Glenn Beck and the Battle to Save American History



History at the “Feel” Level:


Glenn Beck and the Battle to Save American History


Nick White

History 175: Methods

December 16th, 2010




“Our history is being stolen from us,” Glen Beck tells us gravely in a July episode of his popular Fox News show titled, “Restoring History.” Textbooks tell us the Progressive movement was an example of democracy at its finest, fighting for the rights of common citizens. Beck, and the men from which he has constructed his worldview, crusade against this and other supposed facts. They believe a century long conspiracy has produced a tradition of lies and omissions in service of the anti-free market, anti-individualist factions that have always sought to undermine America since its birth. A small but dedicated band of thinkers have struggled to overthrow the liberal version of American history, in order to alert people to the malevolent intentions of its authors. Beginning with the wild conspiracies of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch and BYU professor W. Cleon Skousen, these efforts have been honed into a more focused charge against the likes of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and the very idea of government as a positive force in the world. The title of this paper comes from the foreword to W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5000 year Leap. In it, a former student and colleague of the author recalls the almost religious experience that accompanied his introduction to the ideas put forth in the book. For thirty-five dollars, Skousen would teach you the “real” intentions of the founding fathers. The student described the lesson as “history taught at the ‘feel’ level.” Here in lies the genius of Glen Beck, his contemporaries and his predecessors. By making American history an emotional experience, they rally their faithful to defend the “true” version like crusaders to the Holy Land. The thing that makes history different from the other academic fields is judgment. Unlike the hard sciences which study events free from the constraints of morality and choice, the study of history always returns to the basic battles of the light and the dark, good king and bad king, righteous nation and corrupt culture. Skousen, Beck, Welch and their fellow travelers believe America is an act of Divine intervention on behalf of humanity, the final stage in mortal progress. They both welcome and fear the judgment of history, so convinced are they of our national destiny, and the pure evil of collectivist tyranny, represented here by liberal progressivism. By asserting the version of the past, which promotes the minimalist ideals, and free market, absolutism radical libertarians hold dear, these men hope to correct the nation’s course before we drift further away from our intended destination. This paper will show the mixed (sometimes self-interested) motivations, the twisted tricks of logic, and bad scholarship behind these efforts to “restore” American history, beginning with the Cold War paranoia of Skousen and Welch, and ending with Beck and Schwikart’s modern day corrupt games of guilt by supposed ideological association. The power of an emotional response, right though it may be, must never be confused with certain truth.



The Naked Nutcase: Skousen, Welch, and the Origins of Paranoia


“It is a terrible and awesome thing when a man sets out to create all other men in his own image.” So begins W. Cleon Skousen’s 1958 work, The Naked Communist. This sentiment is at the heart of what far-right agitators like Skousen and John Birch Society founder Robert Welch advocated in the mid-twentieth century. Communism was a nefarious conspiracy, lurking in the shadows, waiting to capitalize on the tiniest crack in our defenses and enslave the globe with lies and falsehoods. Liberals were in league with these dark forces, wanting nothing more than to remake humanity to fit their ideals. Glen Beck proves that this paranoia did not die with the Soviet Union, but found new shadows to fear. From these early masters of anxiety, he learned the art of terror, and the ability to shape history like wet clay to carry even the most preposterous notions to a worldwide audience. Both Skousen and Welch have been viewed as crackpots since the mid-sixties. Skousen’s writings on “The Communist Attack Against the Mormons”, referring to criticism of the LDS’s then policy of excluding non-whites, lead even conservative voices like the National Review to censure politicians like Mitt Romney for citing him as a legitimate source. Welch was a joke by the end of the sixties after the more ridiculous conspiracy theories of his John Birch Society’s became public knowledge. Despite their intellectual repudiation, Beck continues to promote both the works and ideas of both men.

