David Von Drehle wouldn’t know real fascism if a Blackshirt was kicking him in the face with a steel-toe boot while belting out “Giovinezza.” And in these exceptionally stupid times, he’s certainly not alone. Nevertheless, the Washington Post columnist last week decided to share his thoughts about a new national conservative statement of principles drawn up by the Edmund Burke Foundation and published at The American Conservative.
The manifesto, Von Drehle writes, is “a rather slapdash document” that “has an awful lot in common with fascism.”
Yet Von Drehle’s only real support for invoking the f-word amounts to an aside three-quarters of the way through his column. The manifesto’s relationship with fascism, he asserts, is “its faceless conspiracy of the globalist imperium, its exaltation of a cultural coherence that never existed, and its casual licensing of government power to enforce conformity.”
That certainly sounds unseemly. But is it fascism? And, incidentally, is that what the document actually says? By all means, read it and decide for yourself. But here is an executive summary.
The manifesto affirms 10 (arguably 11) principles: National independence; rejection of imperialism and globalism; national government; God and public religion; rule of law; free enterprise; public research; family and children; immigration; race.
On independence: “Each [nation] has a right to maintain its own borders and conduct policies that will benefit its own people. We endorse a policy of rearmament by independent self-governing nations and of defensive alliances whose purpose is to deter imperialist aggression.” Sovereignty, in other words.
That isn’t fascism. That’s John Quincy Adams.
On globalism: “We support a system of free cooperation and competition among nation-states . . . But we oppose transferring the authority of elected governments to transnational or supranational bodies.”
On imperialism: “We condemn the imperialism of China, Russia, and other authoritarian powers. But we also oppose the liberal imperialism of the last generation, which sought to gain power, influence, and wealth by dominating other nations and trying to remake them in its own image.”
On national government: “We believe in a strong but limited state, subject to constitutional restraints and a division of powers. We recommend a drastic reduction in the scope of the administrative state and the policy-making judiciary that displace legislatures representing the full range of a nation’s interests and values.”
But “in those states or subdivisions in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality, and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.”
That isn’t fascism. That’s Dwight D. Eisenhower.
On God and public religion: “No nation can long endure without humility and gratitude before God and fear of his judgment that are found in authentic religious tradition . . . Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private. At the same time . . . religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions, in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children. Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes.”
On the rule of law: “In America, [rule of law] means accepting and living in accordance with the Constitution of 1787, the amendments to it, duly enacted statutory law, and the great common law inheritance. All agree that the repair and improvement of national legal traditions and institutions is at times necessary. But necessary change must take place through the law. . . . Rioting, looting, and other unacceptable public disorder should be swiftly put to an end.”
Put differently, though police may need to be reined in under certain circumstances and “qualified immunity” should be reconsidered in some cases, the “decarceration” and “defund the police” movements are fundamentally anti-American and antithetical to good order and social peace.
That isn’t fascism. That’s Abraham Lincoln.
On free enterprise: “We believe that an economy based on private property and free enterprise is best suited to promoting the prosperity of the nation and accords with traditions of individual liberty that are central to the Anglo-American political tradition. We reject the socialist principle, which supposes that the economic activity of the nation can be conducted in accordance with a rational plan dictated by the state. But the free market cannot be absolute. Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation.”
On public research: “At a time when China is rapidly overtaking America and the Western nations in fields crucial for security and defense, a Cold War-type program modeled on DARPA, the ‘moon-shot,’ and [missile defense] is needed to focus large-scale public resources on scientific and technological research with military applications, on restoring and upgrading national manufacturing capacity, and on education in the physical sciences and engineering. On the other hand, we recognize that most universities are at this point partisan and globalist in orientation and vehemently opposed to nationalist and conservative ideas. Such institutions do not deserve taxpayer support unless they rededicate themselves to the national interest. Education policy should serve manifest national needs.”
On family and children: “We believe the traditional family is the source of society’s virtues and deserves greater support from public policy. . . . The disintegration of the family, including a marked decline in marriage and childbirth, gravely threatens the wellbeing and sustainability of democratic nations. . . . Economic and cultural conditions that foster stable family and congregational life and child-raising are priorities of the highest order.”
On immigration: “We call for much more restrictive policies until these countries summon the wit to establish more balanced, productive, and assimilationist policies. Restrictive policies may sometimes include a moratorium on immigration.”
On race: “We condemn the use of state and private institutions to discriminate and divide us against one another on the basis of race. The cultural sympathies encouraged by a decent nationalism offer a sound basis for conciliation and unity among diverse communities. The nationalism we espouse respects, and indeed combines, the unique needs of particular minority communities and the common good of the nation as a whole.”
That isn’t fascism. But I wonder what Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin would say.
We can argue with all of those propositions. The Left certainly does. The Right would, too, in many instances. But most of these claims would have been largely uncontroversial 20, 30, even 40 years ago. They would have been the consensus, roughly. And the controversial stuff we would have hashed out, rather than wave off as “fascism” or fascist-adjacent. That’s the point of a manifesto, isn’t it? To generate discussion and argument?
