TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Glenn Beck has described himself as restoring history, but my guest, historian Sean Wilentz, says that Beck and the Tea Party movement are reviving ideas that circulated on the extremist right half a century ago, especially in the John Birch Society.
Wilentz has an article in the current edition of the New Yorker titled "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots." He asks why current Republican Party leaders have done virtually nothing to challenge extremist ideas in their party and a great deal to abet them.
Wilentz is a professor in American history at Princeton University. His books include "The Rise of American Democracy" and "The Age of Reagan." He's also the author of the new book "Bob Dylan in America," and there actually is a connection, a musical one, between his Tea Party article and Dylan, which we'll hear later.
Glenn Beck is now presenting American history through his new Beck University, an online series of lectures and discussions, which he describes as a unique academic experience, bringing together experts in the fields of religion, American history and economics. Here's the opening of his university website video.
(Soundbite of video)
Mr. GLENN BECK: Hi, I want to tell you a little bit about Beck University. This is something that I've been working on for a while. I don't know when we started devaluing people who are self-educated.
I know people that are going to college, getting their doctorate in history, who - they don't even really know history. They know what history professors want to be taught, but that is so unbelievably incomplete.
I was just with a - somebody who is getting their doctorate in - at Columbia, and I asked him about - do you know about Black Tom, the Black Tom explosion? It was the largest explosion, the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, continental U.S. soil, prior to 9/11. It happened almost where 9/11 happened. In fact, it registered a five on the Richter Scale.
I read about it. This history professor didn't know anything about it. Most people don't know about this man, Colonel House. This is the intimate papers of Colonel House. If you want to understand Woodrow Wilson, FDR or Obama, you have to know about Colonel House.
GROSS: That's Glenn Beck from his Beck University website. Sean Wilentz, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. SEAN WILENTZ (Author, "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots"): It's great to be here.
GROSS: So from your perspective as an historian, what interests you about Glenn Beck's history lessons on his show and through his new university?
Mr. WILENTZ: Right. Well, Glenn Beck is trying to give you a version of American history that is supposedly hidden. Supposedly, all we historians -left, right and center - have been doing for the past 100 years is to keep true American history from you. And that true American history is what Glenn Beck is teaching.
What interests me as an historian, is how Glenn Beck's version of American history, it isn't new. It isn't hidden. It's been out there for 50 years. It's pretty much what the John Birch Society - that they've been teaching for 50 years.
It's a version of history that demonizes the Progressive era, particularly Woodrow Wilson, sees it as the beginnings of America's going down the road to totalitarianism, which ends, in Beck's version, with Barack Obama.
It's a version of history that is beyond skewed. One history professor said that, you know, it's not worth a pitcher of warm spit. But of course, that's what Beck expects us to say. He lives in a kind of, you know, Alice in Wonderland world, where if people who actually know the history say what he's teaching is junk, he says that's because you're trying to hide the truth.
GROSS: So he referred to Colonel House in what we heard, and he said in order to understand Woodrow Wilson, FDR or Obama, you have to know about this guy. So who is Colonel House?
Mr. WILENTZ: Colonel Edward House was a very close advisor of Woodrow Wilson's, and Beck has been on him for a long time. He wrote novels. He did all kinds of things. But he was a close advisor of Wilson's, and he had a lot to do with the installation, particularly, of the Federal Reserve system in 1913. He was pushing for that, a way to try and put a brake on financial panics, which had ravaged the economy, American economy, the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
He was also interested in the graduated income tax, which came in under Wilson. These are the things, actually, that Beck doesn't like. But it has nothing to do with totalitarianism. It has to do with the kinds of reforms that were coming in, and Edward House is in the middle of all of that.
GROSS: So what are some of the historical claims that you've heard Glenn Beck make that you think are just, you know, distortions of history?
Mr. WILENTZ: Well, Beck has all kinds of tricks, though, and he's interested in all kinds of things, again with the idea that there is something hidden out there that he is going to expose.
So on one of his shows, for example, he pulled out a mercury dime, you know, the old mercury dimes with - on the back of it, it has a head fasces on it, has fasces on it, which is the symbol of fascism, right? So he says aha, and who brought the dime in? It was Woodrow Wilson. We've been on the road to fascism for a long time.
So it's all of these, you know, symbols out there - neglecting the fact, of course, that fasces didn't become a fascist symbol until well after that dime was made - designed. And that the man who designed it - designed it - the fasces as a sign of war and then balanced it off with an olive branch.
