This conservative's fraudulent claim that fascism is really a left-wing phenomenon will not die — more than a decade later

This conservative's fraudulent claim that fascism is really a left-wing phenomenon will not die — more than a decade later
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jonah Goldberg just keeps inspiring people—whether he intends to or not.


Take Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, for example. Earlier this week, after visiting a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Bolsonaro was asked whether he agreed with comments made by his foreign minister claiming that the Nazis of Germany were “leftists.”

He did: “There is no doubt, right?” he said to reporters. He added that the appearance of the word “socialist” in the Nazis’ official party name proved it.

The museum he had just visited, however, is clear about the matter, telling visitors at its website that the German Nazi party arose out of “radical right-wing groups” in Europe.

Where would Bolsonaro get such ideas? He didn’t credit anyone, but the ultimate lineage of this idea really belongs to Goldberg. Perhaps, secondarily and more contemporarily, he’s been absorbing the derivative work of Dinesh d’Souza.

Worst of all, he is far from alone. From Charlottesville to Portland to Christchurch, we’re awash in the effects of a resurgent white-nationalist movement that considers the “liberal smear” that fascism was a right-wing movement further evidence of a “cultural Marxist” campaign against white Western civilization.

D’Souza’s book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left—which has been a bestseller, despite having been systematically dismantled by everyone from Ross Douthat to Mark Bray to Kevin M. Kruse and exposed as a risible fraud from start to finish—was in fact, as Douthat suggests, essentially a dumbed-down, frat-boy repackaging of Goldberg’s 2008 best-seller, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. D’Souza also made a slickly produced “documentary” pursuing this thesis further, titled Death of a Nation.

Indeed, it seems that even though Goldberg has been previously supportive of d’Souza’s work—including appearing in, as well helping to promote, his previous film, Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, which in fact includes his earliest iteration of the “Nazis were leftists” claim—he’s becoming uncomfortable with where the whole thing has been going.

This all came up, I should mention, in the context of a post Goldberg published at National Review’s blog The Corner last weekend, attacking me for a series of tweets in which I had tweaked him recently. But this is an argument dating back more than a decade.

“I am not a fan of Dinesh D’Souza’s effort to take my argument and twist it into the kind of indictment of liberals Neiwert levels at conservatives or that I was accused of doing,” he wrote.

It was something of a mere side-note to an otherwise long-winded defense of what he has always believed is a deep and subtle argument that partisan simpletons like myself cannot comprehend. But in many ways it encapsulates perfectly the argument we’ve been having for the past decade—the way it caricaturizes my argument en route to building a strawman, the way he shifts the goalposts, and most of all his continued evasion in confronting what his little intellectual exercise has produced in the real world, a la Jair Bolsonaro.

Distancing himself from d’Souza is probably how Goldberg eases some of the resulting cognitive dissonance, but then, unfortunately, there are annoying little ankle-biters like your humble correspondent around to remind him of this evasion. (I also like to remind him that he himself actively helped promote this supposedly bastardized version of his original thesis back when it was Glenn Beck doing it.) Thus the odd way of striking back at a Twitter critic in a forum that lets him not have to deal with the inevitable responses.

The argument dates back to 2008, when I published a harshly negative review of Liberal Fascism at American Prospect, headlined “Jonah Goldberg’s Bizarro History.” As I pointed out at the time, its chief flaw was that it conveniently omitted any consideration of the history and continued presence of actual fascist and neo-Nazi organizations in the American landscape, and their relationship to movement conservatism:

Beyond the Klan, completely missing from the pages of Goldberg's book is any mention of the Silver Shirts, the American Nazi Party, the Posse Comitatus, the Aryan Nations, or the National Alliance -- all of them openly fascist organizations, many of them involved in some of the nation's most horrific historical events. (The Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, was the product of a blueprint drawn up by the National Alliance's William Pierce.) Goldberg sees fit to declare people like Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and Hillary Clinton "American fascists," but he makes no mention of William Dudley Pelley, Gerald L.K. Smith, George Lincoln Rockwell, William Potter Gale, Richard Butler, or David Duke -- all of them bona fide fascists: the real thing.

This is a telling omission, because the continuing existence of these groups makes clear what an absurd and nakedly self-serving thing Goldberg's alternate version of reality is. Why dream up fascists on the left when the reality is that real American fascists have been lurking in the right's closet for lo these many years? Well, maybe because it's a handy way of getting everyone to forget that fact.

Goldberg responded, and we had a brief but spirited exchange at our blogs that ended after he decided I was unworthy of his time, which seems to be his most recent conclusion as well. Most of those exchanges can be found at my old blog Orcinus,though most of Goldberg’s original retorts seem to have vanished into the ether.

