Whatever else you might say about the Republican infighting that devolved into full-on political combat at the beginning of this year, it is at the least very funny. A party composed largely of ideologues, grifters, and ideological grifters has split in two: there are those who have old formulaic ideas about how to make America great again, and those with a formula for making their personal brands as great as possible. Long Island’s new representative George Santos is an innovator in the latter camp; rather than run for office as just another Republican schlub, he invented a fantasy persona with a fictitious career and showed the world that what worked for Donald Trump—pathological dishonesty—can work for anyone.
Is this lesson now the essence of American conservatism after Trump? That you should fully untether yourself from outdated and constricting notions of factuality and ethics? Maybe, but in at least a few Washington think tanks and media circles, it remains a common belief that there must be an honest conservatism, a genuine intellectual core of right-wing thought, one that bemoans the present state of affairs—that is, in fact, permanently in the condition of bemoaning the present state of affairs. Conservatives always dream of recapturing lost glories, an imagined homogenous society of the past, and it wasn’t so long ago that conservative intellectuals such as William Kristol and David Brooks promoted a return to a “national-greatness conservatism.” In fact, this was in 1997, just a few years before George W. Bush and Dick Cheney reintroduced the most traditional form of American greatness, the Great Military Power, piling up dead bodies throughout the Middle East. Of course, this supposedly honest conservative project entailed lying to the public about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Still, however imperiled, the idea of a respectable intellectual conservatism devoted to American greatness lives on, at least in the minds of conservatives who fancy themselves respectable thinkers. You’ll find them mostly in the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party, keeping the flame of conservative thought alight for the next generation. Kristol and Brooks may be the most famous Never-Trumper pundits, along with Bret Stephens and Ross Douthat, the house conservatives of the New York Times op-ed page. All of them, like scores of others in think tanks, academia, and the right-wing media, spent years arguing for the kind of reactionary politics pushed during the Reagan and Bush years, only to be appalled by the direction those politics took under Trump. But no one exemplifies the turn from punch-drunk militance to chastened sobriety on the intellectual right quite as perfectly as former National Review editor Jonah Goldberg.
Think about it: Who has been as good as Goldberg at maintaining that William F. Buckley-esque pretense of well-read, affable intelligence, posturing as a superego of history-dad facts and “common sense” bridged above the chaotic, churning, right-wing id? Who has been as dramatically horrified by conservative excesses? Who has been as ill-equipped to see where and when he championed the exact same ideas now embraced by the cruelest and most conspiracy-minded members of Congress? Whose body of work so perfectly demonstrates ever-confident incoherence about what, exactly, is supposed to make America great?
If you’re unfamiliar with Goldberg’s career, he is the nepo baby of Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent who advised Linda Tripp to tape-record conversations with Monica Lewinsky and then pushed evidence of Bill Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky into public view. Jonah Goldberg has spent most of his adult life in conservative media, moving from one sinecure to another. In 2008, he published Liberal Fascism, the cover of which featured a smiley face with a Hitler mustache. The book purported to tell the “secret history” of the American left, from Mussolini to “the politics of meaning,” a dig at Hillary Clinton (the subtitle was later updated to “the politics of change,” a dig at Barack Obama). The argument was not subtle: leftists and progressive liberals, Goldberg claimed, were the true fascists and always had been.
The book sold well. It was ammunition for a growing right-wing conviction during the Obama years that liberals were more than just the political opposition: they were in fact the deadly, murderous enemies of democracy, and the right would need to act accordingly to “take our country back.” Ten years later, Goldberg’s less popular book Suicide of the West would bemoan this incivility and the rise of Republican populism, as if he’d had nothing at all to do with it. These days, Goldberg’s primary allegiance is to the subscription-based conservative site The Dispatch, where he appears on its many podcast episodes and wonders where his America went.
Facts Don’t Care about Your Feelings
Even when Liberal Fascism first debuted in 2008, it was plain that Goldberg’s argument was designed to produce inflammatory publicity rather than serious conversation. As part of the press tour for Liberal Fascism, Goldberg appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show for an antagonistic promo spot. His six-minute interview (cut down from eighteen minutes) quickly went viral as one of those funny but ultimately useless demolitions of conservative incoherence that were so popular at the time—and mistaken for a form of resistance to power. In the moment, it was reasonable to think that Stewart’s satirical skewering might actually be an effective weapon against the Bush-era consensus. Four years earlier, Stewart had gone on Crossfire, the left/right debate show then hosted by Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, to call Begala and Carlson partisan hacks who were engaged in dishonest political theater; the show was canceled not long after.