That's - those are the facts. It has nothing to do with the coming of American fascism under Woodrow Wilson. But he has a talent, really, for this kind of pseudo-history and then blowing it up into something that seems to be terribly diabolical.
GROSS: Last year, Glenn Beck turned a new edition of a book by W. Cleon Skousen into a bestseller, a bestseller that included Glenn Beck's introduction. Glenn Beck talked about it on the air. He talked about how you have to know this guy's writing, and on Amazon, it shot up to number one. It sold, what, over 250,000 copies in the first half of last year.
So who is W. Cleon Skousen, the man Glenn Beck says we need to know about?
Mr. WILENTZ: Yeah, Cleon Skousen's a wild character. He's very much a part of the, you know, ultra-right of the 1950s and 1960s. He was not formally a member of the John Birch Society, although he did work with the Birch Society's speaker's bureau.
He came out of Utah. Well, he was born in Canada but transplanted - Mormon missionary, taught for many years at Brigham Young University; spent a short term and contentious term as the police chief of Salt Lake City.
But he was on the extreme right, and in many ways, his views track those of Welch's. He begins by writing a book called "The Naked Communist," which was a kind of boilerplate survey of Marxism, Leninism around the world, but has some, you know, odd passages in which, for example, he accuses one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's closest aides of having sold uranium to the Russians, basically being a traitor, as well as the Russian Sputnik having been stolen from American plans. Sheer fantasy, but it's in there.
He then writes a book called "The Naked Capitalist," which is tracking some of Welch's later conspiratorial ideas about the Eastern elite and how it's really in control.
And then he goes on to write "The 5,000 Year Leap," the book that made it to number one on Amazon, and a later book, which tries to take American history and gives you, in a very anodyne-sounding kind of way, tries to root the American Constitution and American politics in the Bible, in religion, not in the Enlightenment; and then also in sort of free enterprise economics, you know, no regulation, no nothing, the free market.
He says that that's what the Constitution's all about. So it's a very right wing vision, backed up with a conspiratorial idea of who is taking the country over.
GROSS: And who is taking the country over, in his view?
Mr. WILENTZ: Well, I mean, it begins with Welch, actually. Let's go back to Welch, rather than Skousen.
GROSS: And Welch is the founder of the John Birch Society.
Mr. WILENTZ: Welch is the founder of the John Birch Society. In 1958 - and remember, he founded the society in 1954 - 1958, rather, just after Joe McCarthy's fall in 1954. And Joe McCarthy had talked about a conspiracy so immense - a domestic communist conspiracy.
Well, he fell in '54. In '58 Welch founds this society and is speaking to that same fear, the fear that, you know, not so much about the Soviet Union or about communist China but rather that inside the government there are forces that are taking the country over, that are sinister, that are communist.
And in 1958 he publishes a tract that he hands out to various people in and around his society called "The Politician," in which he says that Dwight David Eisenhower is a dedicated and conscious agent of the communist conspiracy and has been so for his entire adult life. In other words, the president's a communist, and we are in the clutches of a conspiracy.
Now, later on he expands that conspiracy out. Actually, the communists aren't -are just the tools of an even more sinister force led by the Council of Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group and this group that's been trying to assert its domination of the world. That conspiratorial view is really at the heart of what Welch is talking about.
Skousen has it too. It's this idea that - and he picks up on the later stuff in particular. It's this idea that the communists are out there, and almost anything that you can name, including objections to the Mormon Church not having black clerics, all of this is inspired by - all these attacks are inspired by the communist conspiracy. He's very conspiratorial-minded.
So the two are always there, in Skousen as well as in Welch.
GROSS: So exactly what was the John Birch Society when it was founded? Like did it have, was it a membership organization? Did you pay dues to belong? How many people were a part of the group? How powerful was it? And what were the core principles it stood for?
Mr. WILENTZ: The John Birch Society was founded in 1958 at a meeting in Indianapolis in which Robert Welch presided for a couple of days, actually, and you know, read his manifesto of what's going wrong, which later became known as the Blue Book of the John Birch Society.
And it was a membership organization, very much so, with Welch as - I mean, in some ways - he doesn't say this explicitly - in some ways it's a kind of parody or imitation of, you know, a Marxist-Leninist group, insofar as you had the founder, Robert Welch, who was the man in charge of everything. He had a board of advisors, which was publicly known, people knew who they were, who were his advisors - kind of, I don't know, his politburo or something. And they would advise him on policy, but he would have the last word on what the John Birch Society would do.
