David Neiwert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. He is the author of The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (PoliPoint Press, 2009).
Note: Jonah Goldberg will be responding to this feature.
It has now been just a little over two years since the release of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Despite its provocative title and thesis – and particularly its open challenge to the established historical assessment of the nature of fascism among academics – it was greeted largely with silence among those academic historians and political scientists.
Few spoke out, as Roger Griffin suggests, because they recognized that Goldberg’s book was more of an exercise in polemics than a historical work, and as such not really appropriate for academic consideration. Its use of history was so shoddy and propagandistic, and its claims so frankly absurd, that very few of them considered it worth taking seriously.
And yet, here we are two years later, and it turns out that many people indeed have taken Goldberg’s book seriously. Not only was Liberal Fascism a national bestseller, but its core thesis – that, "properly understood, fascism is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left” – has become widely accepted conventional wisdom among American conservatives, and has played a significant role in the national discourse. Along the way, it morphed into the claim that the agenda of Democratic liberals, and particularly President Obama, was an innately fascist attempt to impose a totalitarian state, something Goldberg himself only intimated in the book, though he later confirmed it in a National Review article.
Nowhere is this more evident than at gatherings of the Tea Party movement, the right-wing populist phenomenon that has sprung up in opposition to the policies for which Barack Obama was elected president. It is common at Tea Party rallies to see signs equating Obama with Hitler, and declaring the current regime “fascist.”
Similarly, Goldberg’s thesis has become the running theme for Glenn Beck’s wildly popular Fox News program, in which Beck regularly insists that Obama is secretly a radical fascist (or Marxist, or socialist, or Communist, depending on that day’s flavor), and that the progressive movement – dating back to Woodrow Wilson – not only is at the root of all the nation’s miseries, but represents a concerted effort to remake America as a totalitarian state. Beck has regularly equated fascism with progressivism, a claim central to Goldberg’s book. And indeed, Goldberg himself has appeared on Beck’s show numerous times to promote these claims.
Beck is hardly alone in this regard. At various times, such right-wing pundits as Rush Limbaugh (for whom the claim was actually old hat), Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage have promoted the “liberal fascism” thesis as well.
Often the discussions of “liberal fascism” on these national opinion shows have come in the context of promoting Tea Party activism. A classic case involved a town-hall forum on health care in August 2009 in western Washington, where Rep. Brian Baird -- who had decried the ugly nature of the town-hall disruptions by in fact comparing some of these extremists to "Brownshirts," and then appearing on the Rachel Maddow show, where he compared them to Timothy McVeigh -- was attacked at his town-hall meeting on health care by a former Marine named David Hedrick who accused Baird and House Speaker of Nancy Pelosi of being the real Nazis.
Of course, this ensured him a guest slot on Fox News, and so Hedrick shortly appeared on Sean Hannity's August 29 program to explain his thinking. Hedrick, as made clear, had absorbed and swallowed Goldberg's thesis whole:
Hannity: I read that one of the main reasons that you wanted to be there is because Congressman Baird had used the term "Brownshirts" to describe people showing up at the town halls. You confronted him on that. What happened?
Hedrick: I did confront him on that, and I don't think it's acceptable language that he is, you know, comparing us to Nazis. And it's -- Pelosi did this, he did this, now he's compared us to McVeigh, and talked about bombings there. And, uh, basically I called him on it, I said, 'You know what? If you want to call us Nazis, let's look at the Nazi doctrine. Let's look at National Socialism. And what is National Socialism? Since you let the cat out of the bag, we'll talk about it.
National Socialism is very much what we see today in this administration. It's a policy on what's line for line -- it's the same economic policy, it's the same political policy. And so if they want to talk about Nazis, then they better be careful about that conversation, because they might find that the swastika is on their own arm.
Of course, a little context for what provoked Hedrick's outrage might be useful. When Baird made his "Brownshirts" and "McVeigh" remarks, he was referring to some of the tactics being used by some of the teabaggers, who had in fact bombarded his office with threatening phone calls and missives. Baird explained that some Tea Partiers had faxed death threats and made them by phone as well. According to Baird’s Vancouver district director, one phone message from Aug. 10 said: "You think Timothy McVeigh was bad, there is a Ryder Truck out there with your name on it."
What's most noteworthy, perhaps, about this episode is the way Goldberg's thesis was used to attack anyone who pointed out the frequently violent and intimidating behavior of the extremists who increasingly populated the ranks of the Tea Party movement. It wasn’t the right-wing protesters openly carrying weapons, Obama=Hitler signs, and loudly disrupting the discussion of health-care reform at town-hall sessions who were behaving like Brownshirts, they insisted – it was the liberals who showed enough nerve to stand up to them.
This absorption of the "liberal fascism" thesis dangerously distorts the public discourse precisely because, like so many other components of right-wing belief systems, it’s fundamentally untrue. As the four essays that follow make thoroughly clear, the historical record itself unequivocally repudiates Goldberg's thesis. As such, Liberal Fascism has distorted and polluted the public’s understanding of the nature of fascism, nearly to the point of rendering the word essentially meaningless.
One of the more striking aspects of Goldberg’s dishonesty is how he manipulates his definitions in self-serving fashion that lets him move the goalposts at will, as though we were playing Calvinball. John Cole calls this “the Goldberg Principle”: "You can prove any thesis to be true if you make up your own definitions of words." For instance, his operative definition of fascism is actually just the generic definition for totalitarianism, and it omits entirely the special characteristics that distinguish fascism from other forms of totalitarianism. One of these, for instance, is its overpowering, indeed dominant, antiliberalism – a fact that Goldberg conveniently omitted from throughout his entire 400 or so pages, and later dismissed by claiming that the “liberalism” it opposed was not modern liberalism, but classical liberalism (as though the two have no connection whatever).
