Neither being in the choir he’s preaching to, nor being quite as alarmed by the Tea Parties he’s helped inspire as an upright liberal is supposed to be, I’ve never paid much attention to Glenn Beck. I’ve never heard more than isolated snippets of his commentary because I have neither the time nor the inclination to tune into his show during business hours. So when I came upon a live broadcast of Beck’s CPAC Keynote Address on Fox while I was flipping idly through the channels Saturday, I welcomed the opportunity to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I was amazed in two respects by what I saw.
First, I’d heard enough about Beck to expect the revival-tent-showmanship, but I wasn’t prepared for his theatrical brilliance. Take a look, for example, at the two renditions of the Lazarus poem inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty with which Beck closes his speech. He brings the house down when, merely by altering his inflections, he changes the poem’s meaning from a social democratic plea to a ringing assertion of American exceptionalism. Even if you deplore the content of Beck’s pitch, you can’t help but be impressed by his delivery.
Second, I was shocked by Beck’s ideological aggression. A lot of commentary I’ve read, not only from liberals but also from conservatives like David Frum, seeks to discredit Beck and his Tea Party followers by associating them with the “paranoid style” in American politics. That had me listening for echoes of Joe McCarthy or the John Birchers in Beck’s words.
That old paranoid rhetoric worked by associating mainstream political opponents with un-American doctrines and anti-American political movements. The idea was that these doctrines and movements should play no part in our politics because their adherents weren't prepared to play by the rules of our constitutional order. That was the point, to take the most clinical examples, of calling Dean Acheson or Dwight Eisenhower communist fellow travelers. However crazy that was, there was a certain logic to it; there really were establishment communists like Alger Hiss and fellow travelers like Henry Wallace, and communists really did want to subvert our constitutional order. So there was at least a case to be made for casting communists out of the body politic and exposing the divided loyalties of fellow travelers.
Beck’s speech also trafficked in guilt by association. But the guilty party was John McCain, the disreputable associate was Teddy Roosevelt and the sinister doctrine was home-grown American progressivism. When Beck called progressivism a "cancer" it didn't sound like he was just saying that the progressive agenda should be voted down. The only way to treat a cancer is to obliterate it with chemotherapy or cut it out of the body politic. Beck was urging his conservative listeners to start administering the treatment. It apparently doesn't matter to him that most American progressives are perfectly willing to play by the rules of our constitutional order. Beck sounded like he’s ready to start the demolition work on Mount Rushmore tomorrow.
In its own way, this is as crazy as McCarthyism. It’s certainly a dramatic departure from the way conservatives used to speak about progressivism/liberalism. Ronald Reagan liked to recall his youthful devotion to FDR and neo-conservatives never hid their pride in having been Hubert Humphrey liberals. They criticized their liberal opponents for betraying a venerable political tradition. It would never have occurred to them call liberalism a cancer or to expel liberals from the body politic.
If CPAC represents the voice of modern conservatism, conservatives have changed, and not for the better.