Of Beck and the Birchers

by Daniel Foster

[Warning. This is a very long post.]

This Matthew Continetti  cover story — on Glenn Beck, Rick Santelli, and the Tea Party — from the latest Weekly Standard has recently been the locus of a bit of internecine warfare on the right.

One of Beck’s producers called it “intentionally misleading,” a “collection of lies,” and “a hit piece barely worthy of Media Matters.” He also provided a toll-free number readers could use to cancel their subscriptions to TWS (while bizarrely claiming that he didn’t support boycotts).

Now, Beck and his associates have been known to avail themselves of the full emotive power of the English language to press home points that might have been made a bit less stridently. So I checked out the story to see if the producer was being fair.

The answer is, not really.

Before I get to why, let me first say that there is much I love about what Beck is doing. Anyone who puts Hayek at the top of Amazon is not without his merits. Continetti captures this:

Beck is not simply an entertainer. He and his audience love American history. They are hungry for new ways to interpret current events. And Beck is creating, in Amity Shlaes’s words, “a competing canon” of texts and authorities. This competing canon is not content to assault contemporary liberalism, but rather deconstructs the very foundations of the New Deal and the Progressive Era. Among the books Beck regularly cites on his programs are Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism*, Larry Schweickart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, and Burt Folsom Jr.’s New Deal or Raw Deal? And books like Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths, Seth Lipsky’s Citizen’s Constitution, and William J. Bennett and John Cribb’s American Patriot’s Almanac all belong on the list as well.

For the record, I think Continetti actually underestimates the debt Beck owes to Jonah and Liberal Fascism for the very structure of his critique of progressivism. I trust you’ll believe that it isn’t mere collegiality that compels me to say that that book seems more important with each passing day.

Indeed, Continetti finds much else to admire and respect in Beck. Where he parts ways is on the question of the affinities Beck sees between totalitarianism and progressivism. I excerpt this part of the story at length:

The reason no one can be trusted, Beck says, is that the political system is compromised by the ideology of progressivism. At his keynote speech to the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, Beck wrote the word “progressivism” on a chalkboard and said, “This is the disease. This is the disease in America.” He said again, “Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our Constitution.”

When he refers to progressivism, Beck is not only highlighting the liberals’ latest name for liberalism. He is referring to the ideas of John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. According to Beck (and many others), these early 20th-century thinkers believed that there is no such thing as natural right. The Constitution, in their view, was not equipped to deal with the complexities of modern society. They argued that government should do more to protect free competition by busting trusts, and also promote equality and individual development through redistribution. The progressive tendency found political expression in Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech of 1910 and in Woodrow Wilson’s presidency from 1913-1921. It became the foundation for FDR’s New Deal.

Beck believes progressive ideas infect both parties and threaten to destroy America as it was originally conceived. “Progressivism,” he wrote in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “has less to do with the parties and more to do with individuals who seek to redefine, reshape, and rebuild America into a country where individual liberties and personal property mean nothing if they conflict with the plans and goals of the State.”

By attacking progressivism, Beck is taking on a big idea. He is forcing people to question their assumptions. He is introducing new thinkers to the reading public. But he is also engaging in a line of inquiry that—interesting though it may sometimes be—is tangential to the political realities of our day. And his intellectual inquiries have a purpose: to foster the perception that a benighted American public is being preyed upon by an internationalist conspiracy.

So, the difference between communism and progressivism, Beck argued at CPAC, is “revolution” or “evolution.” In other words, the difference between communism and progressivism is one of means not ends. “There is no difference,” he said, “except one requires a gun and the other does it slowly.”

“Socialism and fascism,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “have been on the rise for two administrations now.” Beck’s book Arguing with Idiots contains a list of the “Top Ten Bastards of All Time,” on which Pol Pot (No. 10), Adolf Hitler (No. 6), and Pontius Pilate (No. 4) all rank lower than FDR (No. 3) and Woodrow Wilson (No. 1). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense Beck writes, “With a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood.”

This is nonsense. Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders’. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.

While Beck’s producer says the whole piece is “a collection of lies,” his criticism is confined almost exclusively to the bolded sentences above, which he says were part of a joke that Continetti has taken out of context. Fair enough, but Continetti’s larger point — that Beck’s likening of progressivism to totalitarianism is paranoid and counterproductive — hardly seems to turn on the Top Ten list.

At this point in the proceedings, by the way, I’m actually halfway between Beck and Continetti. Like Continetti (and like Jonah, for that matter) I think that the unique political culture of America means that European-style totalitarianism would have a much tougher time gaining ground here. Indeed the very existence of the Tea Party is proof of this. But I also think certain — ahem — neoconservative elements of the right are too quick to reflexively beatify the likes of Wilson and Roosevelt, and too selectively blind to the breathtaking statism they advocated.