I remained dismayed at seeing how readily Goldberg’s fundamentally fraudulent thesis not only spread into the mainstream but became a kind of received wisdom among movement conservatives, especially because I was fully aware how dimly real historians of fascism viewed this work. So in 2010 I organized a group of them into a forum to air their grievances with Goldberg’s book at History News Network. We invited Goldberg to participate, and he did offer one relatively meek attempt at rebuttal that mostly complained about my participation and how mean everyone was to him.

[Note: Goldberg’s claim in his Corner post that I “tried valiantly to exclude me from it at the time” is just a straight-up lie. I eagerly welcomed his participation. I wrote to Rick Schenkman, the HNN.com editor at the time, to ask if he could recall me doing any such thing, and he replied he couldn’t recollect anything either way.]

Our most recent exchange on Twitter began when Goldberg rebuked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her recent remarks about “economic injustice” being closely connected to “environmental justice,” which Goldberg dismissed as “Embarrassing hogwash.”

AOC’s remarks might have the odor of liberal cant, but they also have a factual grounding reflected in serious academic work—unlike certain hoax theses I could name. So I tweeted back the same phrase to him, accompanied by a mock cover of his book and his own core thesis, from those pages: “Fascism, properly understood, is a not a phenomenon of the right at all. It is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left.”

Goldberg winced: “David, I’m sorry I’m your white whale.”

I answered: “As long as your hoax thesis continues to pollute our discourse -- thanks, in recent years, no small part to the @DineshDSouza permutation of it -- I will remain compelled to call it out for the toxic nonsense that it is, Jonah.”

His reply: “I don’t like what Dinesh did with my book. But I still think you’re essentially a shill talking up your business model rather than dealing with my actual arguments.  You’ve acted in bad faith for over a decade now. It’s kind of sad.”

The next day, obviously still irritated, he subtweeted a response that didn’t actually link to me, but which of course I saw anyway:

This occasioned my response pointing to our long-ago debates that in turn drove him to reply to me at The Corner. It was classic Goldberg, really, as I’ve noted before:

One of the more striking aspects of Goldberg’s dishonesty is how he manipulates his definitions in self-serving fashion that lets him move the goalposts at will, as though we were playing Calvinball.  John Cole calls this “the Goldberg Principle”: "You can prove any thesis to be true if you make up your own definitions of words."  For instance, his operative definition of fascism is actually just the generic definition for totalitarianism, and it omits entirely the special characteristics that distinguish fascism from other forms of totalitarianism.  One of these, for instance, is its overpowering, indeed dominant, antiliberalism – a fact that Goldberg conveniently omitted from throughout his entire 400 or so pages, and later dismissed by claiming that the “liberalism” it opposed was not modern liberalism, but classical liberalism (as though the two have no connection whatever).

All of the classic Jonah tactics—building strawmen, arguing from self-created/self-serving definitions that counter consensual reality, moving the goalposts, gliding over damning counter-evidence and considerations he considers irrelevant—were present in that little aside in which he again tossed d’Souza under the Jonahbus: He characterizes d’Souza’s output as “the kind of indictment of liberals Neiwert levels at conservatives.”

And what kind of indictment was that? According to Goldberg, it was that “his definition of Fascism must indict American conservatives — and only American conservatives.”

This is complete and utter rubbish, of course, because this is never what I’ve argued. I have insisted all along that fascism must be understood as a phenomenon of the right and not the left NOT because I have a project of smearing all conservatives by association, as Goldberg has assumed and insisted for a decade without an iota of evidence, but because it is the very real frame that helps the public understand how fascism can infect our politics.

You know, like most people, I recognize that there’s a spectrum of behavior, and that mainstream conservatives are distinct from right-wing extremists. Or at least were at one time.

Indeed, I’ve argued for many years—as a onetime Republican from Idaho myself—that it’s essential for mainstream conservatives to publicly oppose the radical right because their denunciations carry more weight with the intended audience. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve been able to persuade any mainstream conservatives to join that cause, but that may be a product of my pleasing personality.

I do know that when I first began reporting on the Aryan Nations and The Order in the 1980s, followed by Ruby Ridge and the militia movement in the ‘90s, it wasn’t considered a partisan thing at all to do this reportage. It was simple common sense that we needed to shine a spotlight on hate groups and the poisons they bring to communities, not just among people on the left but among communities of faith and chambers of commerce too, all of whom understood that hate is bad for communities.

At one time, Goldberg composed a theory about what kind of person I must be:

Here's my grand theory about this guy. He's made his career hyping the terrible threat from the Posse Comitatus, Aryan Nations and American Nazi Party and so like the bureaucrats in Office Space who think TPS reports are the most important thing in the world, he can’t seem to grasp that they’re pretty trivial.

In other words, he came to his understanding of fascism by following bands of racist white losers in the Idaho woods while using some Marxist tract or other as a field guide to identify the various species he encountered. In other words, he's internalized every cliché and propagandistic talking point I set out to demolish in my book. Moreover, his career depends on maintaining his version of the fascist peril. So, he's banging his spoon on his highchair a lot because my book undercuts his whole reason for being.

