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When describing the overzealous apparatchiks of the Transportation Security Administration, Wolf recounts a familiar tale of mothers forced to sample their own breast milk to demonstrate that their baby bottles were not, in fact, transporting liquid explosives. The payoff: “In Benito Mussolini’s era, one intimidation tactic was to force citizens to drink emetics and other liquids.”
Referring to the so-called Brooks Brothers riot, during which Republicans attempted to thwart a hand recount of votes in the 2000 election, Wolf wonders, “What was it about the image of a mob of young men dressed in identical shirts, shouting at poll workers outside of a voting center in Florida during the 2000 recount that looked familiar?” Well, the Nazis wore “identical shirts” too. (Incidentally, Wolf’s footnote points to a New York Times story that makes no mention of the protesters’ clothing.) Those who objected to the Dixie Chicks’ antiwar stance by publicly destroying their CDs—private citizens, all—are likened to the Nazis’ government-sponsored burning of books.
Bush’s ridiculous May 2003 aircraft carrier stunt, in front of a fluttering banner declaring the Iraq “mission accomplished,” is compared to the Albert Speer-orchestrated Nuremberg Rallies. For Wolf, the parallels are eerie: On one occasion Goebbels thanked the obedient volk for their “support in the accomplishment of this mission.”
It’s not just these “similarities” that convince Wolf of where America is headed. Chest-puffing that she is a “student of language,” Wolf claims that soon after the 1933 Reichstag fire Hermann Goering declared that the country was to prepare itself for “kriegsfusz” (sic)—war-footing. (It’s actually spelled kriegsfuss.) In order to underline the similarities between Nazi and American rhetoric, she writes that “After 9/11, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney coined a new phrase: America was now on a ‘war-footing.’ ” This is a very odd claim; the term “war-footing” is centuries old and registers tens of thousands of results in newspaper archives dating back to the 1850s. Indeed, on September 12, 2001, before Wolf cites any administration official using the phrase, The Guardian headlined a story: “US on war footing as thousands die in hijack jet outrage.” The German word kriegsfuss also predates the establishment of the Nazi Party.
Turning from philological issues to instances of state repression, Wolf offers several alleged examples of fascist-style suppression of dissent. When former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales discussed the “collective purge of all the [U.S.] attorneys,” which resulted in the dismissal of seven not considered “loyal Bushies,” it was certainly a matter of serious concern. But it did not, as Wolf writes, amount to “a professional Night of the Long Knives,” a reference to Hitler’s violent 1934 putsch against the powerful, street-brawling brownshirts. One act provoked a media outcry and led to the perpetrator’s resignation, and the other led to the brutal murder of 100 political rivals while solidifying Adolf Hitler’s power base. Wolf commits a bewildering series of mistakes that demonstrate not even a rudimentary understanding or familiarity with the subject of fascism. Readers are told that Hitler was a propaganda master because he was “trained as a visual artist.” (He was not.) Readers are informed that the “formal extermination camps” were “not established until the very eve of war.” (They were established in 1942.) Nor did Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels “develop the practice of embedding journalists.”
Like countless leftists before her, Wolf wildly exaggerates the alleged fascism of the modern democratic Right while inexcusably minimizing the dictatorial crimes of the historical communist Left. The early Bolsheviks, she claims, don’t deserve to be sullied by a comparison to modern America, because “The Communist revolutionaries of 1917 were opposed to torture, having suffered it themselves at the hands of czarist forces.” Wolf would be advised to investigate the gruesome crimes perpetrated by Felix Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka, the secret police founded at the outset of the Russian Revolution.
Even when not flubbing or oversimplifying the broad details of fascist ideology, The End of America commits the fatal sin of contorting every sinister moment of the 20th century to ensure that it lines up with some aspect of the “war on terror.” It is clearly with Al-Qaeda in mind that Wolf wrote this stunningly ignorant passage on the construction of phantom enemies: “What matters to a fascist leader is not to get rid of the enemy but rather to maintain an enemy,” a piece of analysis that would certainly surprise the families of untermensch liquidated during the Second World War.
