Why the Totalitarians Among Us Love Lincoln

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by Thomas J. DiLorenzo

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"It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing [political] interests, and render them all subservient to the public good."

~ James Madison, Federalist #10

"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge . . . is itself a frightful despotism."

~ George Washington's Farewell Address

"That government is best which governs least."

~ Thomas Jefferson

One of the distinctive features of my book, The Real Lincoln, is that unlike almost all other books on the subject, I portray the sixteenth president as a real-life, flesh-and-blood politician. I quoted Murray Rothbard, who described Lincoln as a "master politician" which, to Rothbard, meant that he was a masterful liar, conniver, and manipulator. I also quoted the Pulitzer prize-winning Lincoln biographer, David Donald, as saying that Lincoln was "the master string puller" of Illinois politics before he ran for president. He was just as motivated by a compulsive quest for money and power as any other successful politician, I wrote.

This drew an avalanche of condemnation and calumny from the Lincoln cult, especially the "Straussian" neocons, who never seem to be able to stop raising money to erect more statues of Lincoln on college campuses and elsewhere. Even if Lincoln was a wily politician, they condescendingly pontificated, one must first be a politician before become a "statesman."

All of this has changed. Various neocons are now celebrating the fact that Lincoln was exactly as I portrayed him as being: a lying, conniving, manipulating politician. In doing so they have finally removed their masks and revealed themselves to be totalitarian-minded fascists whose beliefs are patently un-American, if one compares their beliefs to those of Washington, Madison and Jefferson as quoted at the top of this article. The vehicle for the new neocon celebration of Lincolnian political chicanery is Steven Spielberg's new Lincoln movie.

Exhibit A of this totalitarian mindset is a November 22 New York Times article by David Brooks entitled "Why We Love Politics." (Can you imagine Washington, Madison, or Jefferson ever saying such a childish thing?). Compared to the traditional American ideal of limited constitutional government as espoused by the founding fathers, Brooks continues to advocate virtually unlimited government by praising to the treetops the "nobility of politics" that is portrayed in Steven Spielberg's new "Lincoln" movie. Rather than warning of "the violence of [political] faction," as James Madison did, Brooks declares that "you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere." Of course, "you" can also create great "enormities" through politics, as George Washington warned in his farewell address. The Holocaust and the South African Apartheid system were both government programs, after all, to name just two examples. Politics protected and even subsidized American slavery for generations, let us not forget. It has plunged us into myriad unnecessary wars, and all the death and destruction that goes with it.

"Politics is the best place to develop the highest virtues," Brooks argues, while denigrating "young people especially" who he sneers at for being concerned more with community service than national politics. And what are these "virtues" according to David Brooks? They are on display in the Spielberg movie, he says, with all of Lincoln's political maneuverings. He heaps mountains of praise on Lincoln for being so willing to "bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical;" to "take morally hazardous action"; to "ignore court decisions, dole out patronage, play legalistic games," and "deceive . . . supporters." The "highest virtues" indeed, New York Times style.

In The Road to Serfdom F.A. Hayek pointed out that a characteristic of a totalitarian mindset, one that distinguishes it from individualism, is a belief in the notion that "the ends justify the means." All of the worst totalitarians of Hayek's day espoused this view, from Stalin to Hitler and Mussolini. To Stalin, the end of a "communist paradise" was said to justify any means — even the murder of tens of millions of dissenters. Petty totalitarians like David Brooks, who would probably never personally harm a fly, also espouse this dangerous, anti-social ideology and urge the rest of us to do so as well. Getting the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, the main theme of the Spielberg movie, is said to have been "justified" by any means.

But the Spielberg Lincoln movie gets its history completely upside down. The main story line is how Lincoln supposedly utilized every bit of his political sleaziness to help get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress. This is a fiction. It never happened according to the preeminent Lincoln scholar of our time, Harvard University's David Donald (See page 554 of his Pulitzer prize-winning biography of Lincoln). In fact, the opposite was true: The genuine abolitionists in Congress had to use their political powers to get Lincoln to voice his support for the Thirteenth Amendment. Spielberg's movie, based on the book Team of Rivals by the confessed plagiarist Doris Kearns-Goodwin, is an extraordinarily misleading work of fiction. (See my LRC review of Goodwin's book entitled "A Plagiarist's Contribution to Lincoln Idolatry").

Lest the reader believe that I am exaggerating by using the word "fascism" to describe the political views of neocons like David Brooks, consider this: Among the defining characteristics of twentieth-century European fascism were militarism; a worshipful attitude toward the state and politics; the denigration of individual liberty, free enterprise, and the civil society; dictatorial executive branch powers; and a philosophy of "the common good before self interest." These are also the defining characteristics of self-described "national greatness conservatives" like David Brooks and William Kristol, and they explain why they are such Lincoln idolaters.

"Politics is noble because it involves personal compromise for the public good," Brooks writes in his New York Times column, echoing the sentiments of Mussolini himself. "The fascist conception of life, Benito Mussolini wrote in Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (p. 10), "stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with the State." German fascism was based on the identical philosophy of "the common good comes before the private good." In German, "Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigenntz." Under fascism "the common good" was defined for the public by politicians and their advisors. The public never had any voice in defining what was supposedly good for it.

In a 1997 Weekly Standard cover article Brooks condemned genuine, limited-government conservatives as being "besotted with localism, local communities, and the devolution of power." He advocated an unlimited expansion of the powers of the federal government for any reason because, he said, "energetic government is good for its own sake." War — any war — would be the most desirable way to create this "good" according to neocons like David Brooks. All of this "greatness" is now on display in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

In a 1997 Wall Street Journal article co-authored with William Kristol Brooks advocated compulsory "national service" for all American youths; a "mission" to Mars, and endless foreign policy interventionism. "It almost doesn't matter what great task government sets for itself," they wrote. For "ultimately, American purpose can find its voice only in Washington."

This is an incredibly totalitarian statement, implying that there is such a thing as one single "American voice." In reality, of course, there are millions of different "voices" in a democracy where there is never unanimous opinion on anything. That is why there is no such thing as "the public interest" in the context of democratic politics. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in Liberalism, one can argue that such institutions as private property are in "the public interest" in that they benefit the entire society, but this is never true of government policy. The language of "American purpose" presumes the opposite — that there is such a thing as unanimous political opinion.

It is statements such as these that explain why all of the totalitarians in our midst, i.e., those who wish to control our every behavior through government, have such a wildly celebratory attitude toward the Spielberg Lincoln movie. Left-wing propagandists like Doris Kearns-Goodwin, author of hagiographies of Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys, and Lincoln, and right-wing propagandists like David Brooks and his fellow neocons, are all part of a phony "team of rivals" who pose as political competitors. In reality, they all are part of an establishment cabal that views those of us who are "besotted" with ideas about liberty and freedom as their true enemies and roadblocks to their own personal wealth and glory disguised by the language of "national greatness" and mythical and false accounts of American history.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe, How Capitalism Saved America, and Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today. His latest book is Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government.

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