While reading about the “American Exceptionalism: Does Obama believe in it?” debate, I came across this interview with Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism.
First of all, Goldberg asserts that we as a country are patriotic, not nationalistic. I disagree. I believe every country has its patriots and nationalists. I have been for a long time using Orwell’s definition of the difference:
“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation…”
However, it would be unfair not to also take into account Goldberg’s definition from Liberal Fascism:
“Patriots revere ideas, institutions, and traditions of a particular country and its government. The watchwords for nationalists are ‘blood’, ‘soil’, ‘race’, ‘Volk‘, and so forth.”
This definition, I think, makes it too easy to categorize Nationalists as simple racists. This fails to address phenomena such as “Civic Nationalism” (sometimes called “Liberal Nationalism”) which is not a racist ideology. (To be fair to Goldberg, in the relevant passage he is mainly discussing Hitler, who was a racist as well as a Nationalist.)
But since the original question was “Is American Exceptionalism Fascist?”, then it is neccesary to figure out what “Fascism” really is. Goldberg calls it a “religion of the State”–meaning people worship the government, not any God. This is a weak definition, in my opinion, because even in Fascist Italy, the Church was not replaced; it merely allied with the Fascist government.
Broadly speaking, Fascism is a kind of Socialism for Nationalists. (It is no coincidence that people equate the “National Socialists” of Germany with Fascism.) Again, to quote from Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism:
“Socialism was predicated on the Marxist view that ‘workers’ as a class were more bound by common interests than any other criteria. Implicit in the slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ was the idea that class was more important than race, nationality, religion, language, culture, or any other ‘opiate’ of the masses… What was then called socialism was really just a kind of socialism: International Socialism. Mussolini was interested in creating a new socialism, a socialism in one state, a national socialism…”
The Nation, therefore, was the unit which the Socialistic policies were to benefit. Indeed, socialism is really just a kind of sacrificing of the individual to the whole (“the greater good”) and therefore is implicit in nationalism, militarism or indeed almost any kind of team effort.
Indeed, Mussolini was not alone in tying Socialist ideas to National tradition. In 1919, the German philosopher Oswald Spengler, sometimes called a “proto-Nazi”, wrote in Prussiandom and Socialism:
“We now face the task of liberating German socialism from Marx. I say German socialism, for there is no other. This, too, is one of the truths that no longer lie hidden. Perhaps no one has mentioned it before, but we Germans are socialists. The others cannot possibly be socialists…The spirit of Old Prussia and the socialist attitude, at present driven by brotherly hatred to combat each other, are in fact one and the same.”
Now, Goldberg believes that this idea of “American exceptionalism” makes us immune to fascism because what makes America exceptional is people’s general resistance to governmental authority. Therefore, Goldberg reasons, we could never be a “religion of the state” because Americans, unlike most people, are hostile to the state.
One problem with American exceptionalism seems, superficially, to be merely a matter of etiquette. It is one thing for a foreigner to say America is exceptional; quite another for an American to say it. At a high-level, it is the difference between someone telling you “You’re very intelligent” and you yourself saying you’re very intelligent. (Incidentally, it was Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, who was the first to articulate the idea that America was exceptional.)
But the issue is deeper than simple manners. The real issue is that, if we suppose that America is an exceptional nation–or, perhaps more accurately, that the American people are an exceptional people–there is still the matter of how it came about. Is it earned or inherent? More specifically: are Americans supposed to be exceptional by virtue of the principles of our Constitution? Or is it a more mystical thing?
If we Americans are supposed to be exceptional purely because we are Americans, then there is a kind of mystical theory at work here–we are dealing in terms of the “People” and the “Soil” once again. (I must choose my words carefully here, else I shall have to order myself to quit comparing everyone to the Nazis.)
Goldberg is probably correct that Americans are more instinctively hostile to government than most. Yet, this is not always the case. After all, didn’t most people readily believe the government’s worst-case claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?
Recall also, the fact that it was Europeans–the French and the Germans–who were most mocked for resisting the administration’s claims. It was un-American to oppose the war; it was French. (Remember “Freedom Fries”?)
I suspect, moreover, that the same people who believed that the Iraq invasion was justified on the grounds of WMD possession are currently the ones who are most distrustful of the government. And I suspect this is because they are Republicans, and therefore are inclined to believe a Republican administration and distrust a Democratic one. Call it a Leap of Faith, if you like.
Goldberg is not wrong when he says that American exceptionalism is not fascism. It is true that if we adhere to “American exceptionalism” purely as a sort of ultra-individualist/libertarian creed to always question authority, then that would be a good defense against an authoritarian regime or a too-powerful government.
The problem is, we can’t all be anti-government all the time. When Republicans are in power, Republicans generally are willing to go along with the expansion of government power, especially when it comes to National Defense. When Democrats are in, they are willing to go along with it to expand the welfare state.
As I’ve said before, I’ve come to realize that when either Party is out of power, it uses the Libertarians to its advantage; then casts them aside when it retakes power. The Libertarians have seemingly failed to notice this thus far. And I think that Goldberg, who is more of a Libertarian than a straight-up Social Conservative/Nationalist, is willfully blind to this.
Ultimately, whether or not belief in American Exceptionalism is Nationalist (which is a more accurate word than “fascism”) depends on the reason one believes America to be exceptional. If one means only that America is unique among nations, that is not Nationalistic. (Of course, all nations are “unique” in some way. That’s why they’re nations.) Likewise, if one means something about the behavior of American people, anti-government or otherwise, than this also need not be nationalistic.
It is when we get to the mystical or super/preternatural reasons for American exceptionalism; what we might call “Inherent American Exceptionalism”, that it takes on the resemblance to a nationalist movement.