For more than 60 years, a feedback loop of conspiracy theories has flared when tough times make people long for order and control.
Flash back half a century and you'll hear much of the same agitated rhetoric that we hear today. On February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy stood before a woman's Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia, and declared that the U.S. was engaged in "a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity." The odds, he intimated, were very much against us.
"The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency," he said, is "because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation."
It has not been the less fortunate or members of minority groups who have been selling this Nation out, but rather those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer--the homes, the finest college education, and the finest jobs in Government we can give. This is glaringly true in the state department . . . .In my opinion the State Department . . . is thoroughly infested with Communists. I have in my hand 57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card carrying members or are certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign policy.
McCarthy was right about the high stakes of the Cold War; it was also true that of the handful of high-placed traitors who had been exposed, at least one of them had attended prestigious schools and won conspicuous honors (though he'd endured a childhood that was filled with privations and tragedies). History has not been kind to Alger Hiss; the overwhelming consensus today is that Whitaker Chambers told the truth about him. But if there was a whiff of factuality in some of McCarthy's accusations, he demagogued them shamelessly. McCarthy's infamous list of State Department employees (which he initially claimed had more than 200 names on it) was never made public and almost certainly never existed.
Six weeks after the Wheeling speech, at a press conference in Key West, Fla., a reporter asked Harry Truman if he thought that McCarthy could prove that "any disloyalty exists in the State Department." The president didn't mince his words. "I think the greatest asset the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy," he said. When pressed, Truman explained himself further, sounding very much like one of the combative, center left-leaning commentators on the political scene today -- E.J. Dionne, perhaps, or Mark Shields:
The Republicans have been trying vainly to find an issue on which to make a bid for the control of the Congress for next year. They tried "statism." They tried "welfare state." They tried "socialism." And there are a certain number of members of the Republican Party who are trying to dig up that old malodorous dead horse called "isolationism. And in order to do that, they are perfectly willing to sabotage the bipartisan foreign policy of the United States. And this fiasco which has been going on in the Senate is the very best asset that the Kremlin could have in the operation of the cold war. And that is what I mean when I say that McCarthy's antics are the best asset that the Kremlin can have.
Six decades later, Glenn Beck reminded his viewing audience that if McCarthy was "an imperfect vessel," the era he gave his name to was "America's turning point." "It's frightening. It's frightening," he emoted. As reviled and mistreated as McCarthy's memory may be, he might well have saved the Republic from its own worst elements. "It's the truth and here is why you need to know history, because it's repeating itself," Beck continued, wielding the tactic of guilt by association that was McCarthy's metier.
I want to talk a little bit about the parallels between the Obama administration and the FDR administration as it comes into play with communists. We have Marxists, Maoists, communists in and around the White House influencing and actually working with [it]. We had that with FDR. Both denied it at the time.
On July 21, 2010, Glenn Beck appeared on the air with a copy of a "plan to destroy the United States of America." "If you want to understand what is happening in this country," Beck said, "if you want to understand how this is all coming together and what their designs are, all you have to do is read You Don't Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blows." Surely the word "plan" excessively dignifies the Weathermen's manifesto, a pastiche of over-heated revolutionary rhetoric, most of it channeled from the writings of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Mao Tse Tung, but there's no denying that its authors sought to fan the flames of revolution. The Weathermen were Marxist Leninists; they preached and practiced violence.
But what relevance could this artifact of late '60s campus radicalism have to do with anything that's happening today? It's simple--some of the people who wrote it are still alive, and active in politics. One of them--a Chicago academic--even had some dealings with Obama before he became president. "We see it was submitted by Bill Ayers," Beck explained, "Who is friends with the president, no matter what they say." And then he connected the rest of the dots, from Ayers' spouse Bernadine Dohrn all the way to the billionaire George Soros.
As long as we're on the subject of history repeating itself, it's worth pondering what Harry Truman might have made of the likes of Glenn Beck. Perhaps he would have pointed to this telling passage from the bestselling book Glenn Beck's Common Sense:
If the Progressive cancer were limited to defined political systems, it would be fairly straightforward to isolate it, treat it, and eventually be free from the disease. But it's not. It's infiltrated both political parties and the entire political class . . . The Progressives on the right believed in Statism and American expansion through military strength, while the Progressives on the left believed in Statism and expansion through transnationalist entities such as the League of Nations and then the United Nations . . . One of the hallmarks of Progressive thought is the concept of redistribution: the idea that your money and property are only yours if the State doesn't determine that there is a higher or better use for it.
Beck tells the same story that McCarthy did and he harnesses it to the same political purposes. All of the Republican talking points that Truman identified back then are present in Beck's ostensibly non-partisan rant today: the evils of Statism and the Welfare State, the virtues of Isolationism and the specter of internal subversion. Except in Beck's telling the enemy is Wilsonian Progressivism rather than international Communism (though to Beck they amount to essentially the same thing). Reading McCarthy's words out of context, you'd hardly know that the US was flush from its enormous victory in the Second World War and well on its way to an enormous, decades-long economic expansion. Reading Beck's today, you might think that the world was still poised on a knife's edge, divided between "two vast, increasingly hostile armed camps."