Sean Wilentz has a fascinating article in the Oct. 18 New Yorker on “the Tea Party’s Cold War Roots“:
… For the fractious Tea Party movement, Beck—a former drive-time radio jockey, a recovering alcoholic, and a Mormon convert—has emerged as both a unifying figure and an intellectual guide. One opinion poll, released in July by Democracy Corps, showed that he is “the most highly regarded individual among Tea Party supporters,” seen not merely as an entertainer, like Rush Limbaugh, but as an “educator.”…
Beck himself often acts as a professor, a slightly jocular one, on his Fox News program. Surrounded by charts and figures, he offers explanations of current politics and history lessons about the country’s long march to Obama-era totalitarianism. The decline, he says, began with the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, in particular with the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, when both the Federal Reserve System and the graduated federal income tax came into existence. “Wilson,” Beck told his radio audience in August, “just despised what America was.”
Beck’s claims have found an audience among Tea Party spokesmen and sympathizers. At the movement’s Freedom Summit in Washington last September, one activist told a reporter, “The election between Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 was when it started going downhill.” And in April an angry member of the Tea Party Patriots group from Cape Fear, North Carolina, claimed on the group’s Web site that “the very things you see happening in this country today started with the Wilson Administration.”
At a Tax Day rally this past spring, the veteran conservative organizer Richard Viguerie described the Tea Party as “an unfettered new force of the middle class.” And, indeed, calling Obama a socialist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson is audacious enough to seem like the marker of a new movement—or, at least, a new twist in the nation’s long history of conspiracy-mongering. In fact, it marks a revival of ideas that circulated on the extremist right half a century ago, especially in the John Birch Society and among its admirers.
Beck’s version of American history relies on lessons from his own acknowledged inspiration, the late right-wing writer W. Cleon Skousen, and also restates charges made by the Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch. The political universe is, of course, very different today from what it was during the Cold War. Yet the Birchers’ politics and their view of American history—which focussed more on totalitarian threats at home than on those posed by the Soviet Union and Communist China—has proved remarkably persistent. The pressing historical question is 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…
The whole article is well worth reading, as a capsule history of Republican paranoia and paranoia-enabling since the early 1960s, but what struck me first is how much of the current Tea Party “history” comes off as nostalgia for a past that never quite existed. The people most prominent at Teabagger rallies — white people over 50, many of them suffering from degenerative afflictions common among geriatrics — were children and adolescents in the early 1960s, when a suspiciously non-Protestant young celebrity-Democrat “stole” the presidency from a certified anti-Communist and proud Paranoid-American Republican. Even the myth-tinged assassination of that elitist internationalist failed to return the Presidency to the Birchers’ favorite Goldwater (“In your heart you know he’s right”) who was cheated of his rightful position by an oversexed Negro-loving professional politician who didn’t have the guts to bomb some little gook nation into submission. “We”, the Americans who write the history textbooks, like to tell each other that the Civil Rights Era (as we insist on calling it) was a progressive triumph for the whole globe… but there are a lot of our fellow Americans who think of the last 50 years as the end of Real America(tm), a golden place where any white Protestant male could grow up to be President, or at least master of his own Levittown domain, complete with stay-at-home wife and 2.5 compliant offspring. It’s hard enough not to conflate a personal “rage against the dying of the light” as age and illness encroach, without the continual media messaging that dark forces are determined to steal, denigrate, destroy all that was once good and golden in one’s youth…
When I first came into science-fiction fandom, in the late 1960s, there was a considerable resentment among the fannish establishment (whose members would, and did, indignantly reject the very idea) against us untested, unworthy “media fans” polluting the purity of Trufandom with our faddish dystopias, destroying the golden comity of All-Smart-White-Men-Are-Brothers slan-dom with our mean-spirited chatter about ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ and ‘homophobia’. Of course the influx of new people and new experiences into the SF ghetto is exactly what led to our modern pop-cult utopia, where science fiction, fantasy, and even graphic novels are a respectable part of even the most stolid American’s media diet… but what I remember as the end of the fannish “backlash” was the emergence of Star Wars as an antidote to “postmodern” SF and a return to the nostalgic space-opera tropes. Glenn Beck’s “Woodrow Wilson Was the Great Beast” pseudo-history reads, to me, like a civics-class version of Star Wars on a rather wider scale. The problem is, while the anti-Star-Trek fans affected nothing outside the social activities of maybe a few thousand nerd hobbyists, Beck’s enablers and supporters are playing fantasy games with a much wider real-world audience.