Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Sean Wilentz on Glenn Beck's Bircher conspiracy theory

Historian Sean Wilentz in Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War roots New Yorker 10/18/2010 gives some helpful background on the Radical Right theories that the Tea Party has so widely embraced.

Wilentz's description of Beck's John Birch Society ideology is really good. I like the way he describes the continued radicalization of the Republican Party over the last four decades. I'd have to say that as good as his description is, he partially falls into the trap that other liberal writers do even more, of trying to draw too sharp a distinction between respectable conservatives of a decade or two earlier and the radicals of today. This is a habit that goes back to the historian Richard Hofstadter and his otherwise excellent and now-classic piece "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

The Bircher and other hard-right influences didn't go quite so far underground in the Republican Party as even Wilentz' account might make it sound. The father of the billionaire Koch brothers from Kansas who are major funders of the Tea Party Republican events was a Bircher from the start. He made a fortune drilling oil fields in the Soviet Union, then became rabidly anticommunist. The sons have been major funders of the Libertarian Party and Bob Dole, they play a huge role in promoting global climate change denial, and they have been major contributors to the Tea Party. They don't go on FOX News pimping Willard Cleon Skousen's crackpot books. But that's one of many lines of continuity from the far right of the 1950s to Glenn Beck and the Tea Party Republicans today.


Wilentz also gives the Birchers too much of a pass on white racism. The civil rights movement was the biggest piece of evidence the Birchers used in their early years that the Commies had taken over/were taking over. For virtually all the rightwing gutter, white racism, hostility to socialism real and imagined, and anti-Semitism are part of a single package. When the Birchers describe the master conspirators as "Insiders", they mean "Jews".

The Christian Right has also been a major continuing source of mainstreaming Bircher notions into the Republican Party. Tim LaHaye of the "Left Behind" series of apocalypse porn novels is an old Bircher. Pat Robertson published two books in the early 1990s, The New World Order and The Turning Tide, that elaborated the same basic crackpot worldview about the Illuminati and so forth that Wilentz describes with Beck and the Birchers. Brother Pat even cited neo-Nazi sources and employed a stock technique of "highbrow" anti-Semitic writing, using "German bankers" for the financial villains with Jewish names that he describes masterminding this grand historical conspiracy.

I've posted on these topics earlier.

On Beck's guru Skousen a while back, Glenn Beck's political guru 09/21/2009.

On Brother Pat's conspiracy theory, Pat's paranoia - and bigotry 07/15/2005.

On one guy who was too anti-Semitic even for the John Birch Society (but Palin quoted him in her speech to the Republican Convention in 2008), His soul (Westbrook Pegler's) goes marching on 09/24/2009.

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