On October 25 and 26, the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) sponsored Dr. Paul Gottfried, Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus, Elizabethtown College, for a series of talks, two on the Hamilton College campus. On Wednesday morning, October 25, he discussed conservatism in the United States in a seminar “Modern Conservative Politics,” taught by AHI resident fellow Dr. David Frisk. In the afternoon, Dr. Gottfried was invited to speak on his recent book Fascism: The Career of a Concept (2016) in a course, “Nazi Germany,” taught by Hamilton College professor Alfred Kelly. On Thursday evening, October 26, AHI hosted a Leadership Dinner during which undergraduates, faculty, and local citizens, using a prescribed chapter from Gottfried’s book Fascism, conversed on the meaning of totalitarianism and on the similarities and differences between Nazism, fascism, and communism. Disruptive protests greeted Gottfried at his two appearances at Hamilton College.
In the morning seminar, Gottfried passed through a gauntlet of about twenty protestors. They regarded his appearance on campus as “unacceptable” and charged him with “hate speech” and being a “white nationalist.” Dr. Frisk provided them, to the extent that space in the classroom would allow, an opportunity to enter and hear what Gottfried had to say on conservatism as well as to devote the majority of time to questions about his positions on various subjects, including race, Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, and the election of Donald Trump. On the subject of modern conservative politics, Gottfried brings unquestioned expertise as a participant in many key events and as an intellectual force on the right. He knew personally many of the heavy-hitters who joined with William F. Buckley to form National Review. Gottfried kept company with President Richard Nixon, served in the Reagan administration, and as an éminence grise of the so-called paleoconservative movement, has garnered attention as a prominent critic of neoconservatism. Gottfried coined the term “alternative right” and has shed light on how this complicated phenomenon developed and on the various elements of which it is composed. In a scholarly career that spans more than a half century, Gottfried has published more than a dozen scholarly books and hundreds of articles.
In the afternoon class, Gottfried once again passed through a gauntlet of protestors to speak on the history of twentieth-century fascism, its origins in Mussolini’s Italy, and the characteristics that distinguish fascism from Nazism and communism. In accord with the German scholar Ernst Nolte, Gottfried called fascist movements “counterrevolutionary imitations of leftist revolution.” He also spent time deciphering the promiscuous application of the word “fascism,” by both the right and the left, in the postmodern culture wars. As was the case in the morning class, Gottfried spent much of the time answering questions, no matter how pointed or off-topic, civilly and thoughtfully, from students not enrolled in the class.
In the morning class on modern conservative politics, Dr. Gottfried described the evolution of the term “conservative” in the United States. Few intellectuals before 1950, he explained, would have identified themselves as “conservative”; those who appeared conservative tended to see themselves instead as “classical liberals.” William F. Buckley, Gottfried agreed, stands as the primary “architect” of the modern conservative movement. Buckley transformed it by holding disparate tendencies together and by purging isolationists, members of the John Birch Society, and others elements he deemed too extreme. What united various strains of right-of-center thinkers during the Cold War was the ideological and political threat of communism.
Conservative groups attached to the Republican Party eventually attained its own media outlets via Fox News, talk radio, and syndicated columnists. These forces have helped shape the establishment right or what Gottfried calls “Conservatism Inc.” In Gottfried’s opinion, Ronald Reagan was an “establishment Republican” who did little to change the “deep state.” “No Republican, said Gottfried, “talked as boldly as 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater did. Republicans learned their lesson after [the disastrous Republican defeat in] 1964.” In last year’s presidential election, however, Donald Trump emerged representing a “populist insurgent movement” that replaced the “Old Guard” of Republicans like the Bush family.
