"We're all fascists now"

An interview with conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg, who argues that fascism is left-wing, not right-wing, and that contemporary liberals are fascism's intellectual offspring.

Published January 11, 2008 11:35AM (EST)

Jonah Goldberg is not a popular man among liberals. The son of Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent who played a pivotal role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he already had that as a strike against him when he began his career as a conservative political commentator in the late 1990s. A writer and blogger for the National Review and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, he's now a frequent target for the mockery of liberal bloggers.

But nothing has inspired the ire of liberals quite like Goldberg's new book, "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning." There was the provocative cover, which adds a Hitler mustache to the familiar yellow smiley-face icon. Then there was the book's ever-changing subtitle. Originally "The Totalitarian Temptation From Mussolini to Hillary Clinton," it became "The Totalitarian Temptation From Hegel to Whole Foods," before landing on bookstore shelves in its current form.

In the book, Goldberg attempts to convince readers that six decades of conventional wisdom that have placed Italy's Benito Mussolini, Germany's Adolf Hitler and fascism on the right side of the ideological spectrum are wrong, and that fascism is really a phenomenon of the left. Goldberg also attributes fascist rhetoric and tactics to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and describes the New Deal's descendants, modern American liberals, as carriers of this liberal-fascist DNA. In a sense, "We're All Fascists Now," as Goldberg puts it in one of his chapter titles. Salon spoke with Goldberg by phone.

What's the book about?

It's a revisionist history. It's an attempt to reconfigure, or I would say correct, the standard understanding of the political and ideological context that frames most of the ideological debates that we have had since, basically, World War II. There's this idea that the further right you go the closer you get to Nazism and fascism, and the further left you go the closer you get to decency and all good things, or at least having the right intentions in your heart.

For 60 years most historians have been putting fascism on the right, or conservative, side of the political spectrum. What are you able to see that they weren't?

There are a lot of historians who get fascism basically right. There are a lot of historians who don't. I think the Marxists have been part and parcel of a basic propaganda campaign for a very long time, but there are plenty of historians who understand what fascism was and are actually quite honest about it.

To sort of start the story, the reason why we see fascism as a thing of the right is because fascism was originally a form of right-wing socialism. Mussolini was born a socialist, he died a socialist, he never abandoned his love of socialism, he was one of the most important socialist intellectuals in Europe and was one of the most important socialist activists in Italy, and the only reason he got dubbed a fascist and therefore a right-winger is because he supported World War I.

Originally being a fascist meant you were a right-wing socialist, and the problem is that we've incorporated these European understandings of things and then just dropped the socialist. In the American context fascists get called right-wingers even though there is almost no prominent fascist leader -- starting with Mussolini and Hitler -- who if you actually went about and looked at their economic programs, or to a certain extent their social program, where you wouldn't locate most if not all of those ideas on the ideological left in the American context.

You write about how historians have had difficulty defining fascism. How did you come up with the definition of fascism that you use in the book?

Well, yeah, it's very hard to come up with a definition of fascism. And one of the things that I've found that was kind of amazing in this process, especially since the book has come out, is how people can't let go of fascism as a morally loaded term for evil. [George] Orwell says fascism has come to mean anything not desirable as early as 1946, and it is amazing how it is so ingrained in our political psychology to see "fascist" basically just as a code word for "evil."

So anyway, I'm sorry -- my definition of fascism I get in large chunks from Eric Voegelin, the political philosopher. He wrote this book "The Political Religions," and I see fascism as a political religion. That doesn't mean I think there's some book, like a bible, that if you read it you will become a convert to this political religion. Rather I think it is a religious impulse that resides in all of us -- left, right, black, white, tall, short -- to seek unity in all things, to believe that we need to all work together to go past any of our disagreements and that the state needs to be, almost simply as a pragmatic matter, the pace-setter, the enforcer of this cult of unity. That is what I believe fascism is.

Related to your definition, at least as I read the book, was something that's been controversial about it. Especially because of one of the earlier iterations of the subtitle, ["Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation From Hegel to Whole Foods"] there's a perception that your argument comes down to things like both Nazis and liberals being proponents of organic food. Is that how it works? Because the Nazis liked dogs and I like dogs, I'm a Nazi?

