In the Oct. 18 issue of The New Yorker, historian Sean Wilentz examines "how extremist ideas held at bay for decades inside the Republican Party have exploded anew — and why, this time, party leaders have done virtually nothing to challenge those ideas, and a great deal to abet them."
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Fox News host Glenn Beck addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20. Historian Sean Wilentz says "there are polls that Tea Party members respect Beck more so than anyone else, even Sarah Palin, and that they consider [Beck] not as an entertainer — as they describe Rush Limbaugh — but as an educator. ... People are believing that he is really trustworthy."
Wilentz, who teaches at Princeton University, argues that the rhetoric expressed by both conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck and the Tea Party is nothing new — and is rooted in an extremist ideology that has been around since the Cold War, a view that the Republican Party is now embracing.
"I think what's happening is the Republican Party is willing to chase after whatever it can to get the party back — to get power back," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "This is what's happening in the Republican Party, so instead of drawing lines, they're jumping over fences to look like they're in the good graces of these Tea Party types."
Wilentz says Beck, who has emerged as a unifying figure and intellectual guide for the Tea Party movement, finds fodder for his Fox News Channel and syndicated radio shows in the ideas espoused by the John Birch Society, an ultraconservative political group founded in 1958 that, Wilentz writes, "became synonymous with right-wing extremism."
Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University. He is the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and Bob Dylan in America.
Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University. He is the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and Bob Dylan in America. Daniel Kramer
"It's a version of history that demonizes the progressive era, particularly Woodrow Wilson," Wilentz says. "It sees it as the beginning of America's going down the road to totalitarianism, which ends in Beck's version with Barack Obama."
Particularly troublesome, Wilentz says, are the gross historical inaccuracies Beck makes on his Fox show, which now reaches more than 2 million people each day.
"On one of his shows, for example, he pulled out a 'Mercury' dime. On the back of [the dime] is the fasces, which is the symbol of fascism," Wilentz says. "So [Beck] says, 'Aha! Who brought the dime in? It was Woodrow Wilson. We've been on the road to fascism for a long time.' [But he's] neglecting the fact that fasces didn't become a fascist symbol until well after that dime was made and designed — and the man who designed it [knew that] fasces was a design of war and balanced it off with an olive branch. Those are the facts. It has nothing to do with the coming of American fascism under Woodrow Wilson."
Wilentz says Beck is the latest in a long line of figures who have challenged mainstream political historians and presented an opposing view as the truth.
"Glenn Beck is trying to give [viewers] a version of American history that is supposedly hidden," he says. "Supposedly, all we historians — left, right and center — have been doing for the past 100 years is to keep true American history from you. And that true American history is what Glenn Beck is teaching. ... It's a version of history that is beyond skewed. ... But of course, that's what Beck expects us to say. He lives in a kind of Alice in Wonderland world, where if people who actually know the history say what he's teaching is junk, he says, 'That's because you're trying to hide the truth.' "
On historical distortions made by Glenn Beck
"What he does that's odd is pick out what are historical facts but of limited importance and blows them up. He talks about the near 'Depression of 1946,' which he says was cured by 'good old-fashioned conservative economics' with a Republican Congress. Well, yes, in 1946 there was certainly an economic downturn — we were just coming out of World War II. That was expected. How much of that has to do with a vindication of conservative economics is highly tangential. He manages to talk about that as if it were as severe a problem as the Great Depression beginning with the crash in 1929. Beck has all kinds of tricks, though, and he's interested in all kinds of things with the idea that there's something hidden that he is going to expose."
On the John Birch Society
"The John Birch Society was founded in 1958 at a meeting in Indianapolis in which Robert Welch presided for a couple of days and read his manifesto of what's going wrong [in America]. ... The idea was the John Birch Society was going to influence local politics. They saw the country as having been taken over by the totalitarianists — by the communists. So they were going to try and undo that. And Welch says in the Blue Book, 'You know, it hasn't come to a military conflict quite yet. We don't have to overthrow these guys with a violent revolution.' So there's still a possibility for political action. And that's what the John Birch Society was devoted to: education and political action so that their people would get involved in local politics so the right people and the correct people would get elected to the school board, which was very important in deciding what kinds of books students would be reading in public schools. They wanted to make sure that the right kinds of people were running and getting elected. ... Somewhere by the early '60s, it was estimated that they had as many as 100,000 members around the country but many, many more sympathizers."
On the John Birch Society and racism
"The John Birch Society wanted to have nothing to do with segregation, wanted nothing to do with any of that as an expression of white supremacy. However, they did oppose all of the civil rights laws because they saw it as an overleaning federal government taking control of people's lives, of overstepping its boundaries. So they opposed all of that."
On the role extremists are playing within the Republican Party today
"The only [dissenting] gesture coming out of the Republican Party that I've seen is coming from Karl Rove, of all people — an unlikely dissident, but there he is, who on primary night pointed to one of the Tea Party candidates in Delaware and said some of her statements were nutty and she might not prevail in November ... after which he was set upon by Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and the whole blogosphere and told to get back in line — which he did a couple of days later, coming back on Fox News a couple of days later and saying that he thinks 'Christine O'Donnell is a great candidate and should be supported.' So he was whipped back into line."