“It can’t happen here.”
That’s the first line of Jonah Goldberg’s chapter in Liberal Fascism devoted to what he says DID happen – a fascist dictatorship in America. Specifically, Goldberg makes the case that Woodrow Wilson was such a figure in American life during a presidency lasting from 1913-1920.
Obviously such an allegation is a juicy one, and when Goldberg’s book was published it was his treatment of Wilson which was one of the most controversial. This treatment is central to his thesis, as Wilson’s governance is the bridge between late 19th-century boutique leftism and post-Christian German philosophy percolating through America’s intellectual avant-garde and the advent of runaway federal government over the past 90 or so years in this country.
Goldberg does make a strong case that Wilson was fascist, at least by the definition he lays down in his first chapter – namely, that:
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.
Given such a definition, the Wilson era in American political history probably was a fascist one. Wilson had been quite a prolific writer of political philosophy prior to his presidency, demonstrating an intense dislike for the concept of constitutional government and an even greater distaste for the American constitution in particular. As president his actions brought that philosophy into sharp relief – it should be remembered that Wilson was quoted as saying that as president he represented the right hand of God and those who opposed him were attempting to thwart His will. Thus at least in Wilson’s mind he represented the leader-as-demigod figure Goldberg’s fascism requires.
The destruction of the individual in favor of the needs of the collective, an essential element of fascism as Goldberg and nearly every other analyst defines it, certainly is present with Wilson’s administration. “No doubt,” said the former Princeton professor, “a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.” As president, Wilson used America’s entry into World War I, the avoidance of which he had used as a rationale to successfully seek reelection in 1916, to unleash what he called “War Socialism.” Central to this policy of creating a planned economy was the War Industries Board, a classic fascist operation which co-opted the country’s big businesses into doing the administration’s bidding with the carrot of protection from competition. Wilson’s administration also persecuted its critics and political enemies, passing a Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1917-18 and using the US Postal Service as a tool of media censorship while creating goon squads in the American Protective League and the American Legion to serve as street enforcers on behalf of the administration. There were some 175,000 Americans arrested for various public demonstrations of opposition to Wilson’s policies or even the failure to express sufficient support for them.
Goldberg goes at length to describe the parallels between Wilson’s administration and the Mussolini regime, which was fascist by name, in Italy at the time. He isn’t just manufacturing those similarities – they were much described by contemporaries, and in fact Mussolini himself was highly complimentary toward Wilson’s policies as president, and vice versa.
Is it a convincing case? Perhaps not completely, but that would depend on the acceptance of Goldberg’s definition of fascism – it’s clear he tailors his definition to include Wilson’s era, as is his prerogative. The typical narrative of Wilson’s presidency focuses less on his domestic actions and more on his thorough naivete and incompetence with respect to foreign policy. Wilson’s insistence that America was going to war with Germany in order to “make the world safe for democracy” and the subsequent disaster that was the Versailles Treaty at the end of that conflict are the factors by which most judge his presidency; with that emphasis it comes off as a bit strange that he would be considered fascist. But that’s an impression clouded by 75 years of progressive education and, perhaps more importantly, the intervening factor of World War II, which cast the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler in a totally different light than that contemporary to the Wilson Era.
Regardless, with Wilson America went from a country largely content to allow the world’s other great powers to cut their own throats to an internationalist do-gooder; from an individualist society to a more socialized economy; from a nation committed to freedom of speech to one rife with government propaganda and censorship. And in 1920, when the American people had an opportunity to render a verdict on eight years of his governance they turned out Wilson’s party in favor of Warren Harding, who promised a “return to normalcy.” And that fact, more than anything else, describes the judgement of the American people on what Goldberg calls fascism in this country.
In later chapters, however, Goldberg describes how the bad ideas presented by Wilson and the progressives continue to resurface again and again, repackaged as something new…