The 5000 Year Leap is the perfect blueprint for the Tea Party revolution. Short simple, and chock full of useful quotations, the book provides 28 principles supposedly passed down to posterity by America’s Founding Fathers. The title expresses the author’s belief that the two centuries following US independence saw advances in the sciences, in medicine, in industry, and in communications equivalent to those of the previous five millennia combined. Skousen believes that all these miracles “flow out primarily from the swift current of freedom and prosperity which the American Founders turned loose into the spillways of human progress all over the world.” Beck cites Skousen’s work as the foundation of his “rediscovery” of the past. His frequent mention of The 5000 Year Leap has lead to the book’s resurrection from its initial obscurity. Originally published in 1981, the book was born out of Skousen’s work at the Commission on the Bicentennial of the Constitution. The purpose of the book is to lead America back to its roots, back to the principles on which it was founded.

So what are these principles that we have supposedly lost? For the most part, they argue a Libertarian interpretation of the Founder’s intentions. Each principle is spelled out in a 3-12 page section, complete with inspiring illustrations and out of context quotes that seem to support Skousen’s case that America must return to its original path. For example, the 15th Principle: “The Highest Level of Prosperity Occurs when there is a Free-market Economy and a Minimum of Government Regulations.” Like most conservatives, Skousen had an almost religious faith in the capacity of totally unrestrained capitalism to bring prosperity to the masses. He explains how the nation was founded on ideas like those of contemporary Adam Smith, but lost its way in the Keynesian inspired haze of the New Deal and Great Society. Debt is our eternal enemy, and Franklin, Washington and Jefferson all add helpful quotations to reacquaint us with that basic fact. The other 27 principles are laid out in a similar way, with important phrases capitalized, distorted historical anecdotes provided, and always grounded in the idea that Skousen’s vision is one in the same as the Founders. Highlights include Principle 24’s assertion that the peace is only possible through a strong military, Principle 19’s argument for the repeal of the 17th amendment on the grounds that it is too democratic, and, running counter to the trend in modern day conservatism, the 25th principle, which puts forth Washington’s Farewell Address as a call for “separatist” approach to foreign affairs. Why this inconsistency between the Cold War and Post 9-11 right? Skousen and his ilk had watched Vietnam nearly destroy America’s reputation abroad, and help elect the most anti-military president of the twentieth century in Jimmy Carter. They understood the risk in taking up the white man’s burden. Thirty years of hero worship and revisionist studies of the war have convinced the far right of our military’s invincibility, if allowed to fight unimpeded by limp-wristed politicians. Outside of this one major inconsistency, The 5000 Year Leap serves as an excellent blueprint for the Beck “Restoration.” Unlike Skousen’s other famous work, 1958’s The Naked Communist, it traffics mostly in tight, common sense, maxims that will not offend. This difference in style between the two books illustrates the fringe’s ability to soften its rougher edges to fit more neatly into the mainstream.

The Naked Communist was intended, and is written as, a textbook. Students eager to learn the true nature of communism, or parents and educators seeking to prepare them for the inevitable battles in their future, could pick up this handy one stop source for all things red. Beginning with Marx and Engels, the book traces the history of world communism through the Russian Revolution, into the contemporary conflicts in Asia, and into the various “spy rings” intent on destroying America from within.  Each chapter begins with questions that will be answered there in. For example: “ How did the Communist leaders use Lend-Lease to get atomic bomb secrets?”  “Do you think diplomatic blunders have encouraged the attack on South Korea?”, and “How was it that Marx never acquired a profession, an office, an occupation or a dependable means of livelihood?”. Naked Communist is the work of a more fervent hand, but uses many of the same tactics as 5000 Year Leap. Again quotes are used aggressively, and often without proper context: In the chapter titled “Defenders of Communism”, Skousen has a hypothetical student ask the great communist thinkers various questions like, “Then what is the Communist attitude toward the Bible which contains many moral teachings?”, and answers them with a quotation from Marx, Lenin, Engels, or in this case, the Russian Dictionary of 1951, a book which he suggests condemned the bible as a tool “for gaining power and subjugating the unknowing nations,”. While that may well have been the official Soviet opinion on the King James, the definition he cited was “Christian Economics”, and not the one for the Bible. This Plato-like game is just one instance of Skousen’s shoddy scholarship. Sources on the supposed American/Soviet spy rings are made up entirely of memoirs penned by the likes of Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, published after they had “seen the light” and sought to profit off their days as communist agents. He begins the section on the rise of Hitler with, “It is said that communism was largely responsible for the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party,” suggesting such views are common knowledge and not gross distortions of the facts. These methods, though much more subtle, were still present by the time Skousen wrote 5000 Year Leap. In a section titled “The Founders Warn Against the Drift Toward the collectivist Left”, he uses John Adams’ condemnation of utopian leveling schemes in England as evidence that all the “ideas of socialism and communism” are unconstitutional, even though the Constitution was ratified before Karl Marx was born. 5000 Year Leap got a second life because it focuses on the solution rather then the problem.  The Naked Communist was a catalogue of the many sins and bad intentions of the world wide socialist conspiracy. Like Skousen’s other wild beliefs, its case is easy to laugh off as an eccentric oddity of the Cold War. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, its arguments became irrelevant. Skousen learned from this mistake, focusing his next work on the heroes, and not the conspiracy. Again the introduction to the book is revealing: the author met Skousen through a thirty-five dollar “Constitutional Study Course” taught out of a garage. As a product, 5000 Year Leap appeals to a much wider audience then the more radical Naked Communist. That appeal is what continues to attract believers to this day.