During the expanded question-and-answer part of the class, Gottfried expressed his agreement that radical Islam had replaced communism as a central unifying concern, but expressed dismay with the capitulation of conservatives on many social issues. “Their ‘values game’ is a fraud,” he said, noting the adoption by allegedly right-wing pundits and politicians of left-liberal positions on immigration, confederate monuments, and any number of other issues. Gottfried contended that the real reason William F. Buckley had purged the John Birch Society was because they did not support the Vietnam War. The purported reason was their anti-Semitism and racism, which in truth, Gottfried maintained, were largely “baseless smears.” A descendant of a Hungarian Jewish family that fled the twin terrors of Hitler and Stalin, Gottfried also remarked on the fact that only Western countries, the product of the most self-critical civilization in history, have felt the need to express guilt for past racism. It does not happen in Muslim or Eastern European societies. But targets are selective. Victims of communism are rarely even acknowledged. Racial injustices, he noted, are committed everywhere, but “we are the only ones who try to rectify them.” Expanding on a thesis that he has developed in his scholarship, Gottfried argued that the guilt comes from Protestant Christianity and is transmuted in a post-Christian society from “Christian guilt” to “social guilt.” Designated victim groups are being used as weapons by liberal whites in a “civil war” with other, conservative, whites.
Gottfried is often credited with inventing the term “alt-right.” Its coinage actually began with a speech he gave, entitled “The Alternative Right.” The term was then shortened by others to “alt-right.” Over the years new characteristics, such as racialism, have been attached to it. The number of those who identify themselves with the alt-right in its current manifestation, said Gottfried, is miniscule. Gottfried dismissed many of the leading alt-right figures as clowns and buffoons and worried more about how groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center inflate the alt-right to raise gobs of money and smear good people who as traditionalists are legitimately concerned about the loss of their heritage. For Gottfried, the “non-aligned right” or “dissenting right” identifies those who have criticized “Conservatism Inc” for its abandonment of defensible traditions and foreign-policy adventurism in trying to remake the world in the image of the United States.
In the afternoon class on Hitler’s Germany, Gottfried began by chatting with several students in German (one of several languages in which he is fluent). He shared what he learned in his 40 years of experience in gathering material for the book, underscoring the important methodological point that in the practice of history, studies closest in time to the event may actually be far better in revealing what happened than those works published by scholars decades or generations later. Gottfried delved into the historiography of fascism. He described the strengths and weaknesses of those he considered to be the leading scholars and thinkers on the subject, including Stanley Payne and Ernst Nolte. In contrast, he called Jonah Goldberg’s 2008 bestseller, Liberal Fascism, a “horrible book.” He condemned Goldberg’s deliberate confusion of fascism with Nazism as a form of name-calling. For Gottfried, fascism arose in the special circumstances of interwar Europe in Latin countries with strong Catholic traditions. Nazism possessed a violent, totalitarian bent that Mussolini’s fascism did not. While Franco’s Spain had a “family resemblance,” Nazism was “a highly eclectic” movement that had little in common with Italian fascism. While the Italian system was statist and authoritarian, the German was totalitarian, anti-Semitic, and party-based.
Topics discussed during the question-and-answer period included concern about the current growth of the administrative state, the use made by the state of political correctness to silence debate, Hitler’s hatred of Jews and Slavs, Communist Yugoslavian leader Josef Tito’s extermination of 100,000 Yugoslavians (on a proportional scale worse than that of Stalin’s crimes), and the dangerous use of international tribunals for war crimes because of their tendency to become politicized. In response to a question about Richard Spencer and the alt-right, Gottfried explained that Spencer had changed over the years and has adopted repellant views and tactics. He described Spencer as an advocate of state power and “a socialist,” contrary to the portrayals of him in the media.
At the Leadership Dinner, AHI Executive Director Robert Paquette introduced Gottfried as an impressively erudite, “first-rate European intellectual historian” whom the great historian Eugene Genovese, an AHI academic adviser before his death in 2012, had attempted to hire when building the graduate program at the University of Rochester in the 1960s and 1970s into one of the best in the country. “There are colleagues at Hamilton College,” Paquette observed, “from whom I have learned absolutely nothing over the course of decades. I have never entered into an intensive conversation with Paul without finding it stimulating and challenging.” During his stay, Gottfried announced that he will be donating to AHI his extensive correspondence with Genovese.
