Following its release in January of 2008, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Today the book hits shelves in its paperback version (with a new afterword on Barack Obama), which provides an excellent excuse to talk to the esteemed NRO editor-at-large, and to shine a spotlight on an important book, one more time:
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So how does it feel to have written a number-one New York Times bestseller?
JONAH GOLDBERG: Better than having written a number-two New York Times bestseller, all things being equal.
LOPEZ: I asked for that. But, seriously: The book was hugely successful. Maybe the most successful political, or at least conservative, book of 2008. That’s got to be cool.
GOLDBERG: Okay, well, yeah: It feels good. (Though it’d feel better if I sold half as many books as Mark Levin. Holy Frijoles.) I spent a long time working on Liberal Fascism, and a lot of things happened in the process — my daughter was born, my Dad died, just to name two — and this beast was a source of a lot of stress and worry on my part. Add to that all of the grief I got from the Left about it, years before it even came out, and, yeah, its success is a nice vindication.
What feels better than — or at least as good as — the commercial success of the book is the impact it’s clearly had. It’s very difficult to talk about fascism these days without at least acknowledging my argument. That’s progress. Also, I can’t begin to tell you how edifying it is to hear stories, almost on a daily basis, about how the book is being included in college courses. I’ve spoken to university seminars on it. College kids are constantly writing me for papers they’re doing, and civics teachers are incorporating stuff from the book. That feels so much more concrete to me than bestseller lists and blog spats.
LOPEZ: What surprised you the most about the reception to the book?
GOLDBERG: Well, I’d say what disappointed me the most was the Left’s reaction to it. With very, very, few exceptions, the Left decided that it was vital to destroy the book, unread and unexamined. It’s almost a constant theme of the liberal and left-wing reviews of Liberal Fascism: Do Not Read This Book. I wish a few serious people on the Left showed some interest in actually coming to grips with the book’s arguments rather than going in like lawyers and spin-doctors representing their client — “liberalism” — and using any weapon near to hand. Michael Tomasky’s review was particularly disappointing, because I would have hoped The New Republic would have tried to engage the book in a serious way. Instead, it was a hackish and intellectually childish hissy-fit. [Jonah’s response to Tomasky is here]. And that was the best of them; the bulk of attacks from the left were simply personal attacks on me and childish tantrums about the cover or title. I kept waiting for a serious liberal to engage in a serious and open-minded way. I don’t think it ever happened.
LOPEZ: So, no surprises then?
GOLDBERG: Oh no, there were lots of surprises. But a lot of those were pleasant surprises about the polite reception I received on so many campuses, the graciousness and support of NR readers and colleagues, that kind of thing.
One surprise, for want of a better word, was that I didn’t get more stuff wrong. For instance, when I was writing the book, I thought there’s no way all of this horrible stuff I was reading by and about Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly could be right. I checked the sources over and over again, and for the most part restricted myself to credible, mainstream historians or primary sources. Still, I was waiting for someone to say, for example, “No, no, no: Goldberg gets Wilson all wrong!” But to date, I don’t think anyone has written a detailed, fact-driven defense of the guy. One left-wing blogger rolled his eyes and simply said it was silly for me to call Wilson a liberal, which seemed idiotic and a huge concession at the same time. When the New York Times reviewed the book, the reviewer didn’t even object to a single accusation against Wilson. In fact, he didn’t disagree with anything in the book until I got to FDR. Well, by the time I got to FDR, I’d said that Fascism was left-wing, that Hitler was a man of the Left, and that Wilson was a would-be fascist dictator. That seemed like a pretty big concession to me.
I think the larger significance of this is that liberals are either unwilling or unable to defend the roots of what we call liberalism, and that speaks volumes and lays down an important marker.
LOPEZ: Do you regret the title? The cover? (Hitler!) They did give critics something to beat you up with.
GOLDBERG: In the grand scheme of things, no. Most of the criticism about the cover seemed to stem from the fact that it was so good and provocative, as if this was the first time a serious book had an eye-grabbing cover. Similarly, the title is well grounded in my argument (the phrase “Liberal Fascism” was coined by H. G. Wells, and anyone who’s read the book understands that it’s not a casual epithet). The assumption behind the criticism of the title is that if I’d written a book called, say, Elements of Illiberal Social Policy in Progressive Politics: 1912–2000, its argument would be so much better received.
I think that’s nonsense. Look at The Bell Curve or Losing Ground or The Closing of the American Mind; these books were figuratively burned by the Left, and there’s nothing offensive about those titles. What they’re really saying is that they wish my book had been packaged in a more ignorable way, so they could ignore it more easily. And, by the way, liberals churned out scads of books making cartoonish cases that Bush was a fascist and/or that Christians were fascists. Liberals took no offense at any of that.
LOPEZ: Hey, that raises a question I’ve been meaning to ask. In a footnote in the book, you say you didn’t get the title Liberal Fascism from Wells, but I could swear I’ve heard you say elsewhere that you did. Which is it?