Then there would be local - the only word for them is cells that were secret. You would join this little group, and in your local group, which always had a person who was the head of it, who was directing it, you know, who was a connection to the higher-ups, the idea was that the John Birch Society was going to influence local politics.
I mean they saw the country as having been taken over by the totalitarians, the communists. So they were going to try and undo that. And Welch says in the Blue Book, quite explicitly he says: You know, it hasn't come to a military conflict yet. We don't have to overthrow these guys with a violent revolution.
So there's still a possibility for political action. And that's what the John Birch Society was devoted to: education and political action, so that their people would get involved in local politics to make sure that, for example, the right people, the correct people - and the right people - got elected to the school board, which was very important in terms of deciding what kinds of books students would be reading in public schools.
Candidates for office, they wanted to make sure that, you know, that the right kinds of people were running and getting elected. So it was that kind of political organization.
It was estimated - you know, they never, at the height of their popularity it would be asked how many members they had, and Welch was always very coy about that. But you know, somewhere by the early '60s it was estimated that they had as many as 100,000 members around the country, but many, many more sympathizers and acolytes, as I say.
So it was there. It was real. It was not a figment of anybody's imagination.
GROSS: Now, what about racial and ethnic issues? Were they on the agenda?
Mr. WILENTZ: Well, it was the early '60s, so of course they were. And the John Birch Society itself actually denounced racism or rather separated itself. It wanted to have nothing to do with segregation, wanted nothing to do with any of that, as an expression of white supremacy.
However, they did oppose all of the civil rights laws because they saw it as an overweening federal government taking charge of people's lives, of overstepping its boundaries. So they opposed all of that, much as Rand Paul, actually, has said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, quite apart from what it does about racial justice, is an interference with people's right to choose who they want to sell things to.
GROSS: So Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, he was a very wealthy man. How did he make his fortune?
Mr. WILENTZ: He made his fortune as a candy manufacturer, Welch's Candies in Belmont, Massachusetts.
GROSS: So he's not Welch's grape juice?
Mr. WILENTZ: No, no, he's Welch's Candy. You know, is it Sugar Daddy? Sugar Daddies.
GROSS: Oh, I remember Sugar Daddies.
Mr. WILENTZ: Yeah, Sugar Daddies, yeah. That's what he did.
GROSS: My guest is Sean Wilentz. He's a professor of history at Princeton University. His article in the New Yorker is titled "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sean Wilentz. He's a professor of history at Princeton University, and he has a piece in the current edition of the New Yorker called "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots."
And he says in this piece that both Glenn Beck and the Tea Party's beliefs are rooted in extremist groups and thinking from the Cold War period. And Sean Wilentz is also the author of the new book "Bob Dylan in America.
Now, do you see Glenn Beck and the Tea Party as being directly connected to the ideas of the John Birch Society?
Mr. WILENTZ: Well, you know, I mean, Beck is one among many. Beck is not the only conservative, right-wing conservative out there these days, any more than Welch and Skousen were the only right-wing conservatives out there in the '50s and '60s.
But what Beck has is a megaphone via Fox News that's, you know, a million times bigger than anything that Welch or Skousen could have imagined having.
So insofar as the Tea Party looks up to Beck, and there are polls that show that Tea Party members really do respect Beck more than anybody else, more even than Sarah Palin, and that they consider him not as an entertainer, the way that they describe Rush Limbaugh, but as an educator.
I mean, the act that we talked about before, it's coming across, and people are believing that he is really trustworthy. So you know, insofar as Beck plays that role, Beck's stuff, not all of it, but a lot of it, comes right out of that world, right out of the world of the extreme right of the 1950s and 1960s.
So you know, so it's out there again. The real question is why is it out there again. I mean, the Republican Party had held this at bay right from the '50s on, and now it's exploding again.
GROSS: Before we get to that question that you just raised, give us an example of an idea or a conspiracy theory that you've heard Glenn Beck discuss that you think connects to the John Birch Society of the '50s.
Mr. WILENTZ: Well, I mean, quite directly, I mean, he has accused Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson is his great historical boogeyman, all right? He has a newspaper, I think it's a Boston newspaper, with the headline: Woodrow Wilson is dead. And he smiles and he says: Yes, Woodrow Wilson is still dead, and I'm glad he's dead.