He reveals that his real goal in writing Liberal Fascism was to make left-leaning people feel bad for calling him a fascist.
Stewart gave a commanding performance—it was as if he’d snatched Tucker’s bowtie on live television—but of course, Carlson wasn’t defeated for long, and he has since returned with horrible force, becoming one of the most dangerous right-wing demagogues of this era. On his own show, Stewart didn’t succeed in hobbling Goldberg any more than he did Carlson. Many conservatives (including Carlson) still treat liberalism as the one true threat to freedom. Who is the source of all of America’s problems? Goldberg and Carlson blamed everything on that irrational, unreasonable, internal enemy: the left and the libs, who are trying to control the rest of us with the power of the fascist deep state.
Of course, holding Goldberg solely accountable for the degraded state of conservative discourse would be a rhetorical move too similar to his own—one that would grant him more popular influence than he ever really had. But Liberal Fascism was more than just a harbinger of where the country was headed; it was an early example of an argument style that has become ubiquitous today, on the right and elsewhere: a hyperfocus on particular words and symbols with little attention paid to their historical context or implication, and a politics based entirely on minor social grievances that are inflated into existential threats. Goldberg would almost certainly deny that’s what he did: he would likely say that his enemies are the ones who engage in anti-intellectual grievance response, while he has always been calm and reasonable. But even that mirroring “no, you” technique is a hallmark: projection as protection. Liberal Fascism was like Twitter before Twitter, like corkboard conspiracy mapping before QAnon. The difference is that Goldberg has studiously avoided the appearance of trollishness: on The Daily Show, he defended Liberal Fascism with total seriousness. And the book has all the affect—and the footnotes—of historical scholarship.
Goldberg’s scholarship, insofar as it exists, leads him to claim that fascism is effectively a strain, distillation, or true form of liberalism. By liberalism he doesn’t mean “classical liberalism,” of which he is in favor, but various forms of socialism and the Progressive movement of the twentieth century, of which he is not. To bolster his argument, Goldberg cherry-picks some real socialists who were fascist-curious, and some progressive champions who held racist and eugenicist views. For example, Karl Marx made some disparaging comments about Jews, despite having Jewish ancestry himself, ergo . . . you know. Goldberg rarely takes that “ergo” to a firm conclusion, preferring to damn by association. In the chapter titled “Franklin Roosevelt’s Fascist New Deal,” he explains, apparently in earnest, that Hitler and Roosevelt were alike partly because they used technology in similar ways:
Roosevelt most famously utilized the radio—and the Nazis quickly aped the practice. FDR broke with all tradition to fly to the Democratic National Convention to accept his party’s nomination. The imagery of him flying—a man of action!—rather than sitting on the porch and waiting for the news was electrifying, as was Hitler’s brilliant use of planes, most famously in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
I regret to inform you that the book does not get more intelligent or intelligible than this. It reads like a very long blog post by a self-educated crank, jumping from topic to topic and occasionally repeating itself, juxtaposing the facts in hopes that they will synthesize into sense. The Nazis were interested in organic food, and liberals are interested in organic food; the Nazis were interested in the structure of state education, and liberals are interested in the structure of state education. Goldberg even takes serious note of the Cookie Monster’s switch from “C is for Cookie” to “Cookies Are a Sometimes Food” on Sesame Street—which, he claims, is obvious proof that children’s TV shows “have been instructed to propagandize for healthier living” on “state-run television.” If you think this sounds like conspiratorial thinking, check out Goldberg’s chapter on Hillary Clinton, who, through her promotion of the idea that “it takes a village,” is coming for your children.
Goldberg affirmed during a recent podcast appearance that he would, at this point, rewrite parts of the book, potentially including the section about the Clintons. But he doesn’t seem to have ever fully acknowledged what he wrought or, at the very least, encouraged. It’s not really much of a jump from “Hillary Clinton wants to use the state to take control of your children through their education” to “Hillary Clinton wants to drink your children’s adrenochrome.”
