“Where are the Friedmans now? Where are the Buckleys?” asks David Frum in Comeback, his new analysis of what’s gone wrong with conservatism. It’s not a bad question. Milton Friedman changed the world with his ideas. William F. Buckley Jr. did so with his talents for movement building and magazine sustenance and his personal ambition. And as good conservatives, they were following in an honorable tradition. If you look at the great thinkers of the conservative movement, they wrote books. Not only Friedman and Buckley but also Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Whittaker Chambers, even Allan Bloom. But after eight catastrophic years in power, conservatives are out of ideas. Those who write books today do so largely as personal marketing strategies. (Neither Karl Rove nor William Kristol, arguably the right’s two most influential thinkers, has ever seen fit to sustain a book-length argument about anything at all, much less political philosophy.)
A former Bush apparatchik turned hagiographer who was briefly famous after his wife sent out a mass e-mail claiming he deserved credit for the phrase “axis of evil,” Frum is clearly having second thoughts. For instance, he is willing to admit that the Bush Administration has been a near-complete disaster. Still, he peppers his analysis with enough bizarre assertions to lead a reader to wonder just how rational he believes his audience to be. Can a sane person really call George W. Bush a “middle of the road” President in domestic policy? Does Frum really believe it’s impossible to support both organized labor and the genuinely poor? (Which side would he have put Cesar Chavez on, for instance?) And if “no Republican politician would ever advocate a value-added tax,” just who the heck is this Huckabee fellow? Frum’s policy proposals, while not always outlandish, occasionally strain credulity. For instance, he advocates using government funds to establish an Office of Marriage and Children. If this is the stuff of a conservative “comeback,” then liberals can rest easy.
Frum’s book ain’t much, but compared with Jonah Goldberg’s, it’s another Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. As you may recall, Goldberg’s primary claim to public attention derived from exploiting the disreputable part his mother, Lucianne Goldberg, played in Linda Tripp’s betrayal of Monica Lewinsky. Then employed as the vice president of Mom’s right-wing literary agency, Goldberg told reporters he planned to pen a “Bonfire of the Vanities-type thing about stories peripheral to the scandal,” with imagined movie deals to follow. Well, the only person who might imagine making a movie of the book Goldberg finally did write a decade later would be Mel Brooks. Liberal Fascism is the “Springtime for Hitler” of intellectual history. The book reads like a Google search gone gaga. Some Fascists were vegetarians; some liberals are vegetarians; ergo… Some Fascists were gay; some liberals are gay… Fascists cared about educating children; Hillary Clinton cares about educating children. Aha! (I see from my own ten seconds of Googling that cult leader Lyndon LaRouche beat Goldberg to this argument by five years with an essay titled “How Liberalism Created Fascism,” published by his presidential committee. Hmmm.) People, this is a book that argues that Woodrow Wilson “was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator” and that it is “impossible to deny that the New Deal was objectively fascistic.” It’s a rare book, indeed, that can be fairly judged by its cover, but I really do think that a smiley face with a Hitler mustache tells you all you will ever need to know about Liberal Fascism.
As dumb as Liberal Fascism may be, Goldberg has managed to sound even dumber when discussing it. He has modestly described his book as “a very serious, thoughtful argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care.” And in an interview published in Salon, he actually makes the statement, “The only reason [Mussolini] got dubbed a Fascist and therefore a right-winger is because he supported World War I.” Of course, out here in the real world, we think of Mussolini as the fellow who founded what would become Italy’s National Fascist Party and became a proud dictator in its name, which would strike most people as a better reason to dub him a Fascist. Now, anyone can misspeak, but, dude, that’s the topic of your book. (Unfortunately this magic moment, appearing as it did in Salon, cannot be made into a YouTube video so it could take its rightful place alongside Miss South Carolina and the most recent classic, American Idol‘s Kellie Pickler. Ms. Pickler, when asked in which European country could be found the city of Budapest, explained, “I thought Europe was a country,” adding upon being given the correct answer by a fifth grader, “Hungry? That’s a country? I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry?”)
I’m tempted to call the publication of Liberal Fascism an intellectual scandal, but I remember that I live in a country where White House press secretary Dana Perino can admit to having no idea what the Cuban missile crisis was. (“Wasn’t that like the Bay of Pigs thing?”) And it thrives in a culture where Ann Coulter not only rules bestseller lists but has found herself, according to the nonprofit Media Matters, interviewed nearly 200 times on at least thirteen programs on MSNBC, CNBC and NBC, not including the period she worked there. True, Goldberg does not call people “faggots” in public or speculate merrily on the joys of mass murder, but his scholarly method is most definitely Coulterian. Like Coulter, he’s got a bunch of footnotes. And for all I know, they check out. But they are put in the service of an argument that no one with any knowledge of the topic would take seriously. “The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, I learn from Susan Jacoby’s excellent book The Age of American Unreason. (I wonder if Emerson was tempted to call his work Conservative Cannibalism.) Where, oh where, are the Friedmans of yesteryear?