Goldberg’s whole approach, for that matter, involves omitting contradictory factual information. His thesis begins with a real fact: fascism originally based its public appeal, like most right-wing populist movements, by claiming to represent a “neither left nor right” solution but a transcendent unifying force. As such, it often made socialist-sounding appeals in its rhetoric, particularly in its nascent stages. Goldberg explores this in depth by trotting out multiple examples of socialist-sounding rhetoric from fascists, as well as endorsements of fascism by gullible socialists. As Michael Tomasky noted in his scathing review for The New Republic:
Yet for all his chapter and verse on the proletarian rhetoric that Nazis employed, Goldberg somehow forgets to mention certain other salient matters, like the fact that within three months of taking power Hitler banned trade unions--and on the day after May Day, 1933. Their money was confiscated and their leaders imprisoned. And the trade unions were replaced with the Nazi "union" called the German Labor Front, which took away the right to strike. Hitler did many worse things, of course. I single out this act because it would hardly seem to be the edict of a "man of the left." And there exist about a million nearly epileptic quotes from Hitler and Goebbels and other Nazis expressing their luminous hatreds of liberalism and of communism, none of which seem to have found their way into the pages of Liberal Fascism.
Goldberg responded by arguing that the fascists were just foreclosing on their competition: “All that need be said is that if Hitler’s ban on independent trade unions disqualifies him as a leftist, then Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were not leftists either.” This is, in fact, the argument that Goldberg attempts to make in his book as well: That the fascists occupied the "political space" on the Left, and thus were simply out to compete against their fellow leftists.
But this is where Goldberg most deeply portrays a lack of respect for the historical material available to him, because any careful study of the actual details of how the fascists came to power in both Italy and Germany makes abundantly clear that they were occupying the available political space on the right -- and had charged hard in that direction from early on in their drive to power. The ideological shift by Mussolini and Hitler away from appeals to socialist sensibilities occurred in the defense of wealthy landowners and the established economic and cultural powers, and it entailed a wave of murderous violence against socialists, leftists, and any form of progressive.
As you will see laid out in detail in these essays, the path to power for both Italian Fascists and German Nazis was essentially the same: They presented themselves as "revolutionary socialists" in their initial appeals but, finding the political space for such a movement already well occupied on the left by socialists and communists, shifted their appeals and their alliances to the right and center, particularly with business capitalists who financed them, sponsored their activities, and essentially contracted with them to engage in systematic violence against the Left. Yet there is not even a scintilla of acknowledgement of this historical reality in Liberal Fascism.
In assessing the broader effects of Liberal Fascism, it may be useful to recall George Orwell’s concept of “Newspeak,” the official language of the totalitarian regime of 1984. Newspeak combines two ideas that, conventionally speaking, are virtual (if not precise) opposites, and presents them as identical -- thereby nullifying the meaning contained in each word: "War is Peace." "Ignorance is Strength." "Freedom is Slavery." It serves two functions: It deflates the opposition by nullifying its defining issues, and throws the nominal logic of the public debate into disarray; and it provides rhetorical and ontological cover for its speakers' own activities and agenda.
Goldberg’s book, merely in conflating the seemingly contradictory terms “liberal” and “fascism,” fundamentally nullifies the meanings of both words – and its core thesis, that fascism was “a phenomenon of the left,” is a historically false fraud. At its core, Liberal Fascism is an act of Newspeak that pollutes the national discourse by destroying our understanding. And when large numbers of people believe nonsense that is simply and provably false, not only is our resulting discourse deeply irrational, but so are the democratic outcomes.
If it were only a work that, like so many other right-wing polemical tracts of the past decade that traduce history (Michelle Malkin’s In Defense of Internment springs to mind) faded from public view and had little effect on the public, it might be acceptable to simply let it fade into obscurity. But Goldberg’s book has not faded; and its toxic effects seem to be growing with time.
Realizing this, I corresponded with some of the historians and political scientists whose work I’ve found helpful in trying to understand the nature of fascism. All of them – Roger Griffin of Oxford Brookes, Robert O. Paxton of Columbia, Matthew Feldman of Northampton, and Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates -- are widely recognized specialists in the study of fascism, and have played large roles in shaping the academic discussion of the phenomenon. They agreed that it was time for historians to step out from behind the academic curtain, take a stand and call out the book for the historical travesty that it is. And so each of them has tackled four different, yet interrelated, aspects of Liberal Fascism’s misbegotten nature.
Thanks to History News Network, we present our modest effort to correct the historical record regarding the nature of fascism, and to draw attention to the toxic effects of Goldberg’s fraud. If nothing else, it’s become manifest that a serious national conversation about right-wing populism – of which fascism is a distinct species – needs to be had, and without the haze of irrationality that now hangs over it. Perhaps these essays will help spark that conversation.
HNN Special: A Symposium on Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism
- Neiwert: Introduction
- Paxton: The Scholarly Flaws
- Griffin: An Academic Book - Not!
- Feldman: Poor Scholarship, Wrong Conclusions
- Berlet: The Roots of the Book
- Michael Ledeen Responds to Liberal Fascism
- Goldberg: Definitions and Double Standards
- Feldman: An Open Letter to Mr. Jonah Goldberg
- Griffin: Definitions and Double Standards - A Rebuttal
- Neiwert: Goldberg’s Response Fits His History of Evasion