In that same podcast episode—hosted on the Dispatch, the site he cofounded with fellow Iraq War proponent Stephen F. Hayes—Goldberg said that while he doesn’t think it would be profitable to put out a new edition of Liberal Fascism, he would love to do it eventually, since he says he “can still name some critics who wrote some really stupid, stupid things about Liberal Fascism that I would love to revisit, just to grind it into their faces more.” Newt Gingrich, who also made a career of bedeviling the libs, emphasized in his blurb for Liberal Fascism that it would “enrage many people on the left.”
And that’s the key to the whole project: resentment. Goldberg was butthurt before he began. He reveals at the end of Liberal Fascism that his real goal in writing the book was to make left-leaning people feel bad for calling him a fascist: “Ever since I joined the public conversation as a conservative writer, I’ve been called a fascist and a Nazi by smug, liberal know-nothings, sublimely confident of the truth of their ill-informed prejudices. Responding to this slander is, as a point of personal privilege alone, a worthwhile endeavor.” During the contentious Daily Show interview, Jon Stewart commented: “As far as I can see, what you’re saying is you don’t like the ease with which people throw around the word fascism. . . . So what you’ve done is—you’ve basically just done that.” Earlier in the interview, Goldberg had cited the fact that the progressive magazine The New Republic was “openly pro-Mussolini in the 1920s” as evidence of the innate fascism of the left. Stewart just laughed: Goldberg was an editor for the National Review from 1998–2019, a magazine that was pro-Pinochet until the fascist dictator died in 2006, and even published an exonerating obituary. Goldberg himself jumped in on the occasion to argue that “Iraq Needs a Pinochet.” The Chilean dictator clamped down on civil liberties and “dispatched souls,” Goldberg wrote. “But on the plus side,” he argued, “Pinochet’s abuses helped create a civil society.”
Still, it was rude for people to call him fascist.
One of the Good Ones
Things went better for Goldberg when he appeared on Trevor Noah’s iteration of The Daily Show in 2018 to promote Suicide of the West. Noah offered little pushback and never once tried to make him feel bad. In fact, Noah called Goldberg “one of the good ones” and said that the book “makes me think, it engages with ideas.” The ideas are, incidentally, that the West is committing suicide by not being appropriately grateful for the magical gifts of capitalism and freedom, gifts the world did not possess until a handful of divinely inspired Europeans invented them. This is not an exaggeration of Goldberg’s argument. At least twice, he points to a graph reprinted from Human Progress (a Cato Institute outfit) that shows a flat line in the world’s GDP from the year 0 to around the 1800s, when there is a sudden dramatic increase. Goldberg argues that before 1700 or so, human life worldwide was nasty, brutish, and short. Once Hobbes and other European thinkers started outlining the problem, human society was soon visited by “the Miracle” (yes, he capitalizes it) of classical liberalism and capitalism, the double Christ of individual political rights and a free-market economy. It’s this divine blessing—and Goldberg personally believes it was divinely gifted—that lifted humanity out of the stupor of our idiotic tribalism, which we are currently slipping back into, because “we are shot through with ingratitude for the Miracle.”
It’s Rousseau and romanticism and feelings which lead us away from the objective Miracle of capitalism and toward the seductive tribalism of socialism and fascism, which to him are inextricably linked.
Suicide of the West is written in a more serious and sober tone than Liberal Fascism or 2012’s Tyranny of Clichés: it has all the feel of an important book. So if any of the content sounds heretical, white supremacist, or flat-out historically inaccurate to you, then you must be ideologically opposed to such important books: you must belong to Goldberg’s new national internal enemy group, the revisionist historians trying to control the story of America. “The ressentiment-drenched intellectuals at the commanding heights of our culture seek to make the story of the Miracle into a Curse,” he writes, “leaving them as the only legitimate storytellers of our civilization.” These resentful leftist intellectuals—living at the commanding heights of our culture despite earning almost $0 for the privilege—always complain about how bad things are, how unhappy some people still manage to be despite the miracle of American capitalism. They won’t accept how good this country already is!