A Ready-Made Bogeyman
As it happens, several personal friends and friends of American Greatness signed the manifesto, including Michael Anton, Julie Kelly, Victor Davis Hanson, Roger Kimball, Larry Arnn (my former boss), Daniel McCarthy, Ryan Williams, Matt Peterson, Rod Dreher, David Reaboi, Christopher Rufo, Rachel Bovard, Josh Hammer, David Azerrad, Austin Ruse, and John Fonte.
There is not a fascist among them, no matter what Von Drehle or the Washington Post purport to “think.”
But I doubt Von Drehle and most of his industry colleagues have given any of this much serious thought at all. They have deadlines to meet and that newshole won’t fill itself. “Trump bad . . . Something right-wing something . . . Something something fascist bugaboo something . . .” and so on for another 750 words. It isn’t too difficult, believe me. I’ve been a newspaper columnist. It paid the mortgage, sure, but I wouldn’t call it a real trade.
In any event, “fascist” is what passes for left-wing discourse in 2022; it is what “neoconservative” was from 2004-2008 or so: A kind of catch-all, drive-by slur meant to shorthand an inchoate right-wing threat. (“Nazi” is also an acceptable evergreen synonym.)
“Fascist now means whomever or whatever the antifascists have decided to attack,” historian Paul Gottfried writes in his recent book, Antifascism: The Course of a Crusade. Gottfried, who has given all of this serious thought, wrote in his earlier book on fascism that “[h]istory is of immediate practical interest to political partisans, and this affinity has allowed a contentious activity to be sometimes grossly abused. In the case of fascism, as a continuing epithet in journalism and political debate, this observation seems especially true.”
Fascism for the knee-jerk Left today is akin to Justice Potter Stewart’s famous test for obscenity: They know it when they see it. And, God bless ’em, they see it everywhere.
My shelves groan under the weight of volumes warning of creeping, incipient American fascism—and those are just the books published in the last five years! I recall with some amusement how liberal columnists back in the aughts would mock conservatives for overusing the fascist trope. When Jonah Goldberg published Liberal Fascism in 2008, liberals and leftists fell over themselves to discredit his argument, which noted that fascism, among other noxious utopian doctrines, was like catnip to capital-P Progressives in the early part of the 20th century at least until World War II.
Goldberg is emphatically not a friend of American Greatness, but he is generally correct about the Progressives, who saw much to like in Mussolini’s aggressive, top-down reforms. He’s since come around to share much of Von Drehle’s view of nationalist conservatives and Trump supporters, entertaining the idea that conservatives are succumbing to a “fascist temptation.”
It all brings to mind an observation the Italian historian Renzo de Felice made nearly 50 years ago, foreshadowing our polarized politics today.
“Fascism did great damage, but one of its most terrible achievements was to leave an inheritance of a fascist mentality to nonfascists . . . to those people who, both in word and in action, are truly and decisively antifascist,” he said. “The fascist mentality must be fought in every manner because it is terribly dangerous. It is a mentality of intolerance and of ideological oppression, which seeks to disqualify its opponents in order to destroy them.” (Emphasis added.)
Maybe a couple of syllogisms would help clarify matters.
All fascism is tyranny. All fascism is authoritarianism. But not all tyranny and authoritarianism are fascism. Fascism was a product of a particular time and a place with a peculiar set of values and notions. Most serious scholars won’t even lump Italian and German fascism together, because they were not the same. They had different premises and different aims.
And although fascism is nationalistic, not all nationalisms are fascism. Alexander Hamilton was a nationalist, after all. So were his rivals, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. So were Andrew Jackson and Lincoln and TR. American nationalism can be many things, but fascism it is not.
So let’s not lose our heads with facile and stupid comparisons. It may be true that an uncomfortable number of Americans today long for authoritarian rule. It’s also true that Franklin Roosevelt remains one of the most popular U.S. presidents of all time. FDR was certainly no fascist, but he was not much of a democrat, either. He was a liberal in name only. And, incidentally, Roosevelt had many kind things to say about Benito Mussolini until the Italian fascist dictator threw in with Adolf Hitler. Americans love FDR anyway. Turns out, we’ve been on the road to authoritarianism under the banner of progress for a very long time.
But is it fascism?
We’ve reached an odd place in our politics where submission to an unaccountable administrative state is an affirmation of democracy and any resistance or expressed desire to restore freedom is authoritarian, if not outright “fascism,” and tantamount to treason.
The whole point of the January 6 committee is to disqualify Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress from public office as “insurrectionists”—even though not a single person has been charged with insurrection, which is an honest-to-goodness federal crime and not just a rhetorical trope.
The Justice Department and the FBI can run roughshod over the Bill of Rights and that isn’t tyranny. No, no, that’s buttressing Our Democracy™. But freedom of speech is now somehow “fascism,” too.
In the old days, we would merely infer that the David Von Drehles of the world don’t know anything about America. That they are merely mistaken.
Today, we may simply conclude Von Drehle and his ilk are ignorant hacks. But at least they can take solace knowing they have plenty of company. (Just read the comments on Von Drehle’s column.)
It isn’t that these people lie, though often they do. Mostly, they’re telling the truth as they understand it. The trouble is, they don’t understand very much. Unfortunately, many of these same people happen to run the country.