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."
Anyone can play six degrees of Kevin Bacon--it doesn't take many steps to connect Glenn Beck to political pariahs who were as subversive in their day as Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn were in theirs. If you wanted to smear Beck by association, you could start with the author of the original Common Sense. "Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques--we must stand for the things we know are true," Beck orated from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 2010. But In The Age of Reason, Part First, Section 1, Beck's admitted idol Thomas Paine--a man he has called a "heroic patriot"-- stated that "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church." Imagine if Barack Obama, Bill Ayers, or for that matter Woodrow Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt had formulated such an anti-Credo.
But perhaps all that Thomas Paine stuff was just a subterfuge. Maybe Beck was really paying a sly tribute to Conde McGinley's infamous magazine, also called Common Sense, which was active from about 1947 to 1972. "Anti-Semitism is the chief stock in trade of Common Sense," stated a preliminary report on neo-Fascist and hate groups that was prepared in 1954 for the House Un-American Activities Committee (not exactly a bastion of leftism). Common Sense "distortedly defines communism as 'a false face for Judaism,'" it continued.
Typical of headlines which appear in the publication are: 'Jewish Leaders Are Crazy For Power,' 'Zionists Threaten Russia With War,' 'Brotherhood'-Jew Trap for Christianity', and 'Invisible Government Rules Both Parties: Adlai and Ike Marxist Stooges.' Articles in Common Sense have even attacked water fluoridation as a Red plot by 'the Invisible rulers,' aimed at mass destruction of the American people.
Both Eustace Mullins and Elizabeth Dilling were frequent contributors to Common Sense--and books by both authors have been touted on Glenn Beck's TV show. Tit for tat. If Glenn Beck can draw lines on a chalkboard, so can I.
Mind you, I don't for a moment believe that Beck endorses or emulates McGinley's brand of anti-Semitism. Most likely, he hasn't even heard of him. It's not unlikely that Beck's first-hand knowledge of Thomas Paine's writings doesn't extend very far beyond the extracts that he and his co-writers padded out Glenn Beck's Common Sense with. He probably doesn't know about Paine's favorable views on progressive taxation or what Paine had to say about the Bible: "It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man."
"Beck has successfully grown a mass following," Alexander Zaitchek marveled in Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, "while stumbling through a remedial self-education in U.S. democracy, which reflects the carnival mirrors inside his mind as much as it does the reality he struggles, in ever-so-profitable futility and desperation, to comprehend." For $9.95 a month, his fans can learn along with him, by taking on-line courses at Glenn Beck University, "a unique academic experience bringing together experts in the fields of religion, American history and economics."
Anyone can quote selectively; anyone can hurl irresponsible and inflammatory accusations. But I do admit that it puzzles me how, on the one hand, Beck can ascribe such awesome powers to Adam Smith's Invisible Hand of the marketplace, while on the other believing that we live in a world that is almost entirely shaped by the machinations of a malign few, a world in which the likes of Bill Ayers--the leader of a fringe movement forty years ago that accomplished exactly none of its goals and a distinctly minor league academic today--is yet believed to be a formidable power behind the throne, and in which a community organizing group like ACORN (now defunct, thanks to Beck's and his peers' untiring efforts) can marshal enough strength to subvert our whole political process. But neither Beck nor his listeners are going to be swayed by anything I might write. To quote Thomas Paine again (The Crisis, Number Five), "To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason . . . is like administering medicine to the dead."
Though Beck's visibility on television has decreased since his contract with Fox News expired at the end of 2011, his paranoia-fueled flag waving has already earned him a fortune; the passion he puts behind his message--of "self-empowerment, entrepreneurial spirit and true Americanism--the way we were when we changed the world, when Edison was alone, failing his 2,000th time on the lightbulb," as he puts it--is clearly heartfelt. But why does it resonate so powerfully with so many ordinary Americans who, lacking his extraordinary vocal endowments and his vast talent for self-promotion, can ill afford to give up such government entitlements as Social Security and Medicare?