“The greatest enemy of man is, and always has been, government.” With this idea in mind, Robert Welch founded the most infamous far right group in American history, the John Birch Society, in the same year that Naked Communist was published. Welch was a wealthy former executive of a candy company (and inventor of the Junior Mint) who, like Skousen, saw the dark hand of international socialism everywhere he looked. He and his conservative allies abandoned the Republican Party after their candidate, Robert Taft, was denied the nomination in favor of war hero and liberal appeaser General Dwight David Eisenhower. Convinced America was, with both parties in the hands of communist sympathizers, tumbling down the slippery slope to red tyranny, Welch wrote a book. The Politician was initially self-published and self-distributed, complete with instructions from the author that the shocking facts within were “for your eyes-only.” The book does nothing less than accuse the man, who led the victory against the greatest evil in human history, of treason. Eisenhower, by far the most historically bland of the post-war presidents, is here painted as a natural, and slippery politician, who uses his charms to work his way from lowly Lieutenant Colonel, to POTUS in twelve short years. Like Skousen’s Naked Communist, it reveals the rookie mistakes of a first time fear monger. Killing Caesar didn’t restore the old Republic, and revealing the treacherous face of an American icon didn’t stop the liberal conspiracy. So Welch learned from his enemy, and went underground. He formed the John Birch Society (named for a Christian missionary executed by communist forces during the civil war in China, the supposed first casualty of the Cold War) in the same year as The Politician appeared. Small, highly disciplined cells spread out across the country, educating themselves on the tactics of soviet subversives, spreading literature, and recruiting like minded zealots. The group has become famous for its more fantastic theories (Illuminati, fluoride in tap water), and was condemned by the respectable leaders of the Conservative Revolution like William F. Buckley. But these eccentricities have not poisoned the well from which Glen Beck continues to draw ideas. Robert Welch is a right wing crusader’s ideal quote machine: “…neither the form of government nor its quality is as important as its quantity.” (making Somali paradise on earth) Skousen avoids naming the people who lead America out of God’s illuminated path into the dark wilderness of secular collectivism, but Welch does not hesitate: The Progressives. In the 1966 collection of his public speeches, Welch spelled out how the cancer of communism arrived in the new world, and what its intentions were: “…from the very beginning the whole drive to covert our republic into a democracy was in two parts. One part was to make our people come to believe that we had, and were supposed to have, a democracy. The second part was actually and insidiously to be changing the republic into a democracy.” Woodrow Wilson heads the imagined “Marxian program”, creating a progressive income tax, putting direct election of senators into the hands of the people, and ingraining the lie of democratic America into the nation’s psyche. “If enough Americans had, by those years, remembered enough of their own history, they would have been worrying about how to make the world safe from democracy,” so goes the authors judgment on the First World War. Nowhere in his long survey of the birth, and evolution of communism in America does Welch bother to make reference to any source for any of his tremendous leaps of imagination. Progressives are the root of all evil. This is the lesson Beck took from Welch and his school of thought. His recent infamy makes him harder to claim then the relatively more obscure Skousen, but even the old stigmas are beginning to fade. The Tea Party, who trusts no American more than Glen Beck, had a national convention earlier this year in Nashville, Tennessee; A strange move for a group that supposedly despises the pomp and circumstance of the traditional political parties. Who footed the bill for these patriots whose guiding principle is frugality? Robert Welch’s John Birch Society, rebranded and ready to reap from newly fertile fields of the paranoid and disillusioned.


