Thursday, June 24, 2010

Glenn Beck and the Republicans

The neocon house organ The Weekly Standard has a cover story by Matthew Continetti on The Two Faces of the Tea Party: Rick Santelli, Glenn Beck, and the future of the populist insurgency 06/28/2010 issue; accessed 06/23/2010. Continetti is the author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star (2009).

The article is more than a little strange because Continetti is trying to square a circle. He's pointing out the painfully obvious, that Tea Party darling Glenn Beck is a crackpot far-right conspiracy theorist. But he also wants to treat Beck's extremism as essentially a public-relations problem for the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party, not as an anti-democracy demagogue. Here is how he puts his PR analysis:

The tensions within conservative populism are durable and longstanding. Consider two other faces. The first is Ronald Reagan’s: sunny, cheerful, conservative. Yet it is often forgotten that Reagan was the first Republican president to identify with FDR. He drew support from unions and other parts of the New Deal coalition. He left Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid intact. He was less concerned with undoing the work of his predecessors than he was with implementing reforms that promoted competition, investment, and growth. Not coincidentally, he was the most successful Republican president of the 20th century.

The second face is Barry Goldwater’s, circa 1964: tart, dyspeptic, radical. For Goldwater, "Extremism in the defense of liberty [was] no vice." For Goldwater, the aim was "not to pass laws, but to repeal them." It is no wonder that conservatives are attracted to such a message. But they are often the only ones who feel this way. Goldwater lost in a landslide.

The Tea Party cannot choose one face over the other; they are both part of the same movement. But the Tea Party can decide which face it puts forward. And in the coming days that decision will be of great consequence. It is the choice between Reagan and Goldwater. Santelli and Beck. Reform and revolution. Common sense and conspiracy. The future and the past. Victory—and defeat.
Continetti talks about the Tea Party movement as though it's something rather mysterious and amorphous. So he has to ignore what we do know about the Tea Party from the organizations identified with it and from the polling of people who identify themselves with the movement, i.e., that they are older, more-affluent-than-average white people (more men than women) who are loyal Republican voters. The Republican Party out of power, in other words.

It's true that Reagan was friendlier to the camera than Goldwater. I only heard Reagan speak live once, and I was surprised at how flat he sounded. Maybe he was having an off day. But it struck me that he came across much better on TV than in person. On TV, he could sound like a friendly but slightly dingy older relative.

His Reagan vs. Goldwater imagery is apt to his point. Because Reagan's political career was built on being a Goldwater Republican. When he was running for President in 1980, liberal critics reminded people that Reagan had embraced and still supported some of the most crackpot notions with which Goldwater had associated himself. He implemented the basics of the parts of that program that involved drastic deregulation of business, anti-union activism and structuring tax policy to drastically increase the maldistribution of wealth and income. But he took a flawed but pragmatic on adjusting Social Security taxes to cover the long-term needs of the program during the time that we are now entering. As bad as his 1981 tax cut was, his 1986 tax reform actually embraced liberal tax-reform approaches to reducing tax subsidies for various industries, though it didn't undo all the negative effects of the 1981 tax "supply-side" program. (Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis defended the 1986 Reagan tax reform in the 1988 Presidential race, while Old Man Bush vowed to change it in a subsidize-the-wealthy direction.) The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that he negotiated with the Soviet Union was a major step in nuclear arms control, as well as a step that greatly helped Mikhail Gorbachev proceed with his democratic reforms.

But Continetti is not invoke Reagan's image as a Social Security pragmatist, a liberal tax reformer, or an arms-control advocate. Hardline "movement conservatives" didn't like those moves at the time. And, as we saw with the Cheney-Bush administration, today's Republicans have no practical inclination to take such measures. Continetti is worried about marketing the Republican Party, of which the Tea Party is a currently very visible manifestation, while recognizing that they "cannot choose one face over the other; they are both part of the same movement." The Rick Santelli "face", which Continetti is promoting in this article, appeals largely to the same movement conservative base that Beck does.

Continetti description of Beck's extremism is unusual only in that it's coming from a staunchly conservative source. But it's an informative description. And it's explicit enough to dramatize how difficult it is to square the circle of welcoming those who are attracted to Beck's loony conspiracy theories and disjointed ranting while recognizing that his ideas have limited usage in implementing the mission that is the heart and soul of today's Republican Party: comforting the already very comfortable.

Here is part of how Continetti describes Tea Party ideological bigwig Glenn Beck:

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." [my emphasis]
Continetti is overly generous to Beck and Skousen and unfair to Quigley here. Skousen milked Quigley's book in a typical example of the kind of pseudoscholarship that is typical of crackpot extremists. I discussed Skousen last year in Glenn Beck's political guru 09-21-09. The concluding essay in Quigley's 1966 book expresses conservative worries about the general decline of civilization due to dirty movies and novels that talk about sex, but it's clear that Quigley wasn't promoting anything like the paranoid crackpot worldview that Skousen used Quigley's book to justify.

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? [my emphasis]
Continetti frames his analysis as looking for a solution to a (non-existent) mystery about who and what the Tea Party movement is. What he's really addressing is the political risks in the current phase of the longterm and continuing radicalization of the Republican Party.

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