The conspiracy theory is a historical conspiracy theory, which is that when Wilson took power, he ran roughshod over the Constitution. He did so consciously. He despised what America was, that he was trying to centralize power in such a way as to make it a kind of - you know, a centralized totalitarian state.
He was the ur-version of all of that. He was the beginnings of all of that. And there was a conspiracy that consisted of a small group who got this legislation through during the Wilson administration - that is to say the Federal Reserve system and the graduated income tax.
And from there on in there have been forces that have continued to push that line, and that Barack Obama - and he hasn't filled in all of the dots, but then again, maybe he has, I haven't heard all of his seminars - but Barack Obama stands as the culmination of this decades-long, indeed almost centuries-long, conspiracy to turn America away from the Constitution and away from God, he often says, and to create a kind of soulless totalitarian state.
The idea that Woodrow Wilson, you know, who sent American troops over to fight the Bolsheviks, to help the White Army in 1917, the idea that Woodrow Wilson is a totalitarian is crazy, and it's not just because I'm a Princeton professor that I'm saying that.
I mean, Woodrow Wilson believed in breaking up large concentrations of wealth in corporations, restoring a kind of free enterprise system. There's a quotation in the piece in the New Yorker where he says if America can't have free enterprise, then it can't have freedom.
That's what Woodrow Wilson was about. Turning him into a totalitarian forebear of, you know, Stalin and of Hitler and then leading that kind of thing to Barack Obama is a pretty twisted road.
GROSS: So another thing that you say that Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, believed was that government is always and is inevitably an enemy of individual freedom. Do you hear echoes of that today?
Mr. WILENTZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, getting rid of the income tax, getting rid of government, basically. I mean, the only legitimate function of the government, according to some, is to protect us from foreign enemies. Other than that, the government should just not exist, and it should be starved into - just starved to death.
This is an idea of government that is fundamentally anti-American. You know, I mean, as James Madison said, if men were angels, there would be no need for government. But men are not angels, so we need government to do the kinds of things that unangelic, fallen people can't do for ourselves. And that involves a lot more than just, you know, having an army to defend us from foreign enemies.
So you know, it's just an idea of America that is tied to, you know, the attacks on all kinds of reforms, going back to the Progressive era, but it's taken to a kind of almost paranoid but extreme view of the government as inevitably, always a threat to liberty.
So what are we left with? We're left with no government at all. It's basically - it would end up with a kind of dog-eat-dog world, mitigated, I suppose, by religious charity. It's a view of America that is just un-American.
GROSS: Sean Wilentz will be back in the second half of the show. His article in the New Yorker is titled "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots." He's a professor of history at Princeton University but is currently on leave and is a fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with historian Sean Wilentz. We're talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker, in which he writes that Glenn Beck and the Tea Party Movement are reviving ideas that circulated in the extremist right half a century ago, especially in the John Birch Society. Wilentz is a professor of American history at Princeton University. His books include "The Rise of American Democracy" and "The Age of Reagan." His new book is called "Bob Dylan in America." Wilentz is the historian in residence of Dylan's official website. Wilentz's article in The New Yorker is titled "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots."
So a question that you're asking in your article is how is it that the Republican Party managed to hold this kind of extremism at bay for decades.
Mr. WILENTZ: Right.
GROSS: And now that extremism is getting expressed in voting-booth politics.
Mr. WILENTZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: We hear candidates expressing these views. What's changed in the party that has opened the door to this kind of extremism?
Mr. WILENTZ: Right.
GROSS: So let's get back to the 1950s and '60s, in the early days of the John Birch Society.
Mr. WILENTZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: What was the Republican Party's reaction then?
Mr. WILENTZ: Well, I mean the Republican Party had to figure out a way to handle all of this. I mean it was coming out of McCarthyism, it was coming out of the earlier '50s, but McCarthy had been disgraced, so what was the party to do? And the Republican Party in those days was much more diverse ideologically than it is now. I mean you had Jacob Javits and Ken Keating in New York and you had Everett Dirksen in Illinois, a centrist, as well as, you know, very conservative figures like Barry Goldwater. So, you know, what was the Republican Party going to do to respond to the hard right?