This is what Goldberg means when he dismissively references my “business model”. But as I noted at the time, I wasn’t reading any Marxist tracts to frame my work: I was listening to what these guys were preaching to their crowds and pitching to their recruits. If the neo-Nazis of the Aryan Nations were not definably fascist because of what they preached and not because they were “bad guys,” then the term no longer has any meaning. Which I suspect is Goldberg’s intent all along.

More to the point, they were right-wing—but extremists, as opposed to mainstream. They not only opposed abortion, they believed providers should be executed. They not only resisted civil rights for minorities, they sought to exclude nonwhites from their rights. They not only opposed gay rights, they believed gays should be put to death. Sometimes their views could be indistinguishable from a mainstream conservative, but the body of beliefs put them on the far right. I learned this from talking with and listening to people.

Fascism in reality—as I know it in its on-the-ground American variant, not a theoretical version cooked up as an intellectual exercise—is a kind of right-wing populism turned metastatic, unleashing an authoritarian tide, fueled by a belief in a phoenix-like national rebirth, that uses violence in defense of business interests, established authorities and leaders, and against perceived liberal enemies. I know this from reporting on what they say and do for 30 years, not because I’ve been influenced by some unknown Marxist texts.

But I have researched them deeply over the years in hopes of understanding them. And their orientation has never been in question. Fascism is fundamentally right-wing in large part because it is fundamentally anti-left. As George Orwell wrote, “the idea underlying Fascism is irreconcilably different from that which underlies Socialism. Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted. Nazism assumes just the opposite. The driving force behind the Nazi movement is the belief in human inequality, the superiority of Germans to all other races, the right of Germany to rule the world.”

Of course, Jonah’s assumptions notwithstanding, not only am I utterly unflummoxed by Goldberg’s ready recitation of various facts about how many contemporaneous liberals and progressives flirted with fascist ideas, and how many left-wing ideas were woven into the early fascist appeals (thus the National Socialist Party business), but I’ve always acknowledged their existence, dating back to that first review in the Prospect.

Goldberg, however, accords them more weight than most historians, who have good reason for taking a broader view of these strands as part of the natural complexity of human ideas and their history. As Robert Paxton explained, placing undue weight on fascists’ (frequently misleading) words and propaganda is a categorical mistake, since the reality of their political base and orientation is revealed by their real-world deeds:

Goldberg simply omits those parts of fascist history that fit badly with his demonstration.  His method is to examine fascist rhetoric, but to ignore how fascist movements functioned in practice.  Since the Nazis recruited their first mass following among the economic and social losers of Weimar Germany, they could sound anti-capitalist at the beginning.  Goldberg makes a big thing of the early programs of the Nazi and Italian Fascist Parties, and publishes the Nazi Twenty-five Points as an appendix.  A closer look would show that the Nazis’ anti-capitalism was a selective affair, opposed to international capital and finance capital, department stores and Jewish businesses, but nowhere opposed to private property per se or favorable to a transfer of all the means of production to public ownership.

A still closer look at how the fascist parties obtained power and then exercised power would show how little these early programs corresponded to fascist practice.  Mussolini acquired powerful backing by hiring his black-shirted squadristi out to property owners for the destruction of socialist and Communist unions and parties.  They destroyed the farm workers’ organizations in the Po Valley in 1921-1922 by violent nightly raids that made them the de facto government of northeastern Italy.  Hitler’s brownshirts fought Communists for control of the streets of Berlin, and claimed to be Germany’s best bulwark against the revolutionary threat that still appeared to be growing in 1932.  Goldberg prefers the abstractions of rhetoric to all this history, noting only that fascism and Communism were “rivals.” So his readers will not learn anything about how the Nazis and Italian Fascists got into power or exercised it.

The bottom line: Does toying with the concept of “liberal fascism” as an intellectual exercise enhance the public’s understanding of fascism—or does it confuse it, in effect destroying it with Newspeak-like negation? After all, given that its antiliberalism is universally understood as an essential component of the complex phenomenon fascism can be, it’s an obvious kind of oxymoron, as useful an idea as “hateful love.”

I’d argue that not only has the latter happened, but the muddied waters have obscured the incoming white nationalist tide—which Goldberg now says he despises, but whose growing presence he really doesn’t really want to acknowledge. So, naturally, he accuses me of being pleased that the alt-right has arisen and spread, when my eternal and ongoing dismay is already well established.

But Goldberg’s idea—that fascism is really a left-wing phenomenon—has been part of that incoming tide. Some of that, of course, is attributable to d’Souza. But the combined effect of Goldberg’s foundation-laying and d’Souza’s sheer demagoguery has meant that the idea of a “fascist left” is everywhere now, particularly among the “Patriot” militias, the Proud Boys, and the alt-lite media mavens who defend them avidly as victims of an insidious antifascist movement.

And now even South American right-wing strongmen are parroting it.

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