Richard Hofstadter provides historical perspective. In his essay "Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited" he cited Symbolic Crusade (1963), Joseph R. Gusfield's study of the temperance movement, for its insights into politics that are driven by status values rather than economic ideas. Gusfield distinguished "between the political aims of those he calls 'cultural fundamentalists' and 'cultural modernists' . . . Both are engaged with politics, but the fundamentalists have a special edge because they want to restore the simple virtues of a bygone age and they feel themselves to be fighting in a losing cause."
On many occasions they approach economic issues as matters of faith and morals rather than matters of fact. For example, people often oppose certain economic policies not because they have been or would be economically hurt by such policies, or even because they have any carefully calculated views about their economic efficacy, but because they disapprove on moral grounds of the assumptions on which they think the policies rest.
A prominent case in point is the argument over fiscal policy . . . As a matter of status politics, deficit spending is an affront to millions who have been raised to live (and in some cases have been forced by circumstances to live) abstemious, thrifty, prudential lives. . . when society adopts a policy of deficit spending, thrifty small-businessmen, professionals, farmers, and white-collar workers who have been managing their affairs by the old rules feel that their way of life has been officially and insultingly repudiated.
Like Father Coughlin, Billie James Hargis, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and so many other right wing media crusaders before them, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham understand that for many religious Americans, "evil" is not just an adjective but also a noun. When the Puritans first arrived in New England, they believed they were reclaiming a wilderness from Satan. Many traditionalists on the right, whether Christian Millennialists or not, feel much the same way.
To them, Godless Communism or Secular Humanism isn't the absence of a religious orientation so much as they are Satanic religions in and of themselves, whose acolytes glorify evil, promote the slaughter of innocent, unborn babies, and persecute believing Christians. Blue State America is Rome in the time of Christ. Whether its depravity is manifested in the form of sexual libertinage, income redistribution, spiritual or economic incontinence, blasphemy, women's and gay rights, or the threat of "race mixing," anathema and even violence are completely appropriate responses to it.
As melodramatic and overwrought as Glenn Beck's and W. Cleon Skousen's forebodings for the Constitution might be, I suspect they are informed by a specific Mormon prophecy that resonated with both men's sense of self-importance. "When the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread," Brigham Young wrote in 1855, referring to Joseph Smith's still earlier "White Horse" prophecy of 1843, "They will have to call for the 'Mormon' elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it." Above and beyond that, I suspect that Beck's conspiracy theories serve an essential psychological purpose--they provide both him and his listeners with a sense of order and control (something that was clearly missing from Beck's life during his alcohol and cocaine-addled years in the radio wilderness). Conspiracy theory has been a goldmine for Beck as an entertainer too, both figuratively and literally--not only has it made him rich, it provides him with an inexhaustible source of material, no small thing for someone whose job requires him to extemporize for hours every day. If Beck has made himself more ridiculous than his rival Rush Limbaugh (who also failed on television) ever did, he can still indulge his megalomania with a radio audience that is larger than the populations of many countries.
For politicians, conspiracy theory provides both a ready-made rallying cry (I know who's responsible for your misery; follow me and we will bring them to grief) and an all-purpose escape hatch (how can we possibly prevail against an enemy that's so elusive and powerful?). Cult leaders, dictators, and demagogues are all avid promoters of conspiracy theories--nothing fosters dependency on a leader and solidarity among followers like the threat of persecution. "Collective fear," Bertrand Russell wrote in "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" in 1943, "stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd . . . Fear generates impulses of cruelty, and therefore promotes such superstitious beliefs as seem to justify cruelty. Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear."
Whether a product of one's own forebodings or a cynical attempt to promote them in others, conspiracy theory creates a feedback loop that is almost impossible to escape from.
And thus it has always been.
Excerpted from the book The New Hate by Arthur Goldwag © 2012 by Arthur Goldwag Published by Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Image credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.