Behind Glenn Beck loomed the faces of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and the American progressive John Dewey. The host gestured to the photos as he revealed the common link to Fox viewers: all favored state intervention in the economy and apparently did not believe in the concept of natural rights as found in the Declaration of Independence. Thus all of them flirted with fascism.
To drive home this point, Beck had invited Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, on to his program. Goldberg sees ominous connections between the economic corporatist Mussolini and the shenanigans of the current Democratic administration. To him, Hillary Clinton’s notion that it takes a village to raise a child resembles nothing so much as the policies of Hitler’s head of the German Labor Front, Robert Ley. This evidently Nazi-esque rhetoric comes to Hillary by way of her longtime advisor Michael Lerner, a Jewish leftist. Like the Nazis, Lerner and presumably Hillary believe that “morality, politics, economics and ethics: none of these things can be separated from anything else.” Indeed, the welfare-state policies advocated by Lerner, according to Goldberg, look as if they were lifted from the Nazi platform of 1920.
Nor is that all: the vegetarian and ecological concerns of many Democrats seem similar to the beliefs of interwar fascists and Nazis. Hitler and Himmler prefigured these contemporary American fashions, Goldberg warns, as he notes that “many on the left talk about destroying whiteness in a way that is reminiscent of the National Socialist effort to de-Judaize German society.” To anyone else the difference between these situations might seem obvious: while Hitler’s plan was directed at a generally helpless minority in his country, the anti-white posturing of American journalists and educators is an acquired taste among the predominantly white elite.
But Beck and his guest are hardly the only movement conservatives who perceive a world fascist threat. Rudy Giuliani remains at war with “Islamofascism.” Other Fox News luminaries, such as Charles Krauthammer, Sean Hannity, and Fred Barnes, are preoccupied with the same demon. Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV is not surprisingly subtitled The Long Struggle against Islamofascism. Given these weighty authorities, it seems that fascism is America’s #1 enemy.
Fascists, real or imagined, have long been the European Left’s preferred opponents. The f-word in Europe is directed against all who stand in the way of further gay and feminist rights or unlimited Third World immigration. Anyone on the wrong side of these issues is labeled a fascist, which really means Hitler. The Left is perennially fighting Nazis in the form of any position or figure deemed insufficiently progressive. And now American neoconservatives are getting in on the fun, but with a twist: just as European leftists are convinced that anyone concerned about historic nations and traditional morality is a fascist, so neocons are equally sure that fascism is fundamentally a left-wing phenomenon.
They’re all wrong. While conservatives are not fascists, as the Left would have it, neither are fascists leftists, as Goldberg and company believe.
There were in fact different fascisms in the 1920s and 1930s, and they were not always on the same side. As late as 1934, the Italian fascist leader Mussolini tried to come to the aid of the Austrian clerical fascist Engelbert Dollfuss, whom Hitler’s henchmen in Vienna finally assassinated. Not all fascists were racists or especially anti-Semitic, and until the Axis agreement was reached in 1936, it did not seem that Hitler and Mussolini would be on the same side in any future war.
Mussolini, who in 1922 became the first fascist to take over a European government, claimed to represent and embody a “national revolution,” not a single class—such as the Italian proletariat—let alone the “workers of the world.” Although Il Duce had once been an avowed man of the Left, the authoritarian government he constructed within what looked like a vestigial constitutional monarchy was not notably socialist once installed, although it claimed that all things were being done in the name of the state. Mussolini, as Goldberg correctly observes, had many admirers throughout the political spectrum, including the Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, the Revisionist Zionist Zeev Jabotinsky, and at least half the editorial board of The New Republic, which viewed him as a progressive state planner. Not until Mussolini’s entirely unexpected alliance with the Nazis did world opinion turn against him—including the judgment of his erstwhile fans Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Garden-variety fascisms—in contrast to the partly Stalinized German Nazi form—were counterrevolutionary in character. The German historian Ernst Nolte describes the fascists as a “counterrevolutionary imitation of the Left.” Fascist movements mobilized masses and made deals with the working class, but what allowed them to come to power was their armed opposition to the revolutionary Left. They flourished in countries with large anarchist and Communist movements. And while they promised national revolutions that would rise above selfish bourgeois interests and parliamentary squabbles, fascism relied, particularly in Italy, France, and Spain, on the support of a frightened bourgeoisie.
