Jonah Goldberg’s gall is greatly to be admired. A contributing editor at National Review, Goldberg will soon issue forth a book entitled Liberal Fascism. Early peeks show that the dust jacket contains this clever apercu: “The quintessential liberal fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade-school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.” Chapter titles include: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of Liberal Fascism, Franklin Roosevelt’s Fascist New Deal, Brave New Village: Hillary Clinton and the Meaning of Liberal Fascism.
From any other conservative, a book like this would be simple ideological boilerplate. Since at least the early 1930s, conservatives have been accusing liberals like Franklin Roosevelt of being fascists. What makes Goldberg’s book especially ripe and cheeky is his association with National Review, a magazine that has a very special relationship with fascism.
Since its founding in 1955, National Review has been a haven for writers who are, if not fascists tout court, certainly fascist fellow travellers.
Let’s put it this way: if Woodrow Wilson and Hillary Clinton are fascists then what word do we have for those who admired Francisco Franco? When the Spanish tyrant died in 1975, National Review published two effusive obituaries. F.R. Buckley (brother to National Review founder William F. Buckley) hailed Franco as “a Spaniard out of the heroic annals of the nation, a giant. He will be truly mourned by Spain because with all his heart and might and soul, he loved his country, and in the vast context of Spanish history, did well by it.” James Burnham simply argued that “Francisco Franco was our century’s most successful ruler.” (Both quotes are from the November 21, 1975 issue). Aside from F.R. Buckley and Burnham, many of the early National Reviewers were ardent admirers of Franco’s Spain, which they saw as an authentically Catholic nation free from the vices supposedly gripping the United States and the northern European countries. National Review stalwarts like Frederick Wilhelmsen, Arnold Lunn, and L. Brent Bozell, Jr. made pilgrimages to Spain, finding spiritual nourishment in the dictatorship’s seemingly steadfast Catholicism.
The really twisted side National Review‘s philo-fascism came through in 1961 when Israel captured Adolph Eichmann, a leading Nazi, and tried him for crimes against humanity. National Review did everything they could editorially to offer extenuating arguments against the prosecution of Eichmann, arguing that he was being subjected to a “show trial”, that this was post facto justice, that pursuing Nazi crimes would weaken the Western alliance and further the cause of communism. As the magazine editorialized on April 22, 1961, the trial of Eichmann was a “lurid extravaganza” leading to “bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of Communist aims, [and] the cultivation of pacifism.” (The editors didn’t consider that a mere 16 years after the death camps were liberated, a “refusal to forgive” the architects of genocide might be understandable).
At least one of the arguments National Review made on behalf of Eichmann had value: there is something troubling about post facto justice. But the problem with the magazine’s handling of this matter was the tone they took. They went out of their way to needle Jewish sensibilities on this issue, often in a cruel ways by belittling the seriousness of the Holocaust. In his 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life, the historian Peter Novick tells the story well:
The general circulation magazine that outdid all others in the frequency and vehemence of its attacks on the trial was William F. Buckley’s National Review. Its first commentary on Eichmann was noteworthy in that, at a time when all the other media were reporting his millions of victims, it spoke of Eichmann’s being “generally believed to have a primary hand in exterminating hundreds of thousands.” Two weeks later the magazine returned to the subject, attacking the “pernicious” trial that was “manipulat[ing] a series of ex post facto laws … to give assassination a juridical rationale.” National Review‘s Eichmann coverage then turned to anti-Semitic ‘humor.’ The magazine presented the imagined conversations of a vulgar Jewish couple: “Sylvie” spoke to “Myron” about Eichmann (and gold, and hairdressers) in their Central Park West apartment while “doing her nails … on an enormous crescent-shaped, gold-on-gold, French provincial Castro convertible.” A bit later, the National Review devoted an editorial to how the Communists were profiting from the “Hate Germany movement” being furthered by the Eichmann trial.
At the same time, National Review did an editorial about the attempt of George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi party, to speak in New York city. The editorial criticized the “mob of Jews who hurled insults at him. Some lunged at him, and were kept from Rockwell’s throat only by a cordon of policemen. Are we ‘against’ the Jews whose pressure kept Rockwell from exercising his constitutional right to speak, and who would, if given the chance, have beat him bloody? Of course.” But the editorial admirable defence of “the constitutional right to speak” had a limit; a paragraph later the editors are criticizing the civil rights movement for their “theatrical” challenge to white supremacy in the south, a response which was “met, inevitably, by a spastic response. By violence.” (This editorial, quoted by Novick, is from the June 3, 1961 issue of National Review). In effect, the editors were arguing that civil rights protesters in the south were as provocative as American Nazis marching in a Jewish neighbourhood in New York (with the violent response of white southerners receiving considerably more sympathy than those of Jewish counter-protestors). It’s worth noting that George Lincoln Rockwell had a slight connection with National Review: before becoming a Nazi he had been commissioned by the magazine to promote its profile among college students.
In his 1987 book From This Moment On, National Review editor Jeffrey Hart made a remarkable attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Benito Mussolini. According to Hart, Il Duce made only “a single error in judgement” (his decision to support Hitler in 1940). Other than that, everything the fascist leader did was hunky-dory. “His 1922 blackshirt march on Rome brought to an end a period of political deadlock and leftist riot,” Hart asserts. “His domestic achievements were substantial…. There was repression, the administrating of doses of castor oil, but no Gulags and Belsens or Cambodian-style slaughter….Mussolini was probably better read than any other national leader of his time…. Mussolini’s leadership made even proletarians take some pride in being Italian, and his addresses, broadcast across the Atlantic, were listened to with respect in American-Italian households…. Mussolini stood 5 feet 6 inches and had a massive, handsome head…. Mussolini liked to interrupt his working day several times with sexual intercourse, often standing up and in his uniform, a very rapid performance.” The ode to Mussolini’s character and sexual prowess ends, appropriately enough, with a quote from Ezra Pound, the fascist poet.
In short, National Review was never a magazine that could be described as “anti-fascist” or even “anti-Nazi”. They went out of their way to belittle the crimes of fascists and Nazis. James Burnham expressed the magazine’s stance with his customary blunt brusqueness: “The whole concept of ‘fascism,’ for that matter, has been a fraud from the beginning. Like ‘peaceful coexistence’ and ‘détente,’ it is a tactical invention of the Soviet Agitprop…” So it takes a kind of plumy dumb courage for Jonah Goldberg to decry “liberal fascism”