The Bifurcated Tea Party


It deserves the usual admonition that you read through the whole thing, but when consuming Matt Continetti's very smart feature on the Janus-faced Tea Party movement pay particular attention to the section on Glenn Beck, whom he deems "the voice of a reactionary counterculture." Continetti argues, subtly and convincingly, that the Beck strain of conservatism is not unlike its Bircher antecedent—after all, Beck is an acolyte of the turtle-faced crank W. Cleon Skousen, a longtime associate of the John Birch Society—and, in the spirit of William F. Buckley's 1962 ideological "Night of the Long Knives," during which the National Review editor cast the cranks out of the movement, the mainstream right might want to rethink its relationship with Fox News's most popular conspiracy monger.

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…

For Beck, conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you. On his television program, Beck promised to "find out what's true and what's not with the FEMA concentration camps"—referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a federal bureaucracy that chiefly funnels relief funds to victims of natural disasters, and is more commonly (and accurately) thought of as punchless. Beck later acknowledged that his staff could not find any evidence for such camps. Beck has urged his viewers to read The Coming Insurrection, an impenetrable political tract by a French Marxist group called The Invisible Committee that has no clear relationship to U.S. politics (or to reality). In Glenn Beck's Common Sense, the author writes that "efforts are now also being made to empower the State to retain, test, and research the blood and DNA of newborn babies."

I have written previously of the Beck's peculiar version of American history, though haven't revisited his show in some time. So when a colleague from Europe, in town to promote a new book, asked if had seen Beck's latest "investigation" into a shadowy government conspiracy he was calling "Crime Inc.," I headed straight for YouTube and found this video, in which Beck advises his army of viewers to do research on Google (!) and begin uncovering the conspiracy so immense. But don't just send a link, Beck advises, "burn a DVD" and take "screenshots" before Obama's sturmabteilung wipes the Internet clean.

"How do you expose this," Beck asks, with a tinge of panic in his voice, "and live?"

And it's always hyperbolic, heavy-breathing stuff, no matter the subject. I loathe Woodrow Wilson, but was he, as Beck recently announced on his television show, "the most evil dude ever"? Nor am I a fan of the journalist Walter Lippmann, though what of Beck's bizarre claim that the Public Opinion author, whose books are "diabolical," was "almost as evil, if not more evil" than Woodrow Wilson? Continetti picks up the theme:

"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.

Read it all here.