by Sean Wilentz
from the New Yorker
A few months ago, the cable-television and radio host Glenn Beck began his Fox News show with one of his favorite props: a pipe clenched between his teeth. “I’ve got my pipe,” he told his audience, his speech slightly muddled by the stem, “because we’re going to speak about schoolish kind of things.” The theme of the day was “Restoring History,” and Beck, looking professorial in a neat dark blazer and a pink button-down shirt, began the lesson by peering at a stack of history textbooks and pronouncing them full of falsehoods, produced by “malicious progressive intent.” Progressives, he explained—liberals, socialists, Communists, the entire spectrum of the left—“knew they had to separate us from our history to be able to separate us from our Constitution and God.” For the next hour, Beck earnestly explained some of the history that “is being stolen from us”: the depression of 1920, for example, or how conservative economics saved the nation from the “near-depression” of 1946—crises that progressives don’t want you to know about. “You’ve been taught one lie, I think, your whole life,” he said.Continue reading HERE
For the fractious Tea Party movement, Beck—a former drive-time radio jockey, a recovering alcoholic, and a Mormon convert—has emerged as both a unifying figure and an intellectual guide. One opinion poll, released in July by Democracy Corps, showed that he is “the most highly regarded individual among Tea Party supporters,” seen not merely as an entertainer, like Rush Limbaugh, but as an “educator.” And in the past few months Beck has established his own institute of learning: the online, for-profit Beck University. Enrollees can take courses like Faith 102, which contends with “revisionists and secular progressives” about the separation of church and state; Hope 102, an attack on the activist federal government; and the combined Charity 101/102/103, a highly restrictive interpretation of rights, federalism, and the division of powers.
During the “Restoring History” episode, Beck twice encouraged viewers to join his Web seminars, where they can hear “lessons from the best and brightest historians and scholars that we could find.” The B.U. faculty consists of three members, including one bona-fide academic, James R. Stoner, Jr., the chair of the political-science department at Louisiana State University; the other two are the head of a management consulting firm and the founder of WallBuilders, which the Web site calls “a national pro-family organization.” Beck himself often acts as a professor, a slightly jocular one, on his Fox News program. Surrounded by charts and figures, he offers explanations of current politics and history lessons about the country’s long march to Obama-era totalitarianism. The decline, he says, began with the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, in particular with the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, when both the Federal Reserve System and the graduated federal income tax came into existence. “Wilson,” Beck told his radio audience in August, “just despised what America was.”
Beck’s claims have found an audience among Tea Party spokesmen and sympathizers. At the movement’s Freedom Summit in Washington last September, one activist told a reporter, “The election between Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 was when it started going downhill.” And in April an angry member of the Tea Party Patriots group from Cape Fear, North Carolina, claimed on the group’s Web site that “the very things you see happening in this country today started with the Wilson Administration.”
At a Tax Day rally this past spring, the veteran conservative organizer Richard Viguerie described the Tea Party as “an unfettered new force of the middle class.” And, indeed, calling Obama a socialist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson is audacious enough to seem like the marker of a new movement—or, at least, a new twist in the nation’s long history of conspiracy-mongering. In fact, it marks a revival of ideas that circulated on the extremist right half a century ago, especially in the John Birch Society and among its admirers.
Beck’s version of American history relies on lessons from his own acknowledged inspiration, the late right-wing writer W. Cleon Skousen, and also restates charges made by the Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch. The political universe is, of course, very different today from what it was during the Cold War. Yet the Birchers’ politics and their view of American history—which focussed more on totalitarian threats at home than on those posed by the Soviet Union and Communist China—has proved remarkably persistent. The pressing historical question is how extremist ideas held at bay for decades inside the Republican Party have exploded anew—and why, this time, Party leaders have done virtually nothing to challenge those ideas, and a great deal to abet them.
The early nineteen-sixties were a turbulent time in American politics, for the right wing in particular. In the South, racist violence against civil-rights workers was constant, deepening sectional splits in the Democratic Party that would in time deliver the once solidly Democratic South to the Republicans. Southern elected officials, in support of what they called “massive resistance” to civil-rights laws and judicial rulings, resurrected the ideas of nullification and interposition, which claimed that individual states could void federal laws within their own borders. Others focussed on what they considered a fearsome Communist menace inside the United States. General Edwin A. Walker caused an enormous stir when he resigned from the Army in 1961, after President John F. Kennedy’s Pentagon reprimanded him for spreading right-wing propaganda among his troops and accusing prominent American officials of Communist sympathies. Senator Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat from South Carolina, spoke for many on the far right when he declared that various modestly liberal domestic programs “fall clearly within the category of socialism.”