According to Goldberg, climate change is just another one of these complaints: a theory and not a fact, like the Miracle. “Debate climate change all you like,” he insists. “This [GDP graph] is the most important ‘hockey stick’ chart in all of human history.” Of course, when it comes to climate change there’s no actual debate, only the hard, indisputable fact that Goldberg’s beloved industrial capitalism has unleashed an environmental catastrophe that may end organized human civilization as we know it.
It’s ressentiment, probably, to point this out, to offer proof that at least one aspect of the Miracle is, in fact, a curse. It would definitely be ressentiment to demonstrate just how poorly sourced Goldberg’s entire argument is, how the data underlying his beloved GDP graph is obviously, hilariously incomplete. Who would have been collecting accurate GDP data worldwide in the year 0? How would you measure GDP in, say, the Inca Empire or among the member tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy? Is GDP a meaningful standard outside the context of capitalism, and does it actually demonstrate human flourishing within it? This graph, and the ones in Goldberg’s lengthy but useless appendix, prove nothing other than the fact that capitalism did indeed come into being, and subsequently started measuring itself. His data could not be less objective and more partisan; what he mistakes for facts are just more feelings. But Goldberg is very opposed to feelings: in his view, they are redolent of Rousseau and romanticism. It’s Rousseau and romanticism and feelings which lead us away from the objective Miracle of capitalism and toward the seductive tribalism of socialism and fascism, which to him are inextricably linked. “It is my contention that all rebellions against the [classical] liberal order of the Miracle are not only fundamentally romantic in nature but reactionary,” he writes in Suicide of the West. “Romanticism is the voice through which our inner primitive cries out ‘There must be a better way!’ But—spoiler alert!—there isn’t one. Look around, everybody: You’re standing at the end of history.”
If we still appear to have unresolved problems, here at the end of history, that’s a shame, because at this point, there’s simply nothing we can do. Goldberg makes it plain in Suicide of the West that while he dislikes Trump’s style of populism and rudeness, the aggressive anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration were the natural result of liberals’ failure to understand that racism is simply normal, and immigrants must be forcibly corralled in one way or another. “Fear and distrust of strangers is entirely natural,” Goldberg insists. “I do not like the demagoguery and demonization of immigrants that is thriving on the right these days, but the fact is that such responses are a feature of human nature.” If people on the right decide to take their fears about the supposed demographic of Suicide of the West to tastelessly violent extremes (instead of regular violent extremes) then they aren’t morally or intellectually wrong but only uncivilized; they are failing to pump the breaks on the inner, unchangeable human machine. This lack of control is the sort of thing that makes America bad. Obviously, we have to harm the marginalized, but only within acceptable limits, like we did under President Obama. Suicide of the West finds Goldberg edging close to Barack Obama’s “America is already great” slogan, which he used to urge voters to back Hillary Clinton in 2016: America has already been as good as it possibly can get.
At this point, the differences between Clintonism and Never Trumpism seem at best a matter of vibes rather than policy: liberals are imagined to mold their arguments out of squishy compassion, while conservatives believe they stake out hard masculine positions in the territory of the real. But both tend to cite facts alongside generalized feelings about human nature to justify why immigrants must be locked up and prisons must exist. And this two-step of rationality and irrationality remains the dominant mode of political discourse. When people describe the evils of our contemporary political conversation, they often refer to polarization, or to the mockery and name-calling of populist partisans. But the latter usually appear in response to a classic grab for negative attention—the classical liberalism of inflammatory rhetoric if you will—the stubborn insistence of someone making nonsensical arguments based on garden-variety bigotry and a laughable grasp of history that I am being very rational, actually, and all the people calling me stupid obviously can’t handle my genius.
Troll, Heal Thyself
But Jonah Goldberg is one of the “good ones,” per Trevor Noah, because no matter how cruel or irrational his ideas, he presents them nicely. During his appearance on The Daily Show, Noah simply agreed as Goldberg decried “both sides of the political aisle” for promoting “this idea that you can do almost any horrible thing if it annoys the right people.” Goldberg’s whole career, however, is based on annoying people, just as the entire trajectory of conservatism since 2000 or so has been to bedevil the libs. And it worked: I have friends whose conservative parents read Liberal Fascism and loved to cite its out-of-context facts in order to start arguments with their children. The book falls into the same category as Bill O’Reilly’s and Rush Limbaugh’s anecdotes about stupid, hysterical, wicked liberals, or Ann Coulter’s 2007 salvo If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans. These texts allow parents to believe that, actually, it’s our kids, poisoned by the liberal education imposed by the fascist state, who are the stupid ones, and that’s the reason they don’t want to talk to us anymore.