No, no. I mean, I try to reject that kind of thing ... I don't believe that liberals are Nazis; I believe that if Nazism came to the United States it is entirely possible that liberals would be at the forefront of the battle to stop it. So would conservatives. I'm not trying to do any argument ad Hitlerum in this book.

But what I am trying to do, at least in the chapter that you're talking about, is show how -- [take] Robert Proctor, who wrote an award-winning, widely esteemed book called "The Nazi War on Cancer." He points out that this organic food movement, the whole-grain bread operation, the war on cancer, the war on smoking, that these things were as fascist as death camps and yellow stars. They were as central to the ideology of Nazism as the extermination of the Jews. Now, that is not the same thing. And I want to be really clear about this: That is not the same thing as saying that banning smoking is as morally disgusting and reprehensible as trying to wipe out the Jewish people. You can say that something is as much part and parcel of an ideology and not say that it is as evil.

Similarly, in terms of this organic stuff, I think it's important to understand that Mussolini is the guy who coins the word "totalitarian." "Totalitarian" has come to mean this Orwellian oppression, this political evil. Orwell uses the image of stomping on a human face forever. That is not what Mussolini meant by it. I'm not a big fan of Mussolini's, but he meant a society where everyone belongs, everyone counts, everyone is included. The most famous definition of fascism that he offers is, "Everything in the state, nothing outside the state." ... Today we don't use the word "totalitarian," because the connotations have been so hardened in our minds. But we use these other words like "holistic" all the time. This quest for wholism, this idea that everything goes together, that we are all part of a single political, social organism ... was deeply and profoundly central to the intellectual movements and eddies that fed into Nazism.

Along those lines, you write, "What is fascist is the notion that in an organic national community, the individual has no right not to be healthy; and the state therefore has the obligation to force us to be healthy for our own good." And you cite the example of a state legislator who wants to ban using iPods when crossing the street. Under that definition, how are, say, seat-belt laws, helmet laws, laws against drunk driving, the drinking age, all that, not fascistic?

First of all, again, I think we need to remember that something can be fascistic just like something can be socialistic and not be evil. It can just be wrong ... And so I think you can make the argument that a lot of the things you cite are fascistic in one sense, but that doesn't mean they're automatically bad ideas. The autobahn was fascistic -- that doesn't mean that we should ban highways.

That said, a lot of the things you listed, if I heard you right, are laws for preventing people from harming others. And that is a legitimate function of government: to protect the general welfare, to protect people's privacy and property and lives. That is perfectly within the Anglo-American tradition of constitutional law and all the rest. But where you get into scarier territory is when you have people saying that you can't smoke in your own home or that you can't eat certain foods or that because of the healthcare system that we have and that Democrats want to expand, since harming yourself costs the taxpayer money, you have no right to harm yourself.

I mentioned seat-belt laws, which are really aimed at the individual who's supposed to be wearing the seat belt. And on the right, there's the Terri Schiavo debate.

Yeah. Well, but the Terri Schiavo debate is an interesting example. The Nazis were grotesque euthanizers. Long before they went to the Jews they started exterminating the mentally ill, the enfeebled, what they called "useless bread gobblers," people who couldn't contribute to the society. And there are all sorts of criticisms that I think are legitimate that you can aim at pro-lifers, but you can not argue that pro-lifers are somehow Nazi-like in their support of the pro-life cause, because it is exactly contrary to the way the Nazis operated to believe that every life is sacred.

You write, "[Liberalism] is definitely totalitarian -- or 'holistic,' if you prefer -- in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists."

Couldn't that just as easily be said of the American right? You've got, certainly, conservatives judging entertainment from political perspectives; I remember discussion on [National Review group blog] the Corner of the 2006 Steelers-Seahawks Super Bowl through a political lens. There were "Freedom Fries" and boycotts of French food and wine. And, I mean, your wife worked for [former Attorney General] John Ashcroft, so you know that on the right, sex can certainly be political.