The interesting character, actually, in the piece and in my way of thinking about all this wasn't a politician at all but was an extremely influential conservative intellectual, William F. Buckley, the editor of the National Review, the founder and editor of the National Review who was very conservative. I mean he always defended Joe McCarthy. He always attacked the New Deal. He was not moderate in his conservatism.
But he looked at the John Birch Society as a great threat to the conservative movement, to what he thought of as the practical conservative movement that actually wanted to gain and exercise power. He saw, you know, anyone who was accusing Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a communist or any group that was doing so, as a threat not so much to the country as to the right, as to his movement because if conservatism was brushed or tarred with this kind of loony extremism then it could never, you know, hope to get a shot at real power.
And so - and he also thought that they were intellectually corrupt. I mean that they could not draw the essential moral distinction between a liberal and a communist. That is a, to Buckley, that wasn't just a matter of political positioning, that was an essential moral distinction. As conservative as he was, he knew the difference. And so he uses his good offices in his magazine and as an adviser to various conservative Republican aspirants to office, to try and, you know, to read the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement. And...
GROSS: How? How did he try to do that?
Mr. WILENTZ: Well, he writes editorials. He urges politicians. There's a famous meeting at, well maybe not so famous, but there was a meeting in Palm Beach in Florida in early 1962, where Buckley and Goldwater are together and Goldwater is the, you know, rising hope of the conservative Republicans. And Buckley urges Goldwater to denounce the John Birch Society, to distance himself explicitly from the society because it would really harm the movement. Now, Goldwater took the position of well, there are some nuts in there, it's true, but there are some nice guys as well and we don't want to alienate these people as a group so I will not attack them as a group. He did criticize Welch but he didn't criticize the John Birch Society whereas, Buckley was very, very clear about all of that and he continued - even when he writes an editorial about the John Birch Society and, you know, subscriptions to his magazine go down, he gets letters of complaint, financial backing falls away. I mean there was a price to pay...
GROSS: Because he criticized the John Birch Society and wanted them distanced from the party, he loses subscriptions and he loses...
Mr. WILENTZ: Exactly. He loses subscription. But he was willing to take that hit because he knew that, you know, there was more - there were bigger stakes out there than simply pleasing other conservatives. I mean he wanted to, you know, he wanted to take over the country, if you will. He wanted to win election. He wanted what eventually Ronald Reagan would do, that's what was his plan. But they had to learn this lesson that - well, in the '64 election actually, you see it played out very well.
Goldwater kind of played footsy with the Birchers and with the extreme right, he gives his famous acceptance speech in San Francisco, in which he says, you know, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in defense of - in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, which is a kind of wink, you know, to the Birchers.
You know, Buckley could, although he certainly supported and worked hard for Goldwater, he could see what was coming. And the Democrats retort - the Goldwater forces had a slogan that year which was: in your heart you know he's right. To which the Democrats responded: in your guts you know he's nuts. The point being look, they did exactly what Buckley feared, which was to taint or to tar the Goldwater candidacy with a brush of the extreme right. And, you know, I don't happen to think that Goldwater was going to win that election anyway, but it really did hurt him. And it hurt the conservative movement for a while.
GROSS: So flash forward to today and to the midterm election of 2010.
Mr. WILENTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: What role do you see extremists playing now in the Republican Party, and do you see an equivalent of a Buckley character saying this extremism is going to be bad for the party?
Mr. WILENTZ: Right. Well, I don't see a figure like that. But back up a little bit. After Reagan left office there was nobody really to replace him of that stature, with his combination of political savvy conservative principles. People, conservatives, the right, the extremists who had never gone away, thought they saw that in George W. Bush but they also thought that he betrayed them by failing to win the war in Iraq, by having a moderate view on immigration and by - with TARP at the end, of giving all that federal money to bail out big business as they saw it. So they thought of Bush as a traitor.
The only gesture coming out of the Republican Party that I've seen has come from Karl Rove, of all people, an unlikely dissident but there he is, who on primary night, pointed to one of the Tea Party candidates in Delaware and said that some of her statements were nutty and that she might not prevail in November. After which he was set upon by Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, the whole blogosphere out there and, you know, and told to get back in line, which he did a couple of days later, coming back on Fox News and saying that he's a great fan of the Tea Party and thinks that Christine O'Donnell, you know, is a great candidate and should be supported. So, you know, they were whipped back into line.
