Goldberg's purpose in this book is simple: to deconstruct the liberal habit of labeling conservatives "fascists", to look back into the fascist era of the early twentieth century and reexamine what genuine fascists believed, and then determine who the ideological heirs of the original fascist movement truly are. I'll give you a hint: they're not conservatives. Those who don't get wrapped around the axle about politics probably won't want to delve into this work, which might appear to spend four hundred pages rebutting kindergarten name-calling. But anyone who values a civil - and intellectually honest - political discourse would do well to invest the time in it. After all, accusing conservatives of being fascists - and Bush, in particular, of being "Bushitler" - is a common attack from the Left, and not just by those on the fringe. It is a weighty charge, immediately conjuring up images of some of the most evil men, egregious acts, and heinous blood-letting of recent history, and, indeed, all time. It's a dismissive charge, because, after all, anyone who's a fascist can't have anything constructive to contribute to civil life because fascism is, in itself, evil and degrading. It's also a completely inaccurate charge, because, as Goldberg shows, conservatives are not the offspring of the "fascist moment" of the early 1900s; liberals are, and have only hung the epithet on the necks of conservatives by a semantic sleight of hand.
I will not attempt to distill this book into so small a space here, but I'll try to paint his broader argument as succinctly as I can. He begins by noting that even among serious scholars of fascism, it's difficult to agree upon an all-encompassing definition. But to avoid spending four hundred pages dissecting the different definitions, he offers his own as a starting point to get the debate rolling:
Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as
political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy.
He then goes into an overview of the first fascists - including the 'founding father', Mussolini - and teases out the argument from there. He reminds us that Mussolini, and later Hitler, were both very popular among American leftists at the time (before Hitler's excesses and ambitions became blindingly obvious to the world), and that the left eventually broke with him as part of an ideological civil war that made him right-wing only in the sense that he was the right wing of the left, not the right as we think of it today. Politically, ideologically, and socially, he was in no sense a conservative; his party was a socialist party, as Hitler's was the National Socialist party of Germany. Both were concerned with an overpowering intrusion of the state into the private sphere, and the submission of the individual good to the common good, neither of which are tenets of conservative thought. Their success at this made them the darling of American progressives, who lamented their own country's inability to join in the great 'experiment' going on overseas. Their jealousy at this partly stemmed from the fact that both Hitler and Mussolini were great admirers of the intellectual founding fathers of the American progressive movement; they were intimately familiar with their works and quoted many of them by name as inspiration for their own political objectives.
What sort of objectives were these? To those who follow politics, they probably sound familiar:
- we demand that the state be charged first with providing the opportunity for a livelihood and way of life for the citizens
- we demand the nationalization of all associated industries
- we demand a division of profits of heavy industry
- we demand an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare
- we demand the creation of a healthy middle class and its conservation, immediate communalization of the great 'department stores' and their being leased at low cost to small firms
- we demand struggle without consideration against those whose activity is injurious to the general interest
- the state is to be responsible for a fundamental reconstruction of our whole national education program, to enable every capable and industrious [citizen] to obtain higher education and subsequently introduction into leading positions...the comprehension of the State must be striven for by the school as early as the beginning of understanding
- the State is to care for elevating national health by protecting the mother and child...by encouragement of physical fitness...by the utmost support of all organizations concerned with the physical instruction of the young
- we demand freedom of religion for all religious denominations within the state so long as they do not endanger its existence or oppose the moral sense of [the people]...[we are] convinced that a lasting recovery of our nation can only succeed from within on the framework: common utility precedes individual utility
On the surface, much of this seems like a laundry list of liberal demands: the right to a job, curbing the expansion of large companies and dividing their profits among the people, guaranteeing government support for the old, breaking apart 'department stores' (Wal-Mart, anyone?) so that the little guy can prosper, national education run the federal government, national health care, special emphasis on instructing the young on healthy ways of living, freedom of religion so long as it encroaches nowhere near the public sphere, and the common interest superceding private interest (or, as Hillary Clinton once said, "we're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good"). We've heard these demands from any number of liberal politicians and presidential candidates, which could be why they seem familiar. But they seem familiar for other reasons; namely, that they've been around for much longer than the 2008 presidential season, and because they've come out of the mouths of less august characters. The above list, for example, is taken verbatim from the platform of the Nazi Party in 1920.
Before the heavens resound with cries of outrage, I'd point out that Goldberg - and myself - are not comparing modern liberals to the Nazis of old (though some modern liberals have no compunction about doing the same to conservatives, despite completely opposing ideological histories). But he is trying to blow away the fog of dishonesty surrounding modern liberal thought and where it comes from. Nazism, Italian Fascism, early American progressivism, and modern American liberalism all came from the same intellectual well-spring; and while he states that fascism grew in different ways in different cultures (anti-Semitism in Germany, for example, was unique to that country and not a staple of fascist thought in itself; Mussolini said nothing about Jews until much later in his career, and only under pressure from Hitler), it is factually wrong to claim that its tentacles are part and parcel of conservative thought when, in fact, it grew out of traditionally leftist, progressive ideas, strains of which can be seen throughout American history. He argues that World War I America, under the ardently progressive Wilson, was, for all intents and purposes, a truly fascist state. The federal government co-opted national industries to make the war effort more efficient, devoted a huge amount of money to propaganda (Uncle Sam's finger, saying "I Want YOU", came from this era), violently crushed dissent (or, "activities injurious to the general interest"). FDR built on this foundation, declaring a "moral equivalent of war" on the Depression economy, introducing welfare, doing his best to give jobs to everyone, and using a "Blue Eagle" price-fixing program to give the government more control over the economy (and using pressure and, occasionally, outright violence against businesses that refused to comply with this program). Goldberg then moves on to examine LBJ's "Great Society" and Hillary's "It Takes a Village" mindset, the latter of which, he argues, is the penultimate distillation of progressive thought into a form of "nice" fascism.
As my goal is not to summarize the entire book here, I'll stop myself now before I'm tempted to do just that. Suffice it to say that Goldberg, as mentioned before, is not calling modern liberals Nazis, anti-Semites, or genocidal maniacs (in fact, he explicitly states that fascism, in an American form, is far more likely to take the guise of an all-loving, all-protecting nanny state), nor does he dismiss out of hand any merit that the liberal agenda might have (again, he explicitly repeats that much merit exists). But he demands that they own up to their intellectual history, stop using the label of "Nazi" and "fascist" both inaccurately and as an attempt to quash legitimate criticism of their ideology, and understand that the search for their goals, noble as they may be, have been taken to extremes before, with disastrous results.