, so Wilson’s “successes” have set as the necessary Progressive requirement for “progress” finding a crisis that will allow demands to be made to expand the power of the state to accomplish goals that are the “moral equivalent of war.”

After Wilson, the Progressives wanted to continue in this “successful” crisis mode. But Americans rejected their demands, and instead returned to traditional views as embodied in Coolidge, anathema to Progressives. The Progressives had to wait for another set of crises, and another president, Franklin Roosevelt, to continue their push. Their wish was granted—Roosevelt gave us more of the same fascist “war socialism” in reaction to the Depression, including the usual propaganda, forced cooperation, suppression of dissent, and attempts to control private enterprise. As Roosevelt said, “We have built up new instruments of public power. In the hands of the people’s government this power is wholesome and proper.” Roosevelt’s actions are better remembered today than Wilson’s, in part because they have never been rolled back, and are therefore correctly regarded by liberals as the foundation of modern America. Goldberg covers such Roosevelt allies on the left as Father Coughlin (now incorrectly cast as right-wing by the Left, in the usual way of whitewashing the inconvenient past) and H.G. Wells, who frankly and openly advocated “liberal fascism,” to be led by Roosevelt. And, of course, Mussolini spoke extremely highly of Roosevelt, until the late 1930s.

Goldberg then reviews the 1960s, a fictive history of which occupies most people’s minds. The “student progressives” were a small, but vocal and violent minority, motivated by the same basic philosophies as their 1920s and 1930s equivalents in Italy and Germany, aiming to overthrow existing structures and impose the general will through the action of the state. Similarly, Kennedy bought into the need for crises to push his agenda forward (although his personal agenda was less Progressive than the modern myth would have it)—but it was his death that was used to create the crisis that Johnson used to further liberal fascism, “transforming Progressivism itself into a full-blown mass political religion.” So that’s where we are today, from a political perspective, though Goldberg covers this entire era in detail where I’m glossing over his exposition.

And, of course, the Left still uses crises to grab power. From the 2007 financial crisis used by Obama (as Obama’s brain, Rahm Emanuel, said at the time, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”), to the frenzied attempts to ram through fresh gun grabbing in legislatures within 48 hours of any mass shooting, attempts to short-circuit the political process in order to expand the state are always with us.

Goldberg then jogs back to a review of the numerous specific horrors that can be ascribed to Progressives/fascists over the past century, noting that conservatives are constantly forced to acknowledge and atone for their dubious chapters (segregation, isolationism) but liberals wholly suppress theirs, such as mass racism, eugenics, support for Communism, and so forth. In another chapter, Goldberg describes as more of the same the syndicalism of modern America, in which large businesses cooperate with overweening government action, reducing free enterprise, enabling the Leviathan state, and simultaneously lining their owners’ pockets.

Finally, Goldberg rounds out the book with a prescient chapter (“Brave New Village”) on the liberal fascism of Hillary Clinton (glossing over Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II), in particular focusing on her obsessive desire to insert the state into all family relationships. And, in an Afterword, “The Tempting of Conservatism,” Goldberg comments on the fascist notes of both Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and Buchanan-ite paleo-conservatism. He concludes with a plea to avoid all this, although he does not really say how that might be done.

In some ways, the thesis of the book is overstated. While it’s true that American liberals are much more focused on state action than conservatives, there are important liberal strains that are more liberty-focused than the Progressives and their descendants. A not-inconsiderable amount of American liberals fought against Communism and Communist infiltration, for example, although they were mostly sidelined by the 1970s. Or, earlier in the century, many Christians fought against eugenics and other racist Progressive measures—but many of them would have been considered otherwise leftist, certainly on many economic measures. The decades from LBJ to Obama, which as I say Goldberg glosses over, did not advance liberal fascism, though they did not roll it back either. And today, there are strains of anti-government philosophy in the supporters of Bernie Sanders—incoherent, perhaps, but still recognizing that Crooked Hillary is no lover of liberty, which is at least a recognition of the danger of liberal fascism. Therefore, I think Goldberg is wrong in positing American liberalism as a fascist monolith, although there is plenty of fascism on the American Left, no doubt.

But in other ways, the thesis of the book is understated. In the entire book, Goldberg bends over backward to give today’s liberals the benefit of the doubt. On nearly every page, hedging and conditioning statements are made to make clear Goldberg doesn’t think liberal fascists are as bad as all that. The cover of “Liberal Fascism” features a smiley face with a Hitler mustache. But it’s not at all clear the smiley face is justified. More likely the “nice” features of liberal fascism are not the result of uniquely American characteristics, as Goldberg would have it, but are merely a tactical mask: a snare and a delusion. Supporting this conclusion is that since Goldberg originally wrote, in the Age of Obama, the real face of liberal fascism has increasingly become evident, like Zardoz emerging from the clouds. We see the vicious attacks on anyone deviating from whatever today’s, or this afternoon’s, new sexual orthodoxy is. We see SWAT raids on political opponents like Gibson Guitars. We see the Two-Minute Hate directed at the latest liberal target. If liberal fascism were triumphant, it’s unlikely it’d stay as “nice” as it has (sortof) been. Instead, it would devolve into a European-type fascism, because that’s the nature of any utopian political philosophy—those who oppose the perfection that can be achieved, just over the horizon, must be eliminated for the happiness of millions. That hasn’t happened here because American liberal fascism has never had a free hand. And, perhaps, that suggests that conservatives would be better served with adopting the tactics of liberal fascism, to achieve victory, than merely analyzing liberal fascism in a book.

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