It is often in the excuses and in the apologies that one finds the real offense. Looking back on the domestic political “surge” which the populist right has been celebrating since last month, I found myself most dispirited by the manner in which the more sophisticated conservatives attempted to conjure the nasty bits away.
Here, for example, was Ross Douthat, the voice of moderate conservatism on the New York Times op-ed page. He was replying to a number of critics who had pointed out that Glenn Beck, in his rallies and broadcasts, had been channeling the forgotten voice of the John Birch Society, megaphone of Strangelovian paranoia from the 1950s and 1960s. His soothing message:
These parallels are real. But there’s a crucial difference. The Birchersonly had a crackpot message; they never had a mainstream one. The Tea Party marries fringe concerns (repeal the 17th Amendment!) to a timely, responsible-seeming message about spending and deficits.
The more one looks at this, the more wrong it becomes (as does that giveaway phrase “responsible-seeming”). The John Birch Society possessed such a mainstream message—the existence of a Communist world system with tentacles in the United States—that it had a potent influence over whole sections of the Republican Party. It managed this even after its leader and founder, Robert Welch, had denounced President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a “dedicated, conscious agent” of that same Communist apparatus. Right up to the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and despite the efforts of such conservatives as William F. Buckley Jr. to dislodge them, the Birchers were a feature of conservative politics well beyond the crackpot fringe.
Christopher Hitchens
Now, here is the difference. Glenn Beck has not even been encouraging his audiences to reread Robert Welch. No, he has been inciting them to read the work of W. Cleon Skousen, a man more insane and nasty than Welch and a figure so extreme that ultimately even the Birch-supporting leadership of the Mormon Church had to distance itself from him. It’s from Skousen’s demented screed The Five Thousand Year Leap (to a new edition of which Beck wrote a foreword, and which he shoved to the position of No. 1 on Amazon) that he takes all his fantasies about a divinely written Constitution, a conspiratorial secret government, and a future apocalypse. To give you a further idea of the man: Skousen’s posthumously published book on the “end times” and the coming day of rapture was charmingly called The Cleansing of America. A book of his with a less repulsive title, The Making of America, turned out to justify slavery and to refer to slave children as “pickaninnies.” And, writing at a time when the Mormon Church was under attack for denying full membership to black people, Skousen defended it from what he described as this “Communist” assault.
So, Beck’s “9/12 Project” is canalizing old racist and clerical toxic-waste material that a healthy society had mostly flushed out of its system more than a generation ago, and injecting it right back in again. Things that had hidden under stones are being dug up and re-released. And why? So as to teach us anew about the dangers of “spending and deficits”? It’s enough to make a cat laugh. No, a whole new audience has been created, including many impressionable young people, for ideas that are viciously anti-democratic and ahistorical. The full effect of this will be felt farther down the road, where we will need it even less.
I remember encountering this same mentality a few years ago, when it was more laughable than dangerous. I didn’t like Bill Clinton: thought he had sold access to the Lincoln Bedroom and lied under oath about sexual harassment and possibly even bombed Sudan on a “wag the dog” basis. But when I sometimes agreed to go on the radio stations of the paranoid right, it was only to be told that this was all irrelevant. Didn’t I understand that Clinton and his wife had murdered Vince Foster and were, even as I spoke, preparing to take advantage of the Y2K millennium crisis—remember that?—in order to seize power for life and become the Nicolae and Elena Ceau┼čescu of our day? These people were not interested in the president’s actual transgressions. They were looking to populate their fantasy world with new and more lurid characters.
There is an old Republican saying that “a government strong enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take away everything you have.” This statement contains an essential truth that liberals have no right to overlook. But it is negated, not amplified, if it comes festooned with racism and superstition. In the recent past, government-sponsored policies of social engineering have led to surprising success in reducing the welfare rolls and the crime figures. This came partly from the adoption by many Democrats of policies that had once been called Republican. But not a word about that from Beck and his followers, because it isn’t exciting and doesn’t present any opportunity for rabble-rousing. Far sexier to say that health care—actually another product of bipartisanship—is a step toward Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ten percent unemployment, on the other hand, is rather a disgrace to a midterm Democratic administration. But does anybody believe that unemployment would have gone down if the hated bailout had not occurred and GM had been permitted to go bankrupt? Why not avoid the question altogether and mutter about a secret plan to proclaim a socialist (or Nazi, or Jew-controlled: take your pick) dictatorship?
Again, there is a real debate about the pace and rhythm of global warming, and about the degree to which it has been caused (or can be slowed) by human activity. But at the first Tea Party rally I attended, at the Washington Monument earlier this year, the crowd—bristling with placards about the Second Amendment’s being the correction—was treated to an arm-waving speech by a caricature English peer named Lord Monckton, who led them in the edifying call-and-response: “All together. Global warming is?” “Bullshit.” “Obama cannot hear you. Global warming is?” “bullshit.” “That’s bettah.” I don’t remember ever seeing grown-ups behave less seriously, at least in an election season.
Most epochs are defined by one or another anxiety. More important, though, is the form which that anxiety takes. Millions of Americans are currently worried about two things that are, in their minds, emotionally related. The first of these is the prospect that white people will no longer be the majority in this country, and the second is that the United States will be just one among many world powers. This is by no means purely a “racial” matter. (In my experience, black Americans are quite concerned that “Hispanic” immigration will relegate them, too.) Having an honest and open discussion about all this is not just a high priority. It’s more like a matter of social and political survival. But the Beck-Skousen faction want to make such a debate impossible. They need and want to sublimate the anxiety into hysteria and paranoia. The president is a Kenyan. The president is a secret Muslim. The president (why not?—after all, every little bit helps) is the unacknowledged love child of Malcolm X. And this is their response to the election of an extremely moderate half-African American candidate, who speaks better English than most and who has a model family. Revolted by this development, huge numbers of white people choose to demonstrate their independence and superiority by putting themselves eagerly at the disposal of a tear-stained semi-literate shock jock, and by repeating his list of lies and defamations. But, of course, there’s nothing racial in their attitude …
As I started by saying, the people who really curl my lip are the ones who willingly accept such supporters for the sake of a Republican victory, and then try to write them off as not all that important, or not all that extreme, or not all that insane in wanting to repeal several amendments to a Constitution that they also think is unalterable because it’s divine! It may be true that the Tea Party’s role in November’s vote was less than some people feared, and it’s certainly true that several of the movement’s elected representatives will very soon learn the arts of compromise and the pork barrel. But then what happens at the next downturn? A large, volatile constituency has been created that believes darkly in betrayal and conspiracy. A mass “literature” has been disseminated, to push the mad ideas of exploded crackpots and bigots. It would be no surprise if those who now adore Beck and his acolytes were to call them sellouts and traitors a few years from now. But, alas, they would not be the only victims of the poisonous propaganda that’s been uncorked. Some of the gun brandishing next time might be for real. There was no need for this offense to come, but woe all the same to those by whom it came, and woe above all to those who whitewashed and rationalized it.
Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. Send comments on all Hitchens-related matters to hitchbitch@vf.com.