But then things get weirder, as Continetti spells out Beck’s ties to a Bircher named W. Cleon Skousen and his world of fringe conspiracy theories:

Read and watch enough Glenn Beck, and you realize that he is not only introducing new authors and ideas into public life, he is reintroducing old ideas. Some very old ideas. The notion that America’s leaders are indistinguishable from America’s enemies has a long and sorry history. In the 1950s it led Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society, to proclaim that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist sympathizer. For this, William F. Buckley Jr. famously denounced Welch and severed the Birchers’ ties to mainstream conservatism. The group was ostracized for decades.

But not everyone denounced Welch. One author, the Mormon autodidact W. Cleon Skousen, continued to support the Birchers as he penned books on politics and the American founding. And Skousen continued to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that American political, social, and economic elites were working with the Communists to foist a world government on the United States.

Glenn Beck is a Skousenite. During the “We Surround Them” program, he urged his audience to read Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap (1981), for which he has written a foreword, and The Real George Washington (1991). “The 5000 Year Leap is essential to understanding why our Founders built this Republic the way they did,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. More controversially, Beck has recommended Skousen’s Naked Communist (1958) and Naked Capitalist (1970), which lay out the writer’s paranoid scenarios in detail. The latter book, for example, draws on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (1966), which argues that the history of the 20th century is the product of secret societies in conflict. “Carroll Quigley laid open the plan in Tragedy and Hope,” says a character in Beck’s new novel, The Overton Window. “The only hope to avoid the tragedy of war was to bind together the economies of the world to foster global stability and peace.”

Wanna know more about Skousen? Well, after some pecking around the archives, I found an excellent sketch of his weirder beliefs by NROer Mark Hemingway, penned in 2007 when it emerged that Mitt Romney was also a one-time fan. Some highlights from therein:

– Skousen though the Communists were creating “a regimented breed of Pavlovian men whose minds could be triggered into immediate action by signals from their masters.”

– Skousen thought that criticism of the Mormon church’s policy against priesthood for blacks was a Communism attack.

– Skousen accused the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefellers of conspiring to elect Jimmy Carter and pave the way for One World Government.

By the way, this sort of thing is alive and well today. I received an e-mail not eight hours ago, from a Bircher conspiracy group that I’ll leave unnamed, detailing how the McChrystal firing figures into the Council on Foreign Relations’ plans for World Government:

[Late Bircher] Gary Allen wrote:

Council on Foreign Relations founding father Edward Mandel House had set down his political ideas in his book called “Philip Dru: Administrator” in 1912. In this book House laid out a thinly fictionalized plan for conquest of America by establishing “Socialism as dreamed by Karl Marx.” He described a “conspiracy” – the word is his – which succeeds in electing a US President by means of “deception regarding his real opinions and intentions.” Among other things, House wrote that the conspiracy was to insinuate “itself into the primaries, in order that no candidate might be nominated whose views were not in accord with theirs.” Elections were to become mere charades conducted for the bedazzlement of the booboisie. The idea was to use both the Democrat and Republican parties as instruments to promote World Government.

In 1919 House met in Paris with members of a British “secret society” called The Round Table in order to form an organization whose job it would be to propagandize the citizens of America, England and Western Europe on the globes of World Government. The big selling point, of course was “peace.” The part about the Insiders establishing a world dictatorship quite naturally was left out.[Gary Allen None Dare Call it Conspiracy – Chapter 5 Establishing the Establishment.]

Council on Foreign Relations members have unlawfully and knowingly combined, conspired, and agreed to substantially contribute to the establishment of one world order under the direction and the control of members of Council on Foreign Relations, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, The Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg group and members of their branch organizations in various nations throughout the world. That is totalitarianism on a global scale.

Yup.

In any event, it is surely this association that is the most potentially damning for Beck, and yet his producer doesn’t touch it in his attack on Continetti. If Beck hasn’t been recommending Skousen’s works, come out and say that Continetti got it wrong. If Beck has been recommening Skousen’s works, tell us why that shouldn’t hurt his credibility (a tough case to make).

This cuts right to the core of Continetti’s thesis in that piece –  that the as-yet amorphous Tea Party movement must lead with free-markets and small-government, not conspiracy theories and doom-saying. As I’ve said above, both Beck and I happen to think that conservatives like Continetti are too kind to the post-New Deal order, but whether one sees that order as the well-intentioned but fatally flawed American project, or as the fruits of an Illuminati conspiracy, is surely important to the future of the Tea Party — and the discourse.

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