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 protesters. 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 protesters 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.
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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.