Glenn Beck is taking some withering fire from an unlikely corner. Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard has written a lengthy piece devoted, in part, to dismantling Beck's warped view of history and progressivism, at various points calling Beck's rhetoric "nonsense," "radically adversarial," and marked by "conspiracism." He also goes to great lengths to explain Beck's connections to the paranoid anti-communist movement of the 20th century, in particular his affinity for "the Mormon autodidact W. Cleon Skousen." For more on Skousen's toxic worldview and Beck's appreciation for it, click here and here.
Continetti's criticisms of Beck are old hat, but the context in which he levels them is interesting. No fan of the progressive cause himself, Continetti is essentially arguing that Beck's goofball antics and rampant conspiracy mongering are so ridiculous as to be self-refuting, and they distract from cogent, reality-based criticisms of today's progressive politics. I can't think of a past instance in which a dyed-in-the-wool conservative has betrayed such exasperation with Beck.
An excerpt from Continetti's piece after the jump.
"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 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."
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." The plot of The Overton Window is one big conspiracy theory in which the United States government, Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and the Trilateral Commission are all plotting an antidemocratic coup. It is a fever-dream that Oliver Stone would envy. "Who needs a list when they can monitor you whenever they want?" says one of the book's characters at a fictional Tea Party rally. "You've all heard of that 'Digital Angel' device that can be implanted under your skin, right? They say it's to store medical information and for the safety of children and Alzheimer's patients." Scary stuff. But also fantastical. In an author's note, Beck says his novel is not fiction but "faction"--"completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact." Which "facts" are those?
Conspiracism is only one reason Beck's populism is self-limiting. Another is that its attitude toward government is radically adversarial. The American electorate may have turned against Obama liberalism, but it has no appetite for ending the New Deal, much less the FDA. Nor is it true that both parties are equally corrupted by the progressive "cancer." There always has been a wing of the Republican party hostile to progressivism, stretching back to William Howard Taft's nomination over Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
Nor is it as easy to distinguish the "State" from the people, as Beck might imagine. Americans do not live in Russia or Germany or China. Socialism and communism never were mass movements in our politics. Our constitutional machinery and democratic ethos continue to operate as checks on state power. For evidence, look no further than the Tea Party.
Exploring the ideological origins of American progressivism is an interesting intellectual exercise. But at the end of the day, it is just that--an intellectual exercise. Even Beck seems to recognize this. There are moments when the lost America for which he pines does not seem so distant after all.