Book Review: Liberal Fascism
We live in an age of "isms."
Trumpism is but the latest, joining conservatism, socialism, progressivism, and more, in the line of philosophical file folders we default to in order to help make sense of what we hear, say, and do. Not everyone agrees with what all the "isms" means, exactly, and the boundaries of what is a perfect example of socialism, for example, changes with each changing generation (if not circumstance).
One of the most slippery of all the "isms" however is fascism. The term is used, very loosely, to describe a system of government in which the power of the state is supreme over the individual -- in other words, fascism is authoritarian. But not all authoritarian governments are fascist (few would call the Soviet Union a fascist state, or even the modern Communist China).
But beyond that, the term becomes exceedingly fuzzy, sending academics and commentators into deep debate over exactly who, and what, is fascist.
Jonah Goldberg leapt into this sea of uncertainty with his 2007 book, Liberal Fascism.
For Goldberg, the book wasn't an effort to define, forever, what fascism is and who the real fascists are. Rather, it was to show, through copious historical research, that modern American liberals, from Barack Obama down to Woodrow Wilson, owed much of what they espoused, and tried to impose, to fascisms creators.
Goldberg says, "if I had my druthers, I'd simply banish the word 'fascism' from the political vernacular." He objected to how some people who had read and admired his book to "calling liberals fascists."
His intent, he says, was to show that fascism "was not right wing" as stacked up against the traditional "Anglo-American tradition."
Further, he says that conservatism is not now, nor has ever been, fascist. But modern liberalism "in part thanks to its own dogmatic intellectual amnesia, retains an affinity for fascistic ideas."
Why is that? Because of liberalisms "indebtedness to progressivism."
In Goldberg's telling, modern liberals "redefinition of fascism as merely anything undesirable has lead to America to look for fascism in the wrong places."
Goldberg offers a wealth of anecdotes and analysis showing how the early progressives, from Wilson, through FDR, JFK, LBJ, Hillary and Barack, all retain the original stain of fascist ideas -- a cause and a political movement progressives once viewed as an exciting and essential advance in statecraft.
But is America today in danger of falling into a fascistic nightmare? Were one to take the post-November left's word for it, the gates to a hellish, brown shirted future are wide open.
In Mr. Trump and his supporters, they see a wave that threatens to swallow freedom itself. They have taken to reading Orwell's "1984" and Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" as guidebooks for how to identify, and resist, the coming oppression.
They have chosen poorly.
"America is not threatened by a hard fascism the likes of which we say during the first half of the twentieth century," Goldberg writes.
"This country by design and by culture would break the spine of any would-be dictator almost instantly," he says.
So an American Mussolini is not on the horizon, regardless of what the gals on "The View" might say. But we're not immune from fascisms allures.
"We do run the danger," Goldberg says, " of running headlong into a soft fascism, a fascism of the Brave New World."
This version of fascism does not feature the movie reel images of swaggering dictators imposing their wills on hysterical masses in a run-up to genocidal war. Rather it is a tyranny where the state is comprised of an army of 'moral busybodies' whose only stated interest is in looking out for their victims' best interests.
And using whatever means necessary to make sure that happiness -- a smothering uniformity of thought, action, and outcome -- is achieved.
When it was first issued, Goldberg's book was viewed as a tonic by conservatives who had long been called "fascist" for advocating free markets, free peoples, and freedom of thought. Those ideas are directly opposed to fascism, in all its forms, and conservatives knew it. But they had trouble explaining it. Goldberg gave them the explanation -- and rebuttal -- they long sought.
Liberals, naturally, took offense that anything they hold dear could, in any way, be linked to, let alone called, fascist. But for that, as he shows, it is once again the progressives -- earnest, vocal, insistent, and often creepy -- who are to blame. Progressivism is the modern liberal's original, fascistic, sin. They refuse to admit it, and denounce anyone who says otherwise...which gives away the game.
As we embark on the Trump era in Washington, Goldberg's book is worth reading once again, not only for what it tells us about the fascist strain in the modern left -- which has taken up the banner of "resistance" because it sounds cool and makes them feel awesome -- but also about how seductive fascism is for the modern right, as well.
We need to be wary of both sides of the political aisle, because neither is not immune to the siren call of a strong leader, preaching order, transcendence, and glory to a confused, divided nation.
"It takes little courage, and requires no intelligence," Goldberg says, " simply to point at something you don't like, something that is unpopular, and shout 'fascist.'
"It takes real courage to search within yourself and your cause and ask if something you like could lead to fascism or some other totalitarianism by a different name."
The left is incapable of such courage, preferring instead to double down on their smothering, nanny state version of fascism (because it's for your own good). The right is different, constantly questioning what it means to be conservative, testing the latest and supposedly best ideas to flow out of think tanks, political offices and campaigns to see if, indeed, those ideas square with conservative principles.
It often gets messy, and, as we saw in the 2016 presidential primaries, very personal. That this rough and tumble happened at all should cheer conservaitves to some degree, because it shows their principles are still strong. Not that they can't err -- they can, and Goldberg illustrates examples of these failings.
What would he say of Mr. Trump? We knew during the campaign he was not a fan. He may still be that way. To know for sure, we'll have to wait for the next, updated, edition.