I will first stipulate right upfront that I agree with you that there are lots of places on the right where this is so, and I don't like that stuff either ... That said, I don't think that the equation between liberalism and conservatism goes as far as you would like to take it. You know, you have environmental groups giving out kits and instructions about how to have environmentally conscious sex. You don't have conservative groups talking about what kind of condoms you should use or what positions you can be in. That kind of thing doesn't really go on.

I don't have any problem with liberals or conservatives criticizing stuff that goes on in the popular culture ... [I]t's when you want to dragoon the state into these things, everything from hate crimes to these early interventions in childhood. You read "It Takes a Village" and Hillary [Clinton] declares that basically we're in a crisis from the moment we're born and that justifies the helping professions from breaking into the nuclear family at the earliest possible age.

You have a lot of this stuff on the right, I agree. [George W.] Bush had his marriage counseling stuff that he wanted to propose, I didn't like that. I think Ashcroft gets a very bad rap, but one of the things I did not like was him basically having this philosophy that since the federal government was an agent for a left-wing agenda that therefore it should be an agent for a right-wing agenda. I agree with you to that extent, that that stuff is bad, and it constitutes a kind of right-wing progressivism that I really do not like and I see in people like Mike Huckabee and I see to a certain extent in compassionate conservatism, as I discuss at the end of the book.

You write about militarism being central to fascism, and a militaristic strain remaining in today's liberalism -- the war on cancer, the war on drugs, the War on Poverty. Why include the war on drugs formulation with liberalism? It was Richard Nixon who declared it, then it withered under Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan really brought it back and was the drug warrior.

I think that's probably a fair criticism. But I should start at the beginning ... What appealed to the Progressives about militarism was what William James calls this moral equivalent of war. It was that war brought out the best in society, as James put it, that it was the best tool then known for mobilization ... That is what is fascistic about militarism, its utility as a mechanism for galvanizing society to join together, to drop their partisan differences, to move beyond ideology and get with the program. And liberalism today is, strictly speaking, pretty pacifistic. They're not the ones who want to go to war all that much. But they're still deeply enamored with this concept of the moral equivalent of war, that we should unite around common purposes. Listen to the rhetoric of Barack Obama, it's all about unity, unity, unity, that we have to move beyond our particular differences and unite around common things, all of that kind of stuff. That remains at the heart of American liberalism, and that's what I'm getting at.

As for the war on drugs part, I think you make a perfectly fine point, except I would argue that Nixon was not a particularly conservative guy. Measured by today's standards and today's issues, Nixon would be in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

You've talked about Mussolini remaining on the left and remaining a socialist, and in your book you've got a lot of quotes from the 1920s about that, but I'm wondering -- how does that fit in with what he wrote and said later, especially "The Doctrine of Fascism" in 1932?

I'd need to know specifically what he wrote in "The Doctrine of Fascism." It's been about three years since I've read it.

He says, for example, "Granted that the 19th century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the 20th century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the 'right ', a Fascist century."

Yeah, I'm perfectly willing to concede there's a lot of stuff Mussolini says, but you've got to remember, by '32, socialism is starting to essentially mean Bolshevism. And if you get too caught up in the labels, rather than the policies, you get yourself into something of a pickle. The right in Europe back then was authoritarian; the right was a kind of right-wing socialism ... What was dead, according to intellectuals across the ideological spectrum, was 19th century classical liberalism.

But in the book you say, "Mussolini remained a socialist until his last breath," and in 1932 he's writing, "When the war ended in 1919 Socialism, as a doctrine, was already dead; it continued to exist only as a grudge," and he also says, "Fascism [is] the resolute negation of the doctrine underlying so-called scientific and Marxian socialism."

Yeah, but that's the point. Scientific and Marxist socialism, and certainly the people who subscribed to that stuff, was international socialism. That's what made Mussolini a right-winger, because he was against international socialism and he was for national socialism.

