So Jonah’s engaged in a debate about Wilson and Wilsonianism with a C.K. McLeo
nd. [My bad. —ŒV]
McLeod seems to recoil at the conservative critique of Wilson because Wilson was a president of the United States who had a number of consequential and praiseworthy accomplishments. There’s no reason to minimize the good things that Wilson did, but to miss his place as probably the purest exponent and practitioner of Progressivism in its most lurid form—a doctrine not only at odds with but actively opposed to the classical Liberal principles enshrined in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence—or to minimize his flaws and, arguably, crimes because he was president? That’s patriotic, but not historical.
Moreover, his defenses of Wilson on minor issues are not entirely convincing. In calling Wilson a fascist, Jonah is not arbitrarily smearing him by association with notorious “warmongers” (though Wilson was rather keen on WWI, now that you mention it, and giddily redrew the map of Europe ideologically; self-determination may be good or bad, but it’s an ideological principle). Rather, he‘s attempting to demonstrate the authoritarian aspects of Wilsonian war socialism are not only similar in practice but rooted in the same political-philosophical premises as large parts of the domestic programs of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. (As McLeod acknowledges.)
Jonah is making a descriptive judgment, negative to be sure—and possibly mistaken, of course—but his description of Wilson‘s wartime administration as “fascist” would be much, much less controversial were there a less freighted term, like “authoritarian” or “statist” that also encompassed the ideological commonalities of Progressive War Socialism, the Fascism, and the National Socialism. Still, “fascism” is the unfortunately protean term we have for the phenomenon, and McLeod is unfair to characterize Jonah’s use as egregious. He can consider it mistaken, but any fair reader of Liberal Fascism should see that Jonah’s use of the term is following the approving use of the Progressives of the era. Jonah has so strenuously argued his intentions in this regard in so many fora (including the book) that it’s rather surprising that McLeod decides to attribute bad faith to him rather than a difference of opinion.
If we’re playing a game of “who’s the evil-est,” of course Wilson comes in way, way, way behind even benign dictators like Mussolini. But it’s not trivial or unimportant that those dictators seem to have admired and emulated not only Wilson’s (mostly German) intellectual forebears, but the actual practices of Wilson’s war socialism.
McLeod seems to be making the argument that Wilson was, on some level, a good man (he was president, you see, and founded the FTC) captured by the bad ideas of his day. That’s certainly true to a degree. Whatever his good qualities, Wilson not only helped formulate many of those ideas in academia, but he propagated them and implemented them zealously. Thirty states may have had eugenics laws, but twenty didn’t, and there’s no indication Wilson held his nose when he signed New Jersey’s into law.
An example that seems telling: one may suggest the reason Wilson has caught heat for his introduction of increased segregation in the federal government is because, unlike the Republican presidents who countenanced similar phenomena before and after him, Wilson and his Democratic Party was regarded as having a positive enthusiasm for it, whereas the Republicans—as the party of black Americans—seem to have attempted to accommodate popular enthusiasm for segregation among whites without officially endorsing it.
While hypocrisy is the worst sin of the post-Sixties era, it is in fact the Rochefoucauldian tribute vice pays to virtue. The Republicans knew it was wrong but felt it necessary or desirable in some sense, so they did it shame-facedly under the table without claiming they were doing good; whereas Wilson saw it as a positive good, redress of historical injustice, etc. Should one feel that this description actually favors Wilson, think for a second that it makes FDR‘s anti-Jewish-immigration measures worse sins than Hitler’s Nürnberg Laws. “At least Hitler was honest!” say the hippies, before we punch them in the mouth.
Wilson was convinced that he was improving the government and society through social engineering. (And he probably didn’t want to see a black clerk in a suit carrying a folder when he walked through the OEOB.)
Traditional American anti-black bigotry certainly played a role, but the enthusiasm for the apparatus of segregation and the differentiation of society into legally distinct classes, some favored and some disfavored, is an aggrandizement of government entirely of a piece with the Progressive project.
If, say, the society of the future becomes an anarcho-libertarian state venerating icons of St. Nicholas of Gillespie and Our Lady of Postrel, it may be understandable that people look back and think, “Gee, those affirmative-action laws were just the by-product of some societal bigotries.” And they wouldn’t be wholly wrong, but to ignore the fact that they too are a blunt tool for reengineering society intentionally brought into being by a caste of utopian intellectuals who see themselves as the arbiters of good and with the concomitant right to rule other people…well, that’s missing a huge part of the picture.
As Jonah says, TR is a much better candidate for the good-man-with-bad-ideas role. FDR is as well. I mean, no one’s ever suggested that sans WW2 and some domestic sabotage incidents, he’d have up and decided “Round up those sandal-wearing goldfish tenders!”
Woodrow Wilson is a textbook example of why idea-besotted intellectuals need to be kept far, far away from the levers of power. He had a Messiah complex (though as David Frum once joked to the ŒV, regarding Wilson’s reception in Europe after the war, “It’s hard not to believe you’re the Messiah when everyone’s telling you you are!”) and an illiberal ideological project which he pushed—not only riding the wave of war fever and jingoism but stoking it as it was a crisis far too good to waste, as it allowed him and his fellow illuminati* the opportunity to jettison the aspects of constitutional government they despised.
If Glenn Beck goes bonkers in his denunciations of Wilson as the American Satan®, McLeod is erring too far on the side of making Wilson a passive object of historical forces. Wilson was an innovator in a number of respects, and his ideas had identifiable heritage. Two of these were German state-centric political philosophy and a reading of American history which held the emancipation of blacks to have been a huge mistake. If we can’t condemn Wilson for not only adopting but actively advancing these ideas in practice, we can’t really condemn anyone for anything.
*Not to be confused with the Bavarian Illuminati. The Volgi used to go drinking with Adam Weishaupt. Fun guy, but a piker at world domination…