The Crying Game: Glen Beck and the Restoration



“It’s what progressives do,” Larry Schwikart, professor of history at Dayton and author of A Patriot’s History of the United States said on Glen Beck’s “Restoring History” special in the summer of 2010: “they reshape the past in order to make policies for the present.” Complete with pipe and jacket, Beck used this program to initiate his reclamation of American history, that now includes a for-profit online collection of courses. This one, forty-minute drive by reveals the tangled motivations, tactics, and implications of the war against “liberal lies.” Joining Beck and Schwikart was Burton Folsom Jr., a professor at Hillsdale College and author of the ingeniously titled New Deal or Raw Deal: How FDR’s Economic Legacy has Damaged America. The show leaps from one historical figure to another, damning those who have been unjustly canonized and praising those unjustly condemned by the lies told in textbooks. They start with Welch’s defendant number one: Woodrow Wilson.


Never has the presentation of a DVD case felt more sinister. In his program of July 9th, 2010, Beck held a copy of the film “Birth of a Nation”, acclaimed by movie historians as a milestone in the evolution of the art form, and denounced (both at the time and the present day) as racist mythmaking akin to “Triumph of the Will.” Beck asked the historians if the film was based on the writings of Woodrow Wilson. Both shifted uncomfortably in their seats, offering only vague “I’ve heard that, but I haven’t verified that,” in response. Anyone with access to an iphone could have learned instantly that the movie was based, not on the work of Wilson, but instead the novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon. Dixon had known Wilson in college, and did screen “Birth” in the White House, but had no part in its creation or production. The most disturbing part of the brief exchange was, however, Beck’s introduction of the idea: “I have read, and I don’t know if this is true, but I have read…” Even the most basic of research by Beck or his staff would have instructed the host that the notion was false. This illustrates the danger posed by these new efforts to “restore” history through 40-minute hatchet jobs built on shoddy scholarship. Not once in remaining half hour of the broadcast, broken up by numerous commercial breaks, does Beck bother to correct his mistake. The panelists are intent on using Wilson’s undeniable racism to damn him and the whole progressive movement, and have no problem using information they have not confirmed. This is the central hypocrisy at the core of Beck’s crusade: Insist that progressives have ignored or reworked original texts to suit their political purposes, while committing both offenses in the service of your own, personal mission. Beck uses his guests like the mallets in a whack-a-mole arcade game, hammering Wilson again and again with racist act after racist act. They play the same game with birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Her all consuming sin was her association with the eugenics movement. Beck uses his breathtaking talent for historical connection to put the progressive movement at the death camps of the Third Reich. Schwikart this time hurls the unsubstantiated accusations, citing a speech Sanger supposedly gave to the KKK. While he admits there is no record of what she actually said, “someone who was there” confirmed that it had to do with eliminating the lesser races. The depths of their self-delusions are unfathomable. During their assault of the legacy of the New Deal, they attack FDR for claiming extraordinary wartime powers, but praise Lincoln for exercising the same authority. What is the difference between the two men? Lincoln instituted a progressive income tax, arrested troublesome dissenters, and instituted the most radical example of property confiscation in US history. He was more radical then Roosevelt was in his most ambitious dreams. Yet neither Beck, nor his guests, dare attack the hallowed name of Abraham. If they were truly men of their beliefs, they would rail against the incredible expansion of federal power during the Civil War, and not hide behind easy explanations of how Lincoln “gave power back” once the war ended. Lincoln was dead before the fighting stopped. No one can profess to know what he would have done with the authority granted him by the crisis, after that crisis had passed. The same goes for Roosevelt. He acquired and exercised unprecedented executive power during a period of sustained unrest. But he did so as a self-confessed liberal, part of the progressive tradition focused addressing economic equality: “Wilson and FDR, they did more to destroy the constitution than practically any other president, or all other presidents (present president excluded) combined.”  