None of this is to suggest that concerns over the Bush administration’s view of civil liberties and expended executive power aren’t legitimate. But there exist many sober treatments of this subject, such as Jack Goldsmith’s The Terror Presidency and Charlie Savage’s Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. To suggest with a straight face that the modern United States is on the verge of slipping into German- or Italian-style fascism is to ignore the necessary preconditions that precede such takeovers, none of which are likely to arise in the contemporary United States. Nowhere in “Bush’s America” (an almost entirely meaningless appellation) do we see the shuttering of independent media, the mass emigration of political opponents and ethnic minorities, the murder or imprisonment of those who can’t get out, the mandatory mass rallies, the introduction—or continuation—of conscription. Public debate is ferocious, impolite, and open, a fact well reflected in the president’s historically low approval rating. The publication and mainstream media promotion of Wolf’s book, including a softball appearance on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, would suggest that her fevered vision of a “closing society,” a modern day Weimer-like collapse, is risible.
While it is unlikely, if not impossible, that America could mutate into a fascist state in the style of 1930s Germany or Italy, this country did have a fascist moment of its own. That’s the premise of Jonah Goldberg Liberal Fascism, a disquisition on the left-wing origins and progressive embrace of fascist ideas. In his introduction, Goldberg acknowledges that his motive for writing the book was not only to dispute the common linkage of conservatism and fascism, but to argue that fascism, in fact, crawled from the swamps of the left, abetted by liberal heroes such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and birth control advocate Margret Sanger.
Goldberg is justified in quarreling with those who have argued that fascist economic theory is essentially an extreme form of capitalism. The economies of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and the ideas touted by British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley and the neo-Nazi parties of post-war Europe, in fact stood in direct opposition to free market liberalism. The often overlooked Mosley, for instance, denounced “Jewish” chain stores, and also decreed that in fascist England “chain stores which are British owned will be permitted only under licence, and to an extent which does not interfere with the Fascist system of small shopkeeper and co-operative society.” It was an argument borrowed from National Socialism.
The stubbornly persistent myth that fascism was the logical end-point of capitalism was originally propagated by left-wing Italian and German opponents to Mussolini and Hitler. For example, in his book It Could Happen Here (originally subtitled Star-Spangled Fascism in Bush’s America), the liberal columnist Joe Conason argues that when Americans in the 1930s embraced the radical corporatism of the New Deal they were in fact rejecting the fascism of big business: “And in the time of crisis, when powerful figures in the corporate elite and the Republican Party looked toward fascism for salvation, the American people chose democracy and the New Deal instead.” Such arguments, Goldberg convincingly demonstrates, are an inversion of the truth. The New Deal was the nearest America ever came to economic fascism.
Goldberg’s chapters on the authoritarian temptations of Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and the socialism of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, draw heavily on the work of historians such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Götz Aly, A. James Gregor, and Stanley Payne—all of whom have underscored the socialist-fascist convergence—plus libertarian thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. It is a compelling argument, and Goldberg does a great service in bringing these issues to a non-academic audience.
The parallels between Mussolini’s economic policy and the New Deal were contemporaneously noted by American socialists such as Norman Thomas, who in 1933 said that while FDR was “no Mussolini” his economic program was “extraordinarily like the Italian program.” As Goldberg notes, the Nazi daily Völkischer Beobachter praised the “National Socialist strains of thought in [FDR’s] economic and social policies,” while New Deal officials like Hugh Johnson and Rex Tugwell praised the corporatist economy of fascist Italy. Goldberg then adds the requisite caveat—one repeated throughout the book—that “nowhere here do I suggest that New Dealism was akin to Hitlerism if we are to define Hitlerism solely in terms of the Holocaust.”
But what is he suggesting by the comparison? Goldberg wants us to take seriously the fascist strains in American economic thought and governance, not “the oppression, cruelty, and tyranny of classical fascism.” Yet if corporatism and government intervention in the economy is a prerequisite for the creation of a fascist state, how to explain Francisco Franco’s Catholic fascism in Spain? As the historian Robert Paxton writes in Anatomy of Fascism, “Franco’s state intervened little in the economy and made little effort to regulate the daily life of people as long as they were passive.” The Nazi state’s economic policy was heavily interventionist but, as Stanley Payne notes, it “explicitly rejected formal corporatism.”
Goldberg then goes much further, broadening the fascist impulse to include too many elements of mainstream modern liberalism, from John F. Kennedy to Hillary Clinton. In so doing, he, like Wolf, fails to provide the reader with a single, accurate definition, relying instead on the occasional doctrinal commonality between historical fascists and his modern ideological opponents.