Are we all fascists now?
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."
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.
Goldberg writes, for instance, that "a common principle" shared by the German and American New Deals is that "the state should be allowed to get away with anything, so long as it is for 'good reasons.' This is a common principle among fascism, Nazism, Progressivism, and what we today call liberalism." If we accept this concept as true, doesn't it also apply to communist collectivization and to contemporary conservative rationalization of torture and surveillance programs?
Goldberg is also stretching accuracy by claiming that right-wing fascism is "a myth." It is true, as he repeatedly stresses, that the left-wing roots of fascism have been deliberately obscured, but, as Payne notes, most European fascist movements, including in Mussolini's Italy, found that "their most common allies lay on the right, particularly the radical authoritarian right."
While clearly possessing a detailed understanding of fascist history, Goldberg's difficulty comes in shoehorning his thesis into the narrative of 20th century American political history, using the blunt instrument of hyperbole. So John F. Kennedy, a president arguably more conservative than John McCain, is slammed for "advancing fascist themes and aesthetics in American politics." And the short newsreel clip of a young Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK is "Reifenstahlesque" [sic].
For Goldberg, fascism is omnipresent. He points to the The Da Vinci Code's "ominous roots and parallels with Nazi thought," and he claims that "hip-hop culture has incorporated a shocking number of fascist themes." He is convinced that "Hitler would have given Dead Poets Society a standing ovation." The film Gladiator, Goldberg writes, is a textbook example of Hollywood employing "fascistic imagery."
At times, the contortions required to tie fascism with 21st century partisanship can bring Goldberg close to sounding like Wolf: "Fascists famously rules by terror. Political correctness isn't literally terroristic, but it does govern through fear." Well, yes, but being accused of racial insensitivity is rather different than seeing your family arrested on Kristallnacht.
While Hillary Clinton's 1993 attempt at a government takeover of health care was disastrous and destined to failure, why view it as a failed bit of fascism rather than a failed attempt at generically Scandinavian socialism? And if the Clinton health care plan was socialist, does that mean that it was also fascist because, after all, both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were economically left-wing? Is statism automatically fascism?
It is here that Goldberg's book ultimately fails to convince. A jaunt through modern Sweden, for instance, would find an economy hobbled by state intervention and government agencies that talk endlessly about the health of the community—the folkhem, a term redolent of the Nazi concept of volksgemeinschaft. But if we then broaden the meaning of fascism to include social democratic Sweden, one wonders what country in Europe wouldn't qualify. In his attempt to reappropriate the insult from the left, Goldberg has further diluted a term that was already almost unrecognizable.
That certain modern ideologies contain trace elements of fascism doesn't mean that they are in any meaningful way fascist, or even pre-fascist (as the Wolfian left would have it). Not every flag-bedecked rally is Nuremberg, not every Guantanamo Bay is Auschwitz, and not every ill-conceived call for redistribution is a sign of corporatism.
It is important, in times of crisis, when an administration invokes the perennial threat of an external enemy, that a citizenry be vigilant in safeguarding civil liberties, in jealously guarding the constitutionality of invoked wartime powers. But when those self-appointed guardians collapse into "Weimar moment" paranoia, not only is the concept of fascism diluted to the point of meaninglessness, but other, more pressing liberty-related issues are subsumed by the hysteria. When both sides see creeping fascism lurking around every bit of political rhetoric and action they disagree with, then the term doesn't need to be reappropriated or redefined, it needs to be buried.
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.