We’ve expended more than a few words around here trying to fit Glenn Beck into history—as an heir to Father Coughlin, for example, or more broadly as a populist in the mold of that Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan. We’ve also tried to fit Beck into history the way you fit the cat into a carrier before taking him to the vet, trying to map his peculiar understanding of the American narrative or at least figure out where it come from. Those two lines of inquiry may just converge on the John Birch Society, as this interesting overview in the New Yorker suggests. Props to Mose for the link. In June, after Beck made a presentation on Communism in America, an essay on the John Birch Society website praised it as “the ultimate in complete agreement between the Beck and JBS presentations of American history.”
First of all, you know your scholarship is unbiased when you describe events of the past as your “presentation of American History.” Second of all, there’s still a John Birch Society? Those of you unfamiliar with smug, pre-electric Bob Dylan might not have heard of this august organization, which was founded by retired candy manufacturer Robert Welch in 1958 to expose and combat communist subversion of American government and society. It turns out that communists were responsible for a really astounding percentage of American history between 1945 and 1980. For example:
[T]he civil rights movement in the United States with all of its growing agitation and riots and bitterness, and insidious steps toward the appearance of civil war, has not been infiltrated by the Communists, as you now frequently hear. It has been deliberately and almost wholly created by the Communists patiently building up to this present stage for more than thirty years.
They pulled the old “initial refutation of an insane statement” trick there, didn’t they? The John Birch Society faded from importance with the rise of intellectual conservatism in the seventies and eighties, mostly because the numerical majority of their ideas were crazy. Like fellow socialist hunter W. Cleon Skousen—who graduated from communist conspiracy theories to an international network of Jews and, eventually, the Illuminati—the Society’s fixation on what was really happening moved them out of politics and into fantasy.
Except the John Birch Society still exists, and Glenn Beck put Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap on his required reading list last year. The book has since sold 250,000 copies, and while JBS cannot boast a similarly quantitative measure of its success, it need only cite Beck to prove its resurgence.
Both base their understandings of American history on a curious opposition: god on one side, communism on the other. In The 5,000 Year Leap, Skousen argues that the Constitution was based not on Enlightenment principles but on the Bible, and that the Founders extrapolated their religious beliefs to include limited government and, of course, free enterprise. This interpretation is flatly at odds with events—including Madison’s and Hamilton’s plans for an extremely powerful federal government, and Jefferson et al’s warnings against state religion—but it also may be the key to understanding the Beck worldview.
It explains, for example, why he so regularly conflates socialism and fascism. To Beck, communism is not an economic system so much as the underlying principle behind all things un-American: the Civil Rights movement, the decline of public religion, multilateral foreign policy, you name it. These things are not un-American, of course, so much as un-conservative. Therein lies the uroboros beauty of the Beck-Birch view of history. Having redefined the narrative on the terms of a god-we-trust conservatism invented in the fifties, it sees every deviation from that conservatism as a deviation from America.
Such a worldview is incredibly useful for making points—Woodrow Wilson was a secret communist agent because he approved the income tax—but not useful for actually running a society. Welch’s mongoloid fixation on a vast socialist undercurrent to history led him to call President Eisenhower “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” which would be hilariously absurd were it not so lately familiar. Between Beck’s red-baiting and the right’s obsession with Obama’s secret Muslim lineage, the paranoid style still looms large.
In American politics, we refrain from accusing our opponents of being secret agents who have dedicated their lives to destroying the country. That is considered uncool. In American commentary, on the other hand, we exercise no such restraint. The question of what useful purpose can be served by a half-educated religious alcoholic shouting his made-up version of history at millions of Americans every day has not yet been answered. We can get a guess, though, by looking back on the John Birch Society’s proud contributions to America.