Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (Doubleday, 2007)
According to Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, the world’s first true fascist leader was Woodrow Wilson. Due to both Wilson’s well-known use of anti-German propaganda during World War I and the former president’s desire for an international military and legislative governing body, Goldberg claims that Wilson was clearly a fascist. FDR was a fascist as well. So too was Hillary Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, organic food-lovers, and, well, pretty much every contemporary liberal.
Apparently, we’ve all had it wrong. We’ve been taught to believe that fascism is a movement of the right, when in fact, it’s a movement of the left. Historians, politicians, and the media have all contributed to our great misunderstanding of fascist ideology. Goldberg wants us to believe that not only were Hitler and Mussolini fascist, brutal, authoritarian rulers, they were also avowed liberals. Therefore, his argument continues, all liberals are fascists.
That Goldberg would make these seemingly ludicrous assertions and present such a reductivist version of history is hardly a surprise for anyone who has followed his career. A contributing editor to National Review, an outspoken conservative pundit and Iraq War proponent, and the son of Lucianne Goldberg (the woman who advised Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky and to “save the dress”), Goldberg has made a name for himself by being brashly conservative. In addition to his book’s title, there’s also the deliberately provocative cover image of a yellow smiley face adorned with a Hitler moustache. It would have taken a much bolder feat of analytical imagination than what Goldberg puts forth to raise Liberal Fascism above mere partisan invective. But the book can’t attain even this lowly status—its pages are littered with illogical conclusions, counter-factual arguments, and pure bluster masquerading as sound truth.
Goldberg concedes early on that he is not a historian and thus is hardly qualified to analyze historical trends, but he of course proceeds to analyze them anyway. He acknowledges that there is no consensus among historians on a definition of fascism. The nebulous nature of the term actually serves Goldberg’s purpose well: because the word’s meaning is so fluid, he can manipulate it to fit almost any historical trends or people. Though he never defines what he means by fascism, he operates throughout the book as though there is a hard and fast meaning that all readers implicitly understand and agree to. Ultimately, this lack of specificity is what destroys Goldberg’s claims. When an “ism” means everything, it means nothing.
Goldberg makes sweeping claims that he supports only with circumstantial data. He seems to think that mere association is enough to verify his claims of liberal fascism. In one instance, he writes, “Franklin Roosevelt was no fascist, at least not in the sense that he thought of himself that way. But many of his ideas and policies were indistinguishable from fascism. And today we live with the fruits of fascism, and we call them liberal.” But making such a bold statement requires historical proof, which Goldberg never provides.
Goldberg has made a very basic error in his reasoning. Every freshman psychology class teaches that correlation is not equivalent to causation, yet Goldberg seems not to have learned this rule. Thus, while he is correct to state that both Nazis and many contemporary leftists share an interest in organic food and fitness, this does not mean that the two groups are synonymous. In the same vein, while Wilson and Hitler both relied on propaganda to whip up the aggressive sentiments of their nations, this similarity does not render the men equivalent politically.
In some parts of the work, Goldberg appears dimly aware of the tenuous basis for his points and tries to shield himself from criticism. But he charges ahead nonetheless, committed to his thesis. The result is a litany of outlandish insinuations, as when he declares, “I would not dream of saying that today’s liberals are genocidal or vicious in their racial attitudes the way Nazis were. Still, it should be noted that on the postmodern left, they do speak in terms Nazis could understand.” Time and again, Goldberg says that he is not deriding liberals for being as extreme as fascists and then in the very next sentence, he does just that. The Nazis did indeed call themselves National Socialists, but they did not rule like socialists. And Goldberg makes no distinction between socialists, liberals, progressives, communists, and Democrats. He groups anyone not in alignment with his brand of conservatism into a homogenous lump. But words are different than actions. Just because the Nazis called themselves Socialists does not mean that contemporary liberalism has its roots in Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Likewise as he does with the Nazis, Goldberg takes the fact that Mussolini at one time claimed to be socialist as proof that fascism was liberal in its origins. Yet, as Goldberg later admits, “Mussolini zigzagged every which way, from free trade and low taxes to a totalitarian state apparatus.” Goldberg seems unable or unwilling to recognize that politicians sometimes practice political expediency above all else and often say one thing but enact policies that do the opposite. Additionally, if Mussolini and Hitler were truly the leftists Goldberg asserts they were, it’s just a bit unlikely that the leaders would have been such adamant anti-communists and imprisoned so many leftist opposition leaders.
It seems somewhat ironic that the most glaring flaw of all in Goldberg’s book is the most obvious. Namely, liberalism, as it is now commonly understood, prizes individual freedom and personal choice over the dictates of the state. That’s why liberals support gay rights and abortion rights. And this puts contemporary liberals on the opposite side of the political spectrum from totalitarianism. Yet, stating the obvious would only have undermined Goldberg’s attempt to gain notoriety. In Liberal Fascism, the only thing that Goldberg proves is that a writer who has been frequently wrong in the past can always find grander ways to declare his complete incompetence to the world.