The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, by Naomi Wolf, New York: Chelsea Green, 192 pages, $13.95
Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg, New York: Doubleday, 496 pages, $27.95
In a May 2008 essay for The Times of London, playwright Tom Stoppard, the British son of Czech émigrés, explained his long-held contempt for his more hyperbolic comrades in the theater. “I felt myself out of patience with people who, from 1968 onwards, would denigrate this country that adopted me, this country that I’d adopted, as some kind of fascist police state. It just seemed so embarrassing that those countries that truly could be described as such were very, very different from Britain.” In Stoppard’s acclaimed 2006 play Rock ’n’ Roll, a meditation on Czech resistance to Soviet occupation, one character upbraids his daughter for her lazy use of the term, grumbling that many in her generation “think a fascist is a mounted policeman at a demo in Grosvenor Square.”
To anyone that has attended a political demonstration, trawled a blog, or attended a Western university in the past half century, the scattershot use of “fascist” will ring familiar. And almost as clichéd as accusing an ideological opponent of fascist sympathies is the accurate observation that such charges often demonstrate an utter lack of understanding of just what qualifies as fascist, other than “someone I vehemently disagree with.” As an indicator of a particular set of political beliefs, “fascism” has become a perfectly meaningless pejorative, a political cudgel that is obtuse and imprecise by design.
What, if anything, unites such disparate fascist dictators as Benito Mussolini of Italy, Adolf Hitler of Germany, António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal, and Francisco Franco of Spain? Fascism, the historian Stanley Payne writes in Fascism: Comparison and Definition, “is the vaguest of contemporary political terms.” Few ideologies have produced so many academic volumes dedicated to establishing a singular set of definitional criteria. All of the political movements commonly associated with fascism overlap in key areas (opposition to both classical liberalism and communism, for instance) and diverge in others (the Germans rejected Italian-style corporatism in favor of what one historian called a “racist-totalitarian welfare state”).
While professional historians puzzle over the definitions, pop-culture references to Nazism continue to be flung with distasteful abandon. In a recent ad campaign, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals compared factory farming to the systematized killing at Auschwitz. In a public service television spot produced by MTV, a packed subway car is dramatically raided by a heavily armed SWAT team. At gunpoint, menaced by a pack of German shepherds, terrified passengers are hustled out of the car and onto an empty platform, where shrieking children are separated from their parents. The scene freezes, then the image morphs into an archival photo of passengers disembarking a train at a Nazi death camp. If the visual message was unclear, helpful text fills the screen: “The Holocaust happened to people like us.” Fascism is coming.
Political commentators and actors of all stripes—right and left, Christian and Muslim and atheist—accuse their enemies of harboring fascist tendencies. Radical Islamists are lazily labeled “Islamofascists,” not because they possess an interest in corporatism but because they are brutish and dumb and harbor fantasies of exterminating Jews. Pro-Palestinian groups routinely compare the actions of the Israeli military to the Nazi Holocaust. Evangelical Christians are “religious fascists” duping Americans into embracing theocracy, according to writers such as former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America. Creationists attempt to connect Darwinism to Nazism, while atheists counter that Nazism’s nexus with Pope Pius XII was vital to its success.
More than six decades after the death of Hitler and 30 years since the collapse of Franco’s clerico-military dictatorship in Spain, fascism has returned as the preferred insult of the intellectually careless. In the post-history decade of the 1990s, when Cold War passions deflated along with the military budget, such accusations were largely consigned to the radical fringe. To the mainstream left, Bill Clinton might have been a shameless panderer who punted on gays in the military and co-opted conservative issues like welfare reform, but he was still, after all, a liberal. But with the election in 2000 of a Republican president who greatly expanded executive power and inaugurated a Long War on Terror, it was natural that the fascism charge would once again come into vogue. But this time, after years of politico-linguistic abuse by the left, some on the right have begun to fight back, conflating fascism with the progressivism many liberals hold dear. The insult isn’t just for lefties anymore. Two recent bestsellers exemplify how fascism has evolved in our political discourse. With Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist and editor-at-large of National Review Online, attempts to reappropriate the word from those who employ it willy-nilly against enemies to their right. “The major flaw in all of this,” Goldberg writes, “is that fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all.”
While hostile bloggers and reviewers piled on Goldberg, few noticed the runaway success of another, much more shoddily researched fascist-themed tract, this one from the feminist writer Naomi Wolf. According to Wolf’s The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, America is barreling down the road toward a fascist future, following a path well-trodden by Mussolini and Hitler. The Bush administration’s spotty record on civil liberties and the growth of executive power aren’t temporary phenomena, Wolf argues, but portend a greater “fascist shift.” America, she writes, is in the late stages of our own Weimar Republic —it’s a partially free society nearing collapse, “on the verge of a violent police state.”
As overheated as such sentiments seem, they are increasingly infiltrating the cultural mainstream. The End of America spent 15 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and nearly six months fluttering around the Amazon top 50. Before hitting bookstores, it was awarded a coveted “starred review” from Library Journal and named the “best political book” of 2007 by The Nation’s John Nichols.
At a taut 180 pages, The End of America offers a Monarch Notes recapitulation of German and Italian fascism in an attempt to draw parallels between various 20th century totalitarianisms and the numerous “examples of [America’s] shift into a dictatorial reality.” Wolf insists this is no exercise in hyperbole. “Every argument I make is strictly on the facts,” she writes. “I am not being heated or even rhetorical. I am being technical.”
By Wolf’s estimation, there are 10 warning signs that presage a fascist takeover: A pre-fascist government will invoke an internal and external enemy, establish secret prisons, develop a paramilitary force, surveil ordinary citizens, infiltrate citizen groups, arbitrarily detain and release citizens, target key individuals, restrict the press, cast criticism as “espionage” and dissent as “treason,” and subvert the rule of law.
Several of these steps aren’t particularly “fascist” at all. Non-fascist authoritarian states such as China, Cuba, and Vietnam are known to “establish secret prisons,” “target key individuals,” and “subvert the rule of law,” for example. Nor does Wolf seriously consider the fact that many of her steps—carefully selected to hew close to the controversies of the Bush years—would also apply to previous American presidents, including the liberal titans Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Abraham Lincoln.
When asked for a single-line definition of fascism, Wolf is equally murky, telling Democracy Now host Amy Goodman last year that “one dictionary definition is when the state starts to use terror against the individual in an effort to oppose democracy. And that’s what we’re seeing in the United States right now.” Wolf would be advised to invest in a new dictionary.
By seeing no doctrinal distinctions between the various authoritarian and dictatorial regimes she invokes, Wolf instead draws upon a series of dubious parallels between American foreign and domestic policy and the crimes of Nazi Germany, East Germany, fascist Italy, Maoist China, and Stalinist Russia—all presented as evidence of the “fascist shift.”