The Roots of Glenn Beck

Mark Lilla doesn't really like Corey Robin's new book on conservatism:



The problems begin in the opening paragraphs, where Robin lays out his general picture of political history. It is not overly complex: 

Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions. They have gathered under different banners--the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism--and shouted different slogans: freedom, equality, rights, democracy, revolution. In virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them, violently and nonviolently, legally and illegally, overtly and covertly.... Despite the very real differences between them, workers in a factory are like secretaries in an office, peasants on a manor, slaves on a plantation--even wives in a marriage--in that they live and labor in conditions of unequal power. 

This is history as WPA mural, and will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Thirties, remembers the Sixties, or was made to read historians like Howard Zinn, Arno Mayer, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill at school. In their tableau, history's damnés de la terre are brought together into a single heroic image of suffering and resistance. Their hats are white, immaculately so. Off in the distance are what appear to be black-hatted villains, though their features are difficult to make out. Sometimes they have little identification tags like those the personified vices wear in medieval frescoes--"capital," "men," "whites," "the state," "the old regime"--but we get no idea what they are after or what their stories are. Not that it matters. To understand the oppressed and side with them all you need to know is that there are oppressors.

Better though, is his own perspective on the roots of conservatism and its current flight into the apocalyptic and reactionary:

The new apocalypticism reached a fever pitch in a symposium published in 1996 in the widely read theoconservative journal First Things, edited by the late Richard John Neuhaus. The special issue bore the title "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics," and was provoked by a court decision on physician-assisted suicide. The opening editorial put the following question before readers: Given that "law, as it is presently made by the judiciary, has declared its independence from morality," and that, due to judicial activism, "the government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed," have we "reached or are [we] reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime," and therefore must consider responses "ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience to morally justified revolution"? To raise such a question, the editors insisted, "is in no way hyperbolic."

This is the voice of high-brow reaction, and it was present on the right a good decade before Glenn Beck and his fellow prophets of populist doom began ringing alarm bells about educated elites in media, government, and the universities leading a velvet socialist revolution that only "ordinary Americans" could forestall. Apocalypticism trickled down, not up, and is now what binds Republican Party elites to their hard-core base. They all agree that the country must be "taken back" from the usurpers by any means necessary, and are willing to support any candidate, no matter how unworldly or unqualified or fanatical, who shares their picture of the crisis of our time. In the early Sixties, the patrician William F. Buckley joked that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston phonebook than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT. In 2010, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "I would rather be ruled by the Tea Party than by the Democratic Party, and I would rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama." This from a former student of Lionel Trilling. And he wasn't joking.

It's interesting that Lilla raises Buckley here. People often bring him up as foil to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as an example of a time when conservatism was sane. But that Buckley joke has always struck me (a college dropout) as batshit crazy. I constantly hear about the sober-minded Buckley, but it's tough for me to square that with the man who posited that the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church might lay at the feet of  "a crazed Negro" and basically worked as a press agent for apartheid in South Africa. (But National Review is against the drug war, so it's fine.) From a black perspective, modern conservativism's batshit phase began in Birmingham.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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