I think what's happening is the Republican Party is willing to chase after whatever it can to get party back - to get power back and, you know, this is what's happening to the Republican Party. So instead of drawing lines, people are jumping over fences in order to look like they're in the good graces of these - of the Tea Party types.
GROSS: Can you think of another time in American history when there have been as many people running for Congress who seem to be on the extreme?
Mr. WILENTZ: Not running for Congress, no. I mean even back in the '50s, '60s there were Birchers around in Congress. John Schmitz from California who actually ended up running against Nixon in the '72 election, you know, they were always out there but not with this kind of unified national movement, not with this kind of media blitz, not with a figure like Glenn Beck. There were lots of local right-wing radio hosts out there but this is on a different order.
So I think that this is unprecedented as a phenomenon in its size, not in what it's saying, not in its ideas but in its sheer magnitude. And I do think that, you know, in part because of that if - well, we don't know in November quite yet, but if the Republican Party, a Republican Party that has been unstinting in trying to appease these people, enjoys the kind of victory, a strong victory, let alone smashing victory that people are predicting, then I believe extremist Republicans will have attained more power in the Congress and in the party than at any other time in modern history.
GROSS: My guest is Sean Wilentz. He's a professor of history at Princeton University. His article in The New Yorker is titled "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sean Wilentz. He's a professor of history at Princeton University. In the current edition of The New Yorker, he has an article called "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots." And he writes about how the Tea Party and Glenn Beck's version of history are rooted in what he describes as extremist ideology that came out of the Cold War in the 1950s.
One of the things I find really fascinating about Glenn Beck is that he has a kind of anti-intellectual stance.
Mr. WILENTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: At the same time he's always standing professorially in front of a blackboard.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WILENTZ: Right.
GROSS: And he's telling you that, you know, the historians have lied to you but he's appointed himself, you know, America's truthful historian who is going to teach you the real story, so the whole thing seems to be rooted in such paradox, like intellectualism is bad but I'm here to be the professor.
Mr. WILENTZ: Exactly.
GROSS: Historians don't know what they're talking about but I'm here to be a historian.
Mr. WILENTZ: Right. Well, it's a paradox that goes way back in American political culture, Terry. There have always been these characters who come forth. I call them the village explainers, right? They are the cracker barrel philosophers who will come along and say look, these experts from Harvard and Yale and Princeton and the Council of Foreign Relations and you name it, the Eastern elite, they are not really interested in educating you. They're interested in themselves. They're interested in deluding you. So I'm going to come along and explain the truth. That is the pose he's taking. He's just in his comic way - semi-comic way he plays the role of professor at once, as you say, absolutely mocking them, you know, with his pipe and his, you know, trying to talk like a professor talks, all of that, but at the same time he's going to, you know, raise the curtain and say here's the truth. And...
GROSS: So - yeah.
Mr. WILENTZ: But I'm not one of those, you know, pencil neck geek historians -progressives, as he puts it, I'm the real thing and I have the facts.
And then he's also very clever. I mean he'll say don't believe me, read for yourself, right? You know, it's in the facts. It's in the documents themselves. Don't take my word for it. Go read them yourselves. Well, sure, but they're reading them via his textbooks and his, you know, the things that he's giving out as the truth, which are just as wacko as what he's talking about.
GROSS: You know, Glenn Beck is into that there's nothing wrong in being self-taught, in fact, that that's a really good thing.
Mr. WILENTZ: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And it's a way of saying, you know, those expensive elitist...
Mr. WILENTZ: Yeah.
GROSS: ...Ivy League universities, like the one that you teach at...
Mr. WILENTZ: Right.
GROSS: You know...
Mr. WILENTZ: Especially the one that I teach at because Woodrow Wilson was the president of the bloody place so, yeah.
GROSS: Right. Okay.
Mr. WILENTZ: Right.
GROSS: So like you don't need to go there to understand the way the world works. In fact, if you go there they might leave out important things about how the world works.
Mr. WILENTZ: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Do you feel like you can understand that point of view in a way, because there have been - I mean there have been secrets that we find out only decades later when the Freedom of Information Act files are open. We find out about lies the government taught us, secrets they kept from us.
Mr. WILENTZ: Right. Right. Right. Right.
GROSS: So it's...
Mr. WILENTZ: Right. No, I - yeah.
GROSS: ...like, why wouldn't you believe that there are secret conspiracies operating and things that historians and the government, the leaders just aren't telling you?