Welch and Skousen got nowhere throwing firebombs at the popular table. Beck and his guests show they understand what lines not to cross when discussing Teddy Roosevelt during the program’s short question and answer session.  TR exposes the trouble with living and dying by labels. It’s much harder to make “progressive” a dirty word when one of the pillars of the Republican Party proudly claimed the title as a badge of honor. Here Beck, who didn’t shy away from throwing his uninformed weight around on the subject of Wilson, pleads ignorance, praising Roosevelt’s “fierce independence” and environmentalism. What is Larry Scweitkart’s explanation for this unflinching patriot’s connection to such an insidious cabal: “He never really ran and owned a business that had to make a profit.” Apparently, the best preparation for leading the free world could be had running an Arby’s, but not serving as Police Commissioner, Governor of the most populous state in the union, Undersecretary of the Navy, Colonel in the United States Army, and Vice President. None of these endeavors compare to all the experience George W. Bush gained running the Texas Rangers into the ground, or Jimmy Carter got managing a peanut processing plant in Plains, Georgia. The two historians double down on their unflinching faith in the inherent nobility of capitalism by praising John D. Rockefeller’s charitable donations, and behind the scenes efforts to help blacks out of poverty. For an all white panel, speaking in front of an all white audience, and viewer ship, the program seems obsessed with the treatment of blacks in America. Wilson, Sanger, and Byrd are all evil because they were racist, and as the liberals have taught us, racism is the worst sin imaginable. Hammering home his solidarity are the pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King that pass by in the graphics at the end of each commercial break. Strange that, being so concerned with the status of minority rights throughout American history, Beck did not bring in Robert Welch’s “Letter to Khrushchev”, where he provides his summary of the Civil Rights to date: “Five years ago the white people and the Negores of our South, more peacefully inclined towards each other than at any time since the Civil War, were making tremendous progress in the solving of our difficult racial problem. But with the help of a huge book written by a Swedish collaborator of yours, of a Communist-contrived Supreme Court decision, of white Communists sent to serve as “secretaries” to notoriety-seeking Negro preachers, of a whole school for agitation run by Communists in Tennessee, and of ten thousand other acts and methods skillfully designed by your agents to stir up bitterness and riots, the whites and Negores of the South are now giving dangerous vents to an increasing hatred-all, naturally, because of this spontaneous movement of the left’. “ Nor does Beck pull out Skousen’s work linking criticism of the Mormon church’s exclusion of non-whites to communist influence, either. The premise of this entire program is a lie. There is nothing “shocking” about what we have learned. Woodrow Wilson was a racist, Margaret Sanger believed in Eugenics, and John D. Rockefeller gave a lot of money away. Abraham Lincoln was a great president, and Martin Luther King is a hero. No one is likely to raise any hell over the long dead Wilson and Sanger, nor challenge the sanctity of the two most admired men in American history. This show is nothing more than an infomercial, designed to wet the mark’s appetite for juicy facts exposing the darker side of liberal do-gooders. The methods of both Beck, and his two guests mirror those of Holocaust deniers: Hyper focus on aspects that damage the integrity of your ideological opponents, in order to distort the history of the event or era you are describing. “Not all progressives were involved, but many were,” they say as they talk about eugenics, death camps, Hitler and the progressive movement as thought they were all the same thing. Skousen and Welch were obsessed with exposing the conspiracy, no matter how popular the participants in it might be. Beck and his colleagues lack this courage, throwing stones only when they know none will come hurtling back at them. If the methods of Skousen and Welch were as equally flawed as those of Beck, Schwikart, and Folsom, at least the integrity of their beliefs was beyond question.