GOLDBERG: Well, fair question. The truth is that Liberal Fascism was originally a working title I came up with independently for the proposal. But the idea was always that we might change it for the actual book since it is such a bloody shirt. But then I read up on Wells and his call for “Liberal Fascism,” and I was like, “What the hell, this is more apt than I realized.” So in a way, the title comes from Wells and in a way it doesn’t. In speeches, I often gloss over this because it’s irrelevant to the larger point — that a Wellsian “Liberal Fascism” still endures inside of contemporary liberalism’s intellectual DNA.
LOPEZ: So if you don’t regret the title or cover, do you have any regrets?
GOLDBERG: Actually, yeah. First, I wish I had finished the bibliographic essay in time. One of the fair criticisms of the book from the right is that I didn’t give enough credit to the work of conservatives and libertarians who came before me. This was never intentional. I was hugely influenced by Erik von Kuehnelt Leddihn, Friedrich Hayek, A James Gregor, the work of the guys in the orbit of the Claremont Institute (particularly when it comes to Progressivism and Woodrow Wilson) and others. In fact, there’s very little that is new in my argument. Albert Jay Nock said a lot of this long before National Review was even founded. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in every way. Most of what’s new about the book is that it synthesizes and updates an argument that conservatives had stopped making and that liberals thought they’d finally swept under the rug.
I also regret that in the second half of the book I didn’t tell more and show less. One of the points of Liberal Fascism isn’t to simply say “I know you are but what am I?” to the Left (though that’s definitely in there), it’s to point out that because we’ve made fascism into this cartoon villain we’ve allowed truly fascistic (or if you prefer, statist or progressive) assumptions to suffuse modern life on both the right and the left. I don’t think all of this stuff is evil or even necessarily bad. Rather, I think it advances without us questioning it. I have a chapter in the book called “We’re All Fascists Now.” I wasn’t aiming that purely leftward, but inward. People need to understand that these movements didn’t arise out of a society-wide desire to be villains. It arose out of a desire, a yearning, for progress. I think that’s one of the most basic points I failed to communicate as clearly as I should have.
LOPEZ: Speaking of Liberal Fascism’s endurance, what do you make of events since the book came out, specifically the election of The One?
GOLDBERG: Well, first of all I think I have to thank Barack Obama. Here I wrote a book, working on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee (hardly a harebrained assumption at the time), about how contemporary progressivism is a political religion with its roots in German state theory, sharing a close family resemblance to fascism. Among the anatomical and genetic similarities: cult of unity, sacralization of politics, philosophical pragmatism, corporatism, relativism, Romanticism, hero-worship, collectivism, and so on. And out of nowhere comes a guy who campaigns as a secular messiah, spouting deeply spiritualized political rhetoric, claims the Progressives as his inspiration, and proudly sees himself as carrying out FDR’s mission. I haven’t counted them, but I’d guess I’ve received a couple hundred e-mails from readers telling me how they thought the whole book was written with Obama in mind, even though I finished it before he was even ahead in the Democratic primaries.
After the election, sales of the book spiked through the roof for a reason. I used to joke that the same people loading up on bottled water and handguns were buying extra copies of the book as a field guide or something.
LOPEZ: So [sarcasm on] I take it you think Obama fits your thesis? [sarcasm off].
GOLDBERG: Heh, yeah. I even added a new afterword in the paperback edition — now on sale! — dealing explicitly with Obama.
You know, when I first started pondering the book, I thought it might be all about economics. About ten years ago I went on a junket to Switzerland and attended a talk with the CEO of Nestlé. Listening to him, it became very clear to me that he had little to no interest in free markets or capitalism properly understood. He saw his corporation as a “partner” with governments, NGOs, the U.N., and other massive multinationals. The profit motive was good for efficiency and rewarding talent, but beyond that, he wanted order and predictability and as much planning as he could get. I think that mindset informs the entire class of transnational progressives, the shock troops of what H. G. Wells hoped would lead to his liberal-fascist “world brain.”
If you look at how most liberals think about economics, they want big corporations and big government working in tandem with labor, universities (think industrial policy), and progressive organizations to come up with “inclusive” policies set at the national or international level. That’s not necessarily socialism — it’s corporatism. When you listen to how Obama is making economic policy with “everyone at the table,” he’s describing corporatism, the economic philosophy of fascism. Government is the senior partner, but all of the other institutions are on board — so long as they agree with the government’s agenda. The people left out of this coordinated effort — the Nazis called it the Gleichschaltung — are the small businessmen, the entrepreneurs, the ideological, social, or economic mavericks who don’t want to play along. When you listen to Obama demonize Chrysler’s bondholders simply because they want their contracts enforced and the rule of law sustained, you get a sense of what I’m talking about.
I don’t think Obama wants a brutal tyranny any more than Hillary Clinton does (which is to say I don’t think he wants anything of the sort). But I do think they honestly believe that progress is best served if everyone falls in line with a national agenda, a unifying purpose, a “village” mentality expanded to include all of society. That sentiment drips from almost every liberal exhortation about everything from global warming to national service. But to point it out earns you the label of crank. As I said a minute ago about that “We’re All Fascists Now” chapter, I think people fail to understand that tyrannies — including soft, Huxleyan tyrannies — aren’t born from criminal conspiracies by evil men; they’re born by progressive groupthink. I have an abiding faith in the liberty-loving nature of the American people. But I think we are laying down the foundation for a challenge to that nature the likes of which we haven’t seen since Wilson was in office.