At the Leadership Dinner, Gottfried elaborated further on his understanding of fascism and engaged in a lively give-and-take with students and other guests. Students learned that Gottfried’s mentor at Yale University was the left-wing icon Herbert Marcuse, one of the doyen’s of the Frankfurt School of cultural Marxists. Gottfried described Marcuse as a learned professor, demanding teacher, and fair-minded mentor—in sharp contrast to the kind of left-wing scholars who today politicize their classrooms and suppress debate on controversial issues. Gottfried revealed that his favorite historian was the ancient Greek general, Thucydides. “Sometimes the best histories are by eyewitnesses,” he remarked. AHI is currently sponsoring for the entire academic year a reading cluster on Thucydides at Colgate University.
When Gottfried was asked if he thought fascism could make a comeback as a serious political movement, Gottfried replied probably not, for fascism was “a historical phenomenon limited to a time and place.” It was not internationalist, like communism. When asked by a student if his Jewish background had an impact on his views, Gottfried replied “not particularly,” although his parents had been driven out of Germany by the Nazis, and then went to Italy and Spain. Hitler was a “nihilist revolutionary,” who claimed that the Marxists didn’t go far enough; Nazism actually attracted leftists. In terms of what led to the rise of Nazism, Gottfried pointed to President Wilson’s disastrous attempt at democratic nation-building. Because Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic was seen as a regime imposed on the German people. In Gottfried’s opinion, a constitutional monarchy would have worked better.
In contrast, post-war Italy was neo-fascist and “no one cared.” In fact, neo-fascist regimes were supported by the CIA. Anti-fascist ideology came about in the late 1960s as a result of the rise of the New Left. Critics who call the present Trump administration “fascist” are employing the techniques of the communists who called all anti-communists fascists, including Trotsky and social democrats. Today, “’fascist’ means ‘we don’t like you,’” said Gottfried. Such name-calling is “opportunist, dishonest mudslinging.”
On today’s college campuses, the “totemic” phrase is “social justice,” a term waved like a flag by every totalitarian movement that has sought state power. Demands for tolerance, a word that once meant the capacity to endure suffering, have shifted to demands not only for accommodation to one or another group’s alternative lifestyles, but to their acceptance and active celebration. Those who disagree or criticize with what is being promoted, no matter how unhealthy the “lifestyle” or detrimental to public morality or a social good, risks being labeled as a purveyor of “hate speech.” Invariably, conservatives are the ones tagged as “haters,” and the expansion of the category by progressives to any group with whom they have political disagreement in practicing identity politics seems to have no end. Asked if President Trump was having any effect, Gottfried replied that he was “indirectly because he offends leftist elites.” He would have more impact, though, if he could show more restraint and express himself more articulately.
Gottfried’s appearance elicited from Hamilton College’s government department an all-campus announcement condemning “racist remarks allegedly made by Gottfried,” although, as the signatories candidly admitted, without having all the facts at their disposal, for they were “still learning about what transpired.” In response to the government department’s communication, AHI Executive Director Robert Paquette wrote department chairman Philip Klinkner saying, “I am the one–and I alone–who is responsible for bringing Paul [Gottfried] here and setting up his classroom visitations.” Paquette then recited to Klinkner Gottfried’s impressive credentials in making him a fit visitor in both classes. Noting that Paul Gottfried and Angela Davis shared the same mentor, Herbert Marcuse, Paquette wondered why there was no “breast-beating and self-righteous indignation in your department when Angela Davis came to Hamilton College for what was likely a five-figure fee? Can you find for me one statement–just one–in her long career during which she denounced the millions of bodies, the majority non-white, piled up in the name of Communism? Indeed, quite the opposite. Hamilton College rolled out the red carpet for this Communist stooge, winner of the Lenin Peace [sic!] prize (1979), complicit in the murder of a sitting judge, and feted here like a queen. [See here and here] I need not go into all the other loony rent-a-radicals who have marched through this place with big paydays saying outrageous, deeply offensive things [without complaint from the government or any other Hamilton College department]. Should any of your colleagues want an explanation as to why I brought Paul Gottfried here, I eagerly await. My office is 320 library, and I am typically there in the morning seven days a week.”
By Mary Grabar, AHI Resident Fellow