Texas reveals the danger of allowing historical revisionism to go unchallenged. In standards adopted by the state school board in May, students there (and in the 48 other states whose textbooks are written to Texas’ standards) will learn to “identify the role of the U.S. free enterprise system within the parameters of this course and understand that this system may also be references as capitalism or the free market system,” understand that the separation of church and state is not found in the Constitution, and that the United States has been weakened by taking part in international treaties and organizations (“A government trying to step in an improve the workings of a free market is exactly like a man who takes a lantern outdoors at noon of a bright June day to show you the sun,” Robert Welch in 1957). They will not learn about “ordinary people”, the democratic nature of our country, nor Thomas Jefferson, as all three were redacted by the evangelical majority on the fifteen-member board. The fact that the ideas of lunatics like Robert Welch and W. Cleon Skousen have made it into our nation’s classrooms is evidence of the grass-roots success of the far right. After decades of being kept at arms distance by the likes of William F. Buckley, Ronald Regan, and George H. W. Bush, they gave up trying to change the world from the top down. Their ideas are like landmines from a long forgotten war, waiting to explode in what seemed to be safe and well-established paths. By far the most disturbing part of the Texas saga is who lead the charge to rewrite history. Rather then rely on so-called experts or academics, board members like Don McLeroy, a dentist by trade, decide what is and is not fact. “Read original sources whenever you can,” instructs Beck at the beginning of “Restoring History,” bypass the middlemen and get the real story from the horse’s mouth. Interpretation, in their eyes, is tantamount to reinvention. In this mindset, Huckleberry Finn is nothing more than a boy and a slave floating down a river. Relying solely on original sources leaves the scholar subject to the same prejudices, self-interest, and lack of big picture perspective that affected their authors. Good history is the balance of primary and secondary sources, each one canceling out the other’s shortcomings.

“In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth…” So said the progressive Teddy Roosevelt, as quoted by the antithesis of progress, Robert Welch, to defend his insane case that Dwight Eisenhower was a Soviet Spy. Irony is one gift denied to these self-professed sons of liberty. Glen Beck has studied his predecessors and learned his lessons well. As Mark Lila notes, he is part of a long tradition of rabble rousers and  “…mediums, channeling currents of public passion and opinion that they anticipate, amplify, and guide, but do not create; the less resistance they offer, the more successful they are.” What separates Beck from Hannity, O’rielly, and Limbaugh is emotion and personalization. Rarely do we get a peak behind the curtain of the other pillars of the new right, and when we do, what we find is often very ugly (O’rielly’s explicit voicemails, Limbaugh’s drug addiction). Beck is an open book. At the beginning of the “Restoring History” program, he casually compares the supposed crimes done to American history to the terrible things he experienced during his alcoholic days. Rush rants, Hannity rails in machine gun like fashion, but only Beck cries. During the show, he reacts to every word the two authors say like a Kindergartner at story time, wide eyed and open mouthed. Other conservative voices traffic in opinions. Glen Beck sells belief. “Our history is being stolen from us,” he warns us, while sitting in front of pop-posters of the men who overcame all their personal and societal sins to make America. By making them into gods, beyond question or doubt, he strips them of their greatest gift to the future. The Founders saw a world that did not match the ideals they knew in their hearts to be true, so they decided it was the world, and not the ideals, that needed to change. That very Skousen-like sentiment would not bother Beck in the least, but this next one certainly would: Some of those ideals were wrong. The genius of the Constitution is that it was written on paper, and not in stone. It was the lack of unity, the lack of consensus that gave birth to the American experiment. Whatever else they may or may not have wanted, the Framers understood change was inevitable, that progress was inevitable. Skousen, Welch, Beck and their followers exist in echo chamber, where only their truth is heard, and made all the more real with each retelling. Their ideals never change, so they change the past instead. The efforts by Skousen, Welch, Schwikart, and Beck to distort, exaggerate, and falsify American history for profit or for faith reveal the need some people have for conspiracy. When the nation that for two centuries has put their values at the forefront moves ever so slightly in another direction, the Welch’s of the world need to believe a communist plot to put fluoride in the reservoirs is to blame. For them, America is a land where right always wins out, where justice always prevails. The only way their vision could not come to pass is through foul play on the part of the progressives. Destiny can be as corrosive as acid in the hands of misguided patriots and amoral demigods.









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