The sneering-but-serious rhetorical style of Goldberg and Gingrich dominated conservatism until it was one-upped by the more radical and intemperate trolling of Dinesh D’Souza, Steve Bannon, and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The only difference between Goldberg and the rest of these more obvious provocateurs might be simply that he has always been a troll who didn’t know he was trolling, a deadly serious clown with no idea he was being laughed at. He opens The Tyranny of Clichés with an anecdote about the kind of “earnest student” at university guest lecturer Q&As who would say into the mic, “Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Goldberg says he decided to write The Tyranny of Clichés because he was furious at the dishonesty of that and other popular clichéd phrases: “The kid is almost surely lying. He’ll take a bullet for me? Really?” But of course the student wasn’t lying; he was mocking. The actual translation of “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is “You’re a fucking dumbass, but this is America, so here we are.”
Every American conservative has an imagined golden era in mind, and Jonah Goldberg’s American apotheosis seems to be the 2000s, which happened to mark the height of his own influence. This was the America where he could be a dumbass in public, and few people would call him on it. The mid-2000s were an apex of conservative power as well; 2004 was the last time the Republicans won the popular vote in a presidential election. Goldberg ends Liberal Fascism by quoting William Buckley’s famous line about standing athwart history and yelling, “Stop!” The aughts are when he needed it to stop, before that golden age came to an end. It’s easy to forget now just how intellectually barren and conformist the Bush era was: Goldberg wrote copiously in favor of the Iraq war and famously semi-endorsed the position that “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” When he argued in his book that progressive liberals were the true warmongers, actually, because of Woodrow Wilson, very few people besides a comedian and some reviewers were willing to call him on it.
That’s the true Miracle of capitalism: that we let a total intellectual fraud like Goldberg write volumes full of irrational, ahistorical nonsense, that we even allow him to give lectures and get paid for it. And this is the same Miraculous generosity we bestow upon a whole class of cranks and fraudsters as long as they declare their positions with confidence, until they are eclipsed by even more shameless cranks. The sneering-but-serious rhetorical style of Goldberg and Gingrich dominated conservatism until it was one-upped by the more radical and intemperate trolling of Dinesh D’Souza, Steve Bannon, and Marjorie Taylor Greene (who might in turn find themselves superseded by top-to-bottom fakes like George Santos). Goldberg may be distressed, as he claims on his podcast, that the right now spends the vast majority of its time locked in a desperate battle to own the libs, but he doesn’t seem to recognize the time he spent and still spends in the trenches of resentment. The American left, he continues to claim, needs to take responsibility for the statements of some politicians who died over fifty years ago, but he doesn’t need to take responsibility for the connection between his own arguments and the GOP’s far-right drift.
If Jon Stewart’s mockery of Tucker Carlson helped create Tucker Carlson as we know him now—the deadly serious demagogue who follows through literally on the arguments that Goldberg and others delicately drop—perhaps Carlson is partly responsible for Goldberg’s turn to Never Trumpism. The Washington Post reported that when Goldberg departed Fox News, he was angry about Carlson’s three-part series Patriot Purge which suggested that the January 6 insurrection was a government plot. But he was also displeased that he’d never been asked to come on Tucker Carlson’s show. The true incivility is not taking Jonah Goldberg seriously. The true fascism is calling Jonah Goldberg a fascist. The best of all possible worlds is the one in which an intellectual fraud can sketch out shadowy connections between disparate facts and be lauded as a genius, and the worst that can happen is that people don’t invite him where he feels he ought to be invited. The rising wave of the Republican Party is one that simply wants to be invited, embracing Trumpism without even the thinnest sketch of policy. Their ideal America is one where they are rich and famous, and in the headlines every day, with great ratings. Jonah Goldberg gazes into that mirror and fails to see himself.