Mr. WILENTZ: Well, I think there's two elements to this, Terry, that you're talking about. One is an old fashioned anti, you know, elitism. You know, that if you go to Harvard, Yale, etcetera, you're part of a class. I mean that may have had a germ of truth to it - more than a germ of truth to it - back in 1920, '30, '40. But those institutions are much more diverse, much different than they were. I mean it's not a small interlocking ruling class that sends their kids to these schools and there are many other schools out there. So, you know, that has changed enormously.
But I do think you're right about this - I mean you're really on to something about this, what, distrust of elites generally and I think that that dates back to the Vietnam era and in the Watergate era.
I mean I think that before then there was a general feeling that people had trust in government, that government, whether they agreed with it or not, the federal government was trying to do the right thing. You may agree, you may disagree, they were trying to do the right thing. There was trust. There was a trust there. I think that that trust was exploded in the late '60s and then especially in the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party has yet to recover from the divisions that you saw in 1968 and the Republican Party, with Watergate and the disgrace of Nixon - and there was a point at which the Republican Party was actually thinking about changing its name, it was so disgraced by Nixon.
I think that mistrust on the right arose there, that they've been sold out. Reagan came along and picked it up, but or put it back together again for the Republicans, but there's no other figure like him. And I still think there's a level of distrust. You saw that with Reagan as well, in Iran-Contra. All of it dates back, it dates back to that. It's a 40, almost 50-year struggle that we've had to recover from the things that Bob Dylan was singing about in the 1960s. And I'm not sure that anybody has yet come along to repair it. And certainly, the emanations that we're hearing today are echoes of that era, and indeed, more than echoes because now we're hearing exactly the same old stuff being recycled via Glenn Beck.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sean Wilentz. He's a professor of history at Princeton University. In the current edition of The New Yorker, he has an article called "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots." He's also the author of a new book called "Bob Dylan in America."
And now I will ask you to make the connection between your piece...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...in The New Yorker and your Bob Dylan book, and that connection is a song by Bob Dylan that satirizes the John Birch Society...
Mr. WILENTZ: Right. Right.
GROSS: ...a group on the extreme of the right, which we've been talking about.
Mr. WILENTZ: Right.
GROSS: So introduce this song for us.
Mr. WILENTZ: Okay. Well, the Birch Society was subject to many satirical jibes. But one of the funniest was delivered by Bob Dylan, who in 1963, wrote a song called "Talkin' John Birch Blues," or "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues." And what it is, is his vision of a guy who has joined the John Birch Society. He's going to get those Reds, he's going to clear up the country. And he starts investigating here, investigating there, he wonders about Betsy Ross because after all, there are red stripes in the American flag, you know, getting back to the symbolism. He ends up wondering if he should investigate himself. Good god, he says. There were a bunch of them, of these satirical jibes, but Dylan's is one of the best. And it was sort of funny. I mean, I was writing that article and I had just finished - well, this book was being published and I'd been publicizing it, and boy oh boy did the two come together in this song.
GROSS: Okay, let's hear it. This is Bob Dylan live in '64?
Mr. WILENTZ: Mm-hmm.
(Soundbite of song, "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues")
Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Well, I was feeling tired and kind of blue. I didn't know what I was gonna do. The communists were coming around, they were in the air, they were on the ground, they were all over.
(Soundbite of harmonica)
So I run down most hurriedly and joined the John Birch Society. I got me a secret membership card, went back to my backyard and started looking - on the sidewalk, underneath the rosebush.
(Soundbite of harmonica)
Well, I was looking everywhere for them god darn Reds. I got up in the morning and looked under my bed, looked behind the kitchen, behind the door, even tore loose the kitchen floor. I couldn't find any.
(Soundbite of harmonica)
GROSS: That's Bob Dylan's "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues." Sean Wilentz's new book about Dylan is called "Bob Dylan in America." Wilentz's article in The New Yorker is titled "Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots." You'll find a link to it on website, freshair.npr.org. Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University.
Coming up, our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz remembers one of the world's most celebrated opera star, Dame Joan Sutherland. She died Sunday at the age of 83.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
In the Oct. 18 issue of The New Yorker, historian Sean Wilentz argues that the rhetoric expressed by both Glenn Beck and the Tea Party is nothing new -- and is rooted in an extremist ideology that has been around since the Cold War.
