18 October 2010

The Return of the Repressed: A History of Glenn Beck's History

In last week's New Yorker, historian Sean Wilentz investigated the intellectual roots of Glenn Beck and discovered a historical phenomenon he could not fully account for. The centerpiece of Wilentz's "Confounding Fathers" is a quick study of the works and thought of Willard Cleon Skousen, a reactionary Mormon academic whose writings have been touted by Beck and boosted to the upper ranks of Amazon best-seller lists. Skousen, a onetime FBI man who alienated J. Edgar Hoover, was a practitioner of what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style," with strong affinities with the John Birch Society. Like the Birchers, Skousen believed that an American establishment of financiers and politicians were collaborating with the international communist conspiracy to impose "one world government" and all its evils upon mankind. Beck is reportedly most impressed by Skousen's tome The 5,000 Year Leap, which claims that the U.S. Constitution was a divinely-inspired endorsement of laissez-faire principles. Wilentz exposes the quality of Skousen's scholarship by turkey-shooting his assertion that the Founders themselves established "In God We Trust" as the national motto when it didn't even appear on coins until 1864. From Skousen, Beck inherits a belief that American decline began with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, followed closely by the creation of national income tax and the Federal Reserve. Beck and his audience hate Progressivism in general, whether practised by Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt, because it's the original instance, in their minds, of government (or an academic elite) telling people how to live.

Curiously, Beck's intellectual lineage intertwines with Bill Clinton's. Skousen, Wilentz notes, published a book called The Naked Capitalist, a conspiracy-mongering critique of "the world's secret power structure." What Wilentz doesn't mention is that Naked Capitalist was inspired, albeit unwittingly, by the work of Harvard historian Carroll Quigley, unorthodox despite his credentials for speculating and attempting to substantiate the role of "secret societies" in American history. Clinton has acknowledged Quigley, who taught one of his classes, as an important influence, though that implied no endorsement of his secret-society research. Quigley himself repudiated Skousen's interpretation of his work, especially Skousen's conclusion that the "secret power structure" actually subsidized the international communist conspiracy. It's all on Wikipedia, folks; make of it what you will.

For Wilentz, Beck's revival of Skousen's canon signifies a dangerous revival of Birchite paranoid conservatism, more than 40 years after Richard Nixon and William F. Buckley purged pseudo-intellectual extremist elements from the Republican leadership and think-tank establishment. The four-year reversal from Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964 to Nixon's narrow victory against a liberal Democrat and a reactionary independent in 1968 represents Buckley's triumph in Wilentz's account. Ronald Reagan, who first seemed suspiciously susceptible to or tolerant of Birchite influences, actually carried on what Wilentz calls the pragmatic conservative approach. But by 1994 the Buckley-Nixon-Reagan Republican consensus was crumbling, a new extremism arriving with the Contract With America. Now, Wilentz worries, no one in the Republican party or the conservative movement is showing the "forthright leadership" to stand up to the paranoid reaction exemplified by Beck and the books he promotes. Fear of the Tea Parties' influence over primaries, he implies, has stilled the tongues of the remaining responsible, pragmatic Republicans.

Wilentz describes something important that happened starting in the 1990s without really attempting to explain it. The paranoid, conspiracy-mongering elements whom Buckley and Nixon had driven to the fringes in the 1960s now seem poised to become the Republican mainstream. How did that come about? Are there demographics to explain it? My own guess is that it's become impossible for a new Buckley to become the kind of intellectual or cultural gatekeeper the original man supposedly was. There are too many channels for the works of Skousen or other Birchers to circulate through away from establishment surveillance in the Internet Age. It may be a related development that people are probably less willing to defer to whatever intellectual prestige a modern Buckley might possess. Our era has empowered autodidacts by making available to them the widest range of texts from which they can select those that best confirm their prejudices. Buckley could keep the crackpots out of National Review; now it's hard for anyone to keep them off the comments pages of websites. More people have access to Birchite literature now than did 50 years ago. Whether this material's greater accessibility has changed people's minds or whether a change in the national mood has assured its greater popularity is a subject for new historians to contemplate.


d.eris said...

"The paranoid, conspiracy-mongering elements whom Buckley and Nixon had driven to the fringes in the 1960s now seem poised to become the Republican mainstream. How did that come about? Are there demographics to explain it?"

One might also question the premise of the argument here, namely, that the likes of Buckley and Nixon did actually marginalize the paranoid, reactionary, conspiracy-mongering elements in the GOP.

On the other hand, if you do accept the premise, it would make sense to consider the importance of the end of the cold war for the apparent resurgence of the paranoid style in the GOP.

btw: did you catch the debate this evening? It was, without a doubt, superior to anything that would have only included Cuomo and Paladino. Judging from the debate tonight, if Paladino and Cuomo were alone on a stage together, it wouldn't be for a debate, because they seem to agree on the majority of issues.

Samuel Wilson said...

It depends on what we mean by "marginalize." While you might argue that many Republican voters may have held paranoid views all along, there seems to have been a conscious effort to keep the zaniest notions from being aired publicly. It was a more plausible strategy when National Review was almost the exclusive organ of respectable conservative opinion.

Unfortunately, I was in transit during the debate, but from the few reports I've read Paladino did little to salvage his campaign. Unfortunately, Paladino was the main focus of most reports; will anyone dare say an independent won it?