Matthew Continetti: The Two Faces of the Tea Party





[Matthew Continetti is associate editor of The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of The Persecution of Sarah Palin.]

...The Tea Party’s movements and currents, its successes and setbacks, have revealed the dual nature of conservative populism. There is one tendency that tries, in Wilfred M. McClay’s evocative phrase, “to restore and preserve a less regimented, less status-stratified, less school-sorted, more open-ended America.” But there is also another tendency, one that believes the government is so corrupt, the constitutional system so perverted, that only radical solutions will save America from certain doom.

The first tendency is forward-looking, optimistic, and comfortable in contemporary America. The second tendency looks to the distant past, feels not just pessimistic but apocalyptic, and always sees the powerful conspiring against the powerless. And while it is possible to distinguish between the two tendencies, they nonetheless overlap in many places. They are different parts of the same creature. One part, however, is more attractive to outsiders than the other. In our future-oriented, optimistic American polity, the first tendency has limitless appeal. The second does not....

At 8:15 a.m., CNBC on-air editor Rick Santelli appeared on that network’s Squawk Box program from the floor of the Chicago mercantile exchange. Most of the traders hadn’t yet shown up to work. The floor was quiet. Santelli’s booming voice echoed throughout the room. He began to rant about the Obama housing plan, and as his rant gained force some of the traders joined in. By the time the segment was over, the Tea Party had been born....

America was on a path, Santelli said, that its Founders would not recognize. “If you read our Founding Fathers,” he said, “people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll over in their graves.” That was why he was planning a “Chicago Tea Party” for all “the capitalists out there” who were fed up with the situation. It turns out that there are a lot of capitalists out there. Santelli’s rant has been viewed on YouTube more than 1.2 million times....

Around the time of Santelli’s rant, Glenn Beck invited his large radio and television audience to send him pictures. He wanted to see the faces of his listeners and viewers, and share the images with others. “I think a lot of people feel like they’re alone and they just want to give up,” Beck said. “I’m here to tell you something important and that is, you are not alone.” Beck said his staff would collect the pictures for a special edition of Glenn Beck, to be aired on March 13, 2009. That episode, which goes by the title “We Surround Them,” launched Beck’s 9.12 Project. It generated the idea for the massive taxpayer march on Washington that took place on September 12, 2009. It transformed Beck from a conservative talk show host into one of the fathers of the Tea Party....

What distinguishes Beck from Santelli is the breadth and depth of his critique. In his broadcasts, books, and stage performances, Beck provides his audiences with a dark vision of American life. In this bleak tableaux, rich, highly educated, radical elites are using the instruments of power to control the common man and indoctrinate his children. The elites, Beck says, seized on the 2008 financial crisis to shape America according to their socialist, fascist, globalist vision. The only remaining obstacle to the elitist agenda is the pro-freedom movement that wants to return to America’s founding principles. The elitists fight the patriots by calling them racists and extremists.

Beck is not simply an entertainer. He and his audience love American history. They are hungry for new ways to interpret current events. And Beck is creating, in Amity Shlaes’s words, “a competing canon” of texts and authorities. This competing canon is not content to assault contemporary liberalism, but rather deconstructs the very foundations of the New Deal and the Progressive Era. Among the books Beck regularly cites on his programs are Shlaes’s Forgotten Man, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Larry Schweickart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, and Burt Folsom Jr.’s New Deal or Raw Deal? And books like Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths, Seth Lipsky’s Citizen’s Constitution, and William J. Bennett and John Cribb’s American Patriot’s Almanac all belong on the list as well....

When he refers to progressivism, Beck is not only highlighting the liberals’ latest name for liberalism. He is referring to the ideas of John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Lippmann. According to Beck (and many others), these early 20th-century thinkers believed that there is no such thing as natural right. The Constitution, in their view, was not equipped to deal with the complexities of modern society. They argued that government should do more to protect free competition by busting trusts, and also promote equality and individual development through redistribution. The progressive tendency found political expression in Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” speech of 1910 and in Woodrow Wilson’s presidency from 1913-1921. It became the foundation for FDR’s New Deal....

“Socialism and fascism,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, “have been on the rise for two administrations now.” Beck’s book Arguing with Idiots contains a list of the “Top Ten Bastards of All Time,” on which Pol Pot (No. 10), Adolf Hitler (No. 6), and Pontius Pilate (No. 4) all rank lower than FDR (No. 3) and Woodrow Wilson (No. 1). In Glenn Beck’s Common Sense Beck writes, “With a few notable exceptions, our political leaders have become nothing more than parasites who feed off our sweat and blood.”

This is nonsense. Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders’. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.

Read and watch enough Glenn Beck, and you realize that he is not only introducing new authors and ideas into public life, he is reintroducing old ideas. Some very old ideas. The notion that America’s leaders are indistinguishable from America’s enemies has a long and sorry history. In the 1950s it led Robert Welch, the head of the John Birch Society, to proclaim that President Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist sympathizer. For this, William F. Buckley Jr. famously denounced Welch and severed the Birchers’ ties to mainstream conservatism. The group was ostracized for decades....

Glenn Beck is a Skousenite. During the “We Surround Them” program, he urged his audience to read Skousen’s 5000 Year Leap (1981), for which he has written a foreword, and The Real George Washington (1991). “The 5000 Year Leap is essential to understanding why our Founders built this Republic the way they did,” the author writes in Glenn Beck’s Common Sense. More controversially, Beck has recommended Skousen’s Naked Communist (1958) and Naked Capitalist (1970), which lay out the writer’s paranoid scenarios in detail. The latter book, for example, draws on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (1966), which argues that the history of the 20th century is the product of secret societies in conflict. “Carroll Quigley laid open the plan in Tragedy and Hope,” says a character in Beck’s new novel, The Overton Window. “The only hope to avoid the tragedy of war was to bind together the economies of the world to foster global stability and peace.”...

Here, then, are the two faces of the Tea Party. They look in different directions. They appeal to different audiences. They have different goals, different methodologies, different prescriptions. Both are angry. But one’s anger is tempered by hope while the other’s borders on despair. Two faces, one entity. This is the reason why the Tea Party is so hard to understand, why it provokes such disparate reactions....

The Tea Party cannot choose one face over the other; they are both part of the same movement. But the Tea Party can decide which face it puts forward. And in the coming days that decision will be of great consequence. It is the choice between Reagan and Goldwater. Santelli and Beck. Reform and revolution. Common sense and conspiracy. The future and the past. Victory—and defeat.



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