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Why Glenn Beck Is the Perfect Pitchman for the Tea Party's Deranged Ideas About US History

How the tea party crowd's talk about individual rights is rooted in centuries of racial demonology.
 
 
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Americans, it’s been said, learn geography when they go to war.  Now, it seems, many get their history when they go to a Tea Party rally or tune in to Glenn Beck.

History is a “battlefield of ideas,” as Beck recently put it, while looking professorial in front of a blackboard filled with his trademark circled names connected by multidirectional arrows, his hands covered with chalk dust.  In this struggle, movement historians like Beck go all in, advancing a comprehensive interpretation of American history meant to provide analytical clarity to believers and potential converts alike.  As paranoid as it may be, this history is neither radical nor revisionist, since the Tea Party activists and their fellow travelers pluck at some of the major chords of American nationalism.

It’s easy to dismiss the iconography of the movement: the wigs and knee breeches, the founding-father fetishism, the coiled snakes, and, yes, the tea bags.  It’s no less easy to laugh at recent historical howlers like the claims of Dick Armey, who heads FreedomWorks, a corporate Tea Party front, that Jamestown was settled by “socialists” or the Texas School Board’s airbrushing of Deist Thomas Jefferson from its history textbooks.  It’s fun to ridicule Beck, as Jon Stewart recently did, when he goes all “Da Vinci Code,” and starts connecting Woodrow Wilson, Mussolini, and ACORN in order to explain 2008’s economic collapse.

But historical analysis is about making connections, and there is, in fact, coherence to the Tea Party version of history, which allows conservative cadres not just to interpret the world but to act in it.  And yes, it is all about race.

The 1040 Archipelago

At the heart of Tea Party history is the argument that “progressivism is fascism is communism.”  Conceptually, such a claim helps frame what many call “American exceptionalism,” a belief that the exclusive role of government is to protect individual rights -- to speech, to assembly, to carry guns, and, of course, to own property -- and not to deliver social rights like health care, education, or welfare.

At Tea Party rallies and on right-wing blogs, it’s common to hear that, since the time of President Woodrow Wilson, progressives have been waging a “hundred-year-long war” on America’s unique values.  This bit of wisdom comes directly from Beck, who has become something like the historian laureate of American exceptionalism, devoting many on-air hours to why progressivism is a threat equal to Nazism and Stalinism.

Progressives, he typically says, "started a hundred-year time bomb.  They planted it in the early 1900s."  Beck has compared himself to "Israeli Nazi hunters," promising, with language more easily associated with the Nazis than those who pursued them, to track down the progressive “vampires” who are “sucking the blood out of the republic."

As Michael Lind pointed out in a recent essay at Salon.com, behind such Sturm-und-Drang language lurks a small group of relatively obscure historians, teaching in peaceful, leafy liberal arts colleges, many of them influenced by the late University of Chicago political theorist Leo Strauss.  They argue that the early twentieth-century progressive movement betrayed the very idea of universal natural rights invested in the individual, embracing instead a relativist “cult of the state.” As a result, a quest for “social justice” was elevated above the defense of “liberty” -- a path which led straight to the gulag and the 1040 short form.  From there, it was an easy leap to History’s terminus: the Obamacare Death Panels.

 
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