The fascists became the party of order. In Austria, the Jewish classical liberal Ludwig von Mises declared for the Catholic corporatist Right against the socialist revolutionary Left, which the clerical fascists were then keeping at bay. In the 1930s, European Communists targeted fascism as an especially insidious enemy. What they meant was not first of all Hitlerism—which Stalin in fact directed German Communists to assist in coming to power—but movements like Mussolini’s. Even then the Communists and their allies correctly viewed the fascists as sham revolutionaries, who introduced only minor welfare measures once they came to power. In contrast to the dreams of the Left, the fascist revolution stressed hierarchy and the glorification of one’s nation and its antecedents. While the Left took from the French Revolution a model for sweeping social reform, the Italian fascists admired the Revolution’s appeal to classical antiquity and military heroism.
So why do so many movement conservatives today call everyone they dislike “fascists”? There are four reasons. First, this rhetorical weapon allows self-styled conservatives to have some fun by applying to the other side a pejorative term that the Left has had a monopoly on. Such a tactic may be emotionally satisfying, but it is intellectually bankrupt. Only a cultural illiterate could believe that interwar fascists were intent on pursuing a massive welfare state centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles, and whatever else the latter-day Left is about. Republicans and Democrats share more of this agenda with each other than either does with interwar fascists.
America’s major parties support a far more economically intrusive government than any that Dollfuss, Mussolini, or other non-Nazi right-wing corporatists tried to put into operation between the world wars. Until the outbreak of World War II, the Italian fascist government took a smaller percentage of income from families than American households are now required to fork over to our regime. Equally important, the Italian fascist state never attempted to manage gender relations and conversations about ethnicity. Unlike the politically correct postmodern state, it left social relations pretty much the same as they had been before.
The second reason for the American Right’s anti-fascist rhetoric is historical. Some critics of FDR and the New Deal, such as Garrett Garet, Isabel Paterson, and John T. Flynn, believed that the American welfare state was the equivalent of the Italian fascist and later German Nazi regimes. But there is no reason to yield to their flawed judgments. These writers made the unwarranted leap from thinking that all forms of economic planning were unacceptable to believing that all were virtually identical. It is true that FDR, his Brain Trusters, and much of the American Left found a great deal to admire in Mussolini’s experiments. But so too did conservative Catholics, who often professed admiration for European fascists’ cultivation of good relations with the Church and the middle way they sought to forge between plutocracy and socialism. Not incidentally, U.S. antifascist critics of the New Deal tended to be American-style libertarians. They had a very limited understanding of the European Right or the European Left and usually threw “statists” of all kinds into the same rogues’ gallery.
Much of today’s talk about fascism derives from a third motive—a thinly disguised reductio ad Hitlerum. Whenever Krauthammer or Giuliani brings up “Islamofascism,” we are being reminded that the enemies of Israel are like the Nazis. These enemies, it is implied, seek to inflict on the Israelis and the entire Jewish people what the earlier “fascist” Hitler almost succeeded in doing. The word “fascist” is meant to summon everyone to action against an implacable, existential military threat to the Israelis.
But the final and most fundamental reason for the establishment Right’s antifascist pretensions is a deeply rooted leftist mindset in which fascism remains the world’s greatest evil. In the 1980s, neoconservatives came to control the American conservative movement in what was mostly a friendly takeover. Conservative foundations and journals began sliding toward the Left, and in the new pantheon of conservative heroes one found such previously unlikely figures as Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, and eventually Martin Luther King.
The reconstructed Right continued to be anti-Soviet and generally anti-Communist. But while the post-World War II Right typically denounced the Communists as godless materialists striving for absolute equality, neoconservatives became anti-Communist for different reasons. They stood in the tradition of such Cold War liberals and pro-labor Democrats as Sen. Scoop Jackson and AFL-CIO leader George Meany. The anti-Communist Left condemned the Soviets as oppressors of the proletariat and counterrevolutionaries posing as socialists.
In the neoconservative version of anti-Communism, the enemy remained on the Right. The Soviet dictatorship became what Truman described after World War II as “Red Fascism.” This was also the way the German socialist Kurt Schumacher defined the new enemy after 1945, when he denounced the “red lacquered Nazis.” Unlike the old anti-Communist diatribes in National Review, Human Events, and Modern Age, later neoconservative anti-Communism, as Sam Francis once observed, gives evidence of a “leftist gestalt.” The present “conservative” struggle shows the same gestalt, as it battles the recycled menace of interwar fascism.
Antifascist neocons are in fact far to the left of characters like Mussolini. The ghosts haunting American politics are not the specters of Heidegger or Hitler lurking behind Obama and Mrs. Clinton. They are the spirits of old anti-Stalinists like Trotsky that now possess the establishment Right.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and the author of The Search for Historical Meaning: Hegel and the Postwar American Right.