But [Mussolini] never gave up on the program of socialism, he never gave up on this idea that the state was the ultimate arbiter and director of economic arrangements. He never gave up on the idea that the rich should be brought under the heel of the state. And there's this funny thing -- we still live with these categories where nationalism and socialism are supposed to be these opposite things. This is sort of a hangover from the days where socialism was defined as international socialism and nationalism was defined as national socialism. But at the end of the day, nationalism and socialism are essentially the same thing. When we nationalize an industry, we're socializing it. And when we say we want socialized medicine, we're saying we want nationalized medicine. We need to understand that that's the context Mussolini was coming from.

And he said a lot of stuff. He was sort of a buffoon in that sense; he was constantly changing his definitions of fascism and talking out of one side of the mouth, then out of the other side of his mouth, largely because of the sort of pragmatic idea he had about politics. But in terms of the policies he implemented and where he came to, once again, at the end of his life, he always clung to the policies that were associated with the left side of the political spectrum.

That brings up something else I wanted to ask you -- if I'm reading this right, one of the things you're saying about the student radicals in the 1960s is that they were essentially fascist even if they might have called themselves Marxist.


But isn't it easy to distinguish, since Mussolini repudiated the central doctrine of Marxism?

Well, I mean, I bet you if you gave me an hour I could find places where he once again says nice things about Marxism in 1933 or 1937.

But he repudiated historical materialism, dialectical materialism.

Yeah. But I think the problem is you get into one of these sort of overly doctrinal, "let's go to the text" approaches where words get confused for things. Stalin never repudiated Marxism, but in almost every way, the checklist for the anatomy of fascism applies to Stalinism ... Saying that you still believe in the dialectic and the cold impersonal forces of history found in "Das Kapital" or "The Communist Manifesto" isn't an abracadabra thing where all of a sudden that means Stalin was really a Marxist or wasn't a fascist in terms of how he actually operated.

And I think the same thing applies to the radicals in the 1960s; quoting the Port Huron Statement doesn't really change what the radicals did in the streets when they were actually fighting, when they were blowing things up, when they were supporting the Black Panthers, who wanted to assassinate police, when they were taking over universities. The fact that they said they were in favor of peace and Marxism is almost meaningless when compared to their actual actions, and their actions were fascistic.

What I thought was interesting about your definition of fascism was that nationalism seemed to be missing ... Stanley Payne, whom you quote and say is "considered by many to be the leading living scholar of fascism," in his definition of fascism, the first thing he says is that it's "a form of revolutionary ultra-nationalism." How does that fit with contemporary liberalism, which is often derided as being unpatriotic, anti-American?

That's a perfectly legitimate question. I think classical fascism, the fascism that we all think of when we hear the word "fascism" -- Italy, Germany and to a certain extent Spain, they were ultra-nationalistic, I don't dispute that, I think that is absolutely the case. I just would want to emphasize that that ultra-nationalism comes with an economic program of socialism. There's no such thing as a society undergoing a bout of ultra-nationalism that remains a liberal free-market economy. The two things go together.

I don't say that contemporary liberalism is the direct heir of Nazism or Italian fascism. I say it's informed by it. It's like its grandniece. It's related, they're in the same family, they share a lot of genetic traits, but they're not the same thing.

I think that you do have nationalism percolating up in the form of left-wing economic populism, the John Edwards branch of liberalism, which is for raising trade barriers. He says time and again, the first thought of every economic decision of a president should be what protects the American middle class, which -- according to some fairly doctrinaire understandings of fascism, it's an ideology of the middle class, nationalist economics and all that kind of stuff -- there's some meat there. So I do think you do see nationalism in that regard, in terms of economics.

Today's liberalism, there's a strong dose of cosmopolitanism to it, which is very much like the H.G. Wells "Liberal Fascism" I was talking about ... These trans-national elites, the Davos crowd who really want to get beyond issues of sovereignty so they can organize and guide the planet on issues like global warming, invest a lot more in the U.N. I think that is much more of the threat coming from establishment liberalism today, but I do think there is a lot of nationalism there too.

Payne also says that a "fundamental characteristic" of fascism was "extreme insistence on what is now termed male chauvinism and the tendency to exaggerate the masculine principle in almost every aspect of activity." How does that fit in with contemporary liberalism, especially Hillary Clinton, who was at one point in the subtitle of your book?

