It’s not what he says he knows: American history or the Constitution. The factual errors in his history lessons appear routinely, draw criticism or correction, and then vanish into the ether. They don’t appear to bother him, audience, or his employers. Beck’s fans support the sentiments underneath his interpretations of history or the Constitution, and his critics emphasize his ignorance.
After all, although Glenn Beck claims to understand something deep about American life, does he really hold himself up as a scholar of the Constitution or America’s past? A college dropout, Beck has been working too hard to develop much expertise in anything beyond cultivating an audience. Aside from his television and radio shows, he endorses products, films commercials, and is constantly on the road giving speeches. Before emerging as a busy star, he was a busy journeyman on the radio. He’s spent so much time talking that he really hasn’t had the time to develop a command of the events of American history or the scholarship on judicial interpretation. In some ways, just what he says doesn’t seem to matter.
The Princeton historian Sean Wilentz shows otherwise in a recent article in The New Yorker. Wilentz takes what Beck says more seriously, apparently, than Beck himself does, and traces the rants against government, taxation, Progressivism, and his easy (and completely ahistorical) association of Communism and Fascism, to the John Birch Society. Founded by candymaker Robert Welch in 1958, the Birch Society dominated discourse on the loony right after Senator Joe McCarthy’s dramatic decline. Welch saw President Eisenhower as every bit as dangerous as familiar conservative bogeymen like Franklin Roosevelt.
The most significant difference between Beck and Welch, according to Wilentz, is the reaction of a group of very conservative Republicans. Led by National Review editor William F. Buckley, hardly a moderate, a respectable right condemned the Birchers, and worked to keep them insulated from any legitimacy or influence. Perhaps they were motivated by the pragmatic politics of avoiding guilt by association, or perhaps it was some sort of moral commitment to telling the truth, but the conservatives condemned their lunatic fringe. Years later, President Ronald Reagan recognized their political value, but still kept them out of the policy process.
Wilentz also looks at Beck’s academic inspiration, Willard Cleon Skousen, whose book, The 5,000 Year Leap, jumped onto Amazon’s best seller list when Beck promoted it. Skousen was an activist, author, police chief (Salt Lake City), one-time FBI agent, and briefly, a professor at Brigham Young University. Skousen argued that the Founders were divinely inspired, and rooted the Constitution firmly in the Bible. Wilentz writes:
“The 5,000 Year Leap” is not a fervid book. Instead, it is calmly, ingratiatingly misleading. Skousen quotes various eighteenth-century patriots on the evils of what Samuel Adams, in 1768, called “the Utopian schemes of leveling,” which Skousen equates with redistribution of wealth. But he does not mention the Founders’ endorsement of taxing the rich to support the general welfare. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote approvingly in 1811 of having federal taxes (then limited to tariffs) fall solely on the wealthy, which meant that “the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone, without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”
Skousen also challenges the separation of church and state, asserting that “the Founders were not indulging in any idle gesture when they adopted the motto ‘In God We Trust.’ ” In reality, the motto that came out of the Constitutional Convention was “E Pluribus Unum”: out of many, one. “In God We Trust” came much later; its use on coins was first permitted in 1864, and only in 1955, at the height of the Cold War, did Congress mandate that it appear on all currency. The following year, President Eisenhower—who Welch charged was a Communist agent—approved “In God We Trust” as the national motto.
Skousen, like Beck, traces America’s decline to Woodrow Wilson and Progressivism. For his views, Skousen was criticized not only by historians (understandably dismissive of his work) but also conservatives and mainstream Republicans, purged by ultraconservative groups, and condemned by the President of the Mormon church.
At Slate, historian David Greenberg elaborates on the current conservative fixation with Woodrow Wilson, a president no one is eager to defend, much less claim. Greenberg identifies other, extremely marginal, academics who inform (odd verb in this context) Beck’s worldview.
Using the chalkboard and a few odd (very odd) texts on television, Beck offers what passes as an intellectual undergirding of his positions. Professional historians, like Wilentz and Greenberg, understand the interpretive leaps that Beck’s sources make. They care about looking at documents, evaluating evidence, and consulting existing scholarship.
Beck, and at least some of his audience, are not similarly encumbered. What Glenn Beck knows is that they don’t have to be in order to exercise political influence. In tough times, a good story, well-told, reinforces and sharpens the frustration people feel, and identifies villains and heroes. It builds an audience, and even a following, for Beck himself.
But how stable is it?