It's a great question. I've actually thought a lot about that, and I wish I had quoted that thing from Payne, because I say at the end of the book that the classical fascisms of mid-20th century were essentially masculine phenomena. They fit in the Orwellian dystopian vision of the future, where you have the strong father figure. ... That was the vision of a more sexist time when leadership was inherently male. I think one of the things that marks contemporary liberalism is that it's much more feminine. And I think that's probably to the better; I would much rather [get] hugs than blows from a billy club.

But there's another dystopian understanding of the future, which we get from [Aldous] Huxley's "Brave New World." That was a fundamentally American vision ... [T]he vision of the Huxleyian "Brave New World" future is one where everyone's happy. No one's being oppressed, people are walking around chewing hormonal gum, they're having everything done for them, they're being nannied almost into nonexistence. That's the fascism in Hillary Clinton's vision. It's not the Orwellian stamping on a human face thing, it's hugs and kisses and taking care of boo-boos. It is the nanny state. That is a much more benign dystopia than "1984," but for me at least, it's still a dystopia. An unwanted hug is still as tyrannical or as oppressive -- not as oppressive, but an unwanted hug is still oppressive if you can't escape from it ... [O]ne of the biggest distinctions between what I'm calling liberal fascism ... and classical fascism, is that classical fascism was masculine and violently oppressive and today's liberalism is feminine and not oppressive but smothering with kindness.

One of the things Mussolini also wrote in "The Doctrine of Fascism" was, "In rejecting democracy Fascism rejects the absurd conventional lie of political equalitarianism, the habit of collective irresponsibility, the myth of felicity and indefinite progress." So I'm wondering again how that fits.

I'm not trying to dodge anything, I just would have to look at it in the context and see where he is coming from on that. I do think that there is a fundamentally undemocratic passion running through parts of contemporary liberalism.

Again, invoking lines from something Mussolini wrote and trying to say, "This contradicts what we see in front of us," has some utility, but it can only take you so far when you have to look at what Mussolini actually did. Mussolini was a pragmatist ... Pragmatists say what's useful. They do what's useful. There are other things you could point out in Mussolini's record that are inconvenient for me. For a time he was a free trader, in the very early days of fascism ... What unites, in some sense, fascism and contemporary liberalism and a lot of other isms is their pragmatic sense that the government is smart enough and morally empowered to do good wherever and whenever it sees fit. That is an undemocratic and illiberal perspective.

How do you feel about the reaction to your book so far, especially from the liberal blogosphere?

I think most of them should be ashamed. I think it's been fairly idiotic; you look at -- Who's that weirdo, the guy with the "Too Hot for TNR" blog? Spencer Ackerman. That's absurd, and it's childish. Type my name into Daily Kos. As hilarious as some people might think it is to call me a "Doughy Pantload," at some point if that is the crux of your objection to a 500-page book that Tom Wolfe says is the best and most important revisionist history in a very long time, that says a lot more about those people than it does about me. I would love to see some serious liberals take on the book in a serious way, I really would. I am sure I get things wrong, I know there are counter-arguments to be had, I've heard some of them from very sharp conservatives that I admire, but so far the response from the left-wing blogs I just ignore, because it's childish ... All I would really want is an interesting conversation. I don't expect everyone to automatically agree with me, I know that the book is controversial.

And you say you're not calling liberals Nazis, but...

I must say it 25 times in the book.

Yeah. But the cover has the smiley face with the Hitler mustache. Does that undermine that message and lead to some of these reactions?

Well, I'm perfectly glad to concede that people who do judge books by their covers or think it's more important to read a title rather than read a book will be confused and jump to conclusions. But these are people that I don't generally respect. The cover was Random House's invention, and I'm still sort of ambivalent about it, but you make covers to sell books, you make titles to sell books, even though my title comes from a speech by H.G. Wells ... The cover, the smiley face with the mustache, is a play on something I explain on basically Page One of the book, and it's a reference to what George Carlin and Bill Maher call smiley-face fascism. And if you can't get past the cover and the title, then you're not a serious book reader and you're not really a serious person.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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