Fox News personality Glenn Beck drew tens of thousands to his "Restoring Honor" rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
In the Oct. 18 issue of The New Yorker, historian Sean Wilentz examines "how extremist ideas held at bay for decades inside the Republican Party have exploded anew -- and why, this time, party leaders have done virtually nothing to challenge those ideas, and a great deal to abet them."
Wilentz, who teaches at Princeton University, argues that the rhetoric expressed by both conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck and the Tea Party is nothing new -- and is rooted in an extremist ideology that has been around since the Cold War, a view that the Republican Party is now embracing.
"I think what's happening is the Republican Party is willing to chase after whatever it can to get the party back -- to get power back," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "This is what's happening in the Republican Party, so instead of drawing lines, they're jumping over fences to look like they're in the good graces of these Tea Party types."
Wilentz says Beck, who has emerged as a unifying figure and intellectual guide for the Tea Party movement, finds fodder for his Fox News Channel and syndicated radio shows in the ideas espoused by the John Birch Society, an ultraconservative political group founded in 1958 that, Wilentz writes, "became synonymous with right-wing extremism."
"It's a version of history that demonizes the progressive era, particularly Woodrow Wilson," Wilentz says. "It sees it as the beginning of America's going down the road to totalitarianism, which ends in Beck's version with Barack Obama."
Particularly troublesome, Wilentz says, are the gross historical inaccuracies Beck makes on his Fox show, which now reaches more than 2 million people each day.
"On one of his shows, for example, he pulled out a 'Mercury' dime. On the back of [the dime] is the fasces, which is the symbol of fascism," Wilentz says. "So [Beck] says, 'Aha! Who brought the dime in? It was Woodrow Wilson. We've been on the road to fascism for a long time.' [But he's] neglecting the fact that fasces didn't become a fascist symbol until well after that dime was made and designed -- and the man who designed it [knew that] fasces was a design of war and balanced it off with an olive branch. Those are the facts. It has nothing to do with the coming of American fascism under Woodrow Wilson."
Wilentz says Beck is the latest in a long line of figures who have challenged mainstream political historians and presented an opposing view as the truth.
"Glenn Beck is trying to give [viewers] a version of American history that is supposedly hidden," he says. "Supposedly, all we historians -- left, right and center -- have been doing for the past 100 years is to keep true American history from you. And that true American history is what Glenn Beck is teaching. ... It's a version of history that is beyond skewed. ... But of course, that's what Beck expects us to say. He lives in a kind of Alice in Wonderland world, where if people who actually know the history say what he's teaching is junk, he says, 'That's because you're trying to hide the truth.' "
On historical distortions made by Glenn Beck
"What he does that's odd is pick out what are historical facts but of limited importance and blows them up. He talks about the near 'Depression of 1946,' which he says was cured by 'good old-fashioned conservative economics' with a Republican Congress. Well, yes, in 1946 there was certainly an economic downturn -- we were just coming out of World War II. That was expected. How much of that has to do with a vindication of conservative economics is highly tangential. He manages to talk about that as if it were as severe a problem as the Great Depression beginning with the crash in 1929. Beck has all kinds of tricks, though, and he's interested in all kinds of things with the idea that there's something hidden that he is going to expose."
On the John Birch Society
"The John Birch Society was founded in 1958 at a meeting in Indianapolis in which Robert Welch presided for a couple of days and read his manifesto of what's going wrong [in America]. ... The idea was the John Birch Society was going to influence local politics. They saw the country as having been taken over by the totalitarianists -- by the communists. So they were going to try and undo that. And Welch says in the Blue Book, 'You know, it hasn't come to a military conflict quite yet. We don't have to overthrow these guys with a violent revolution.' So there's still a possibility for political action. And that's what the John Birch Society was devoted to: education and political action so that their people would get involved in local politics so the right people and the correct people would get elected to the school board, which was very important in deciding what kinds of books students would be reading in public schools. They wanted to make sure that the right kinds of people were running and getting elected. ... Somewhere by the early '60s, it was estimated that they had as many as 100,000 members around the country but many, many more sympathizers."
On the John Birch Society and racism
"The John Birch Society wanted to have nothing to do with segregation, wanted nothing to do with any of that as an expression of white supremacy. However, they did oppose all of the civil rights laws because they saw it as an overleaning federal government taking control of people's lives, of overstepping its boundaries. So they opposed all of that."
On the role extremists are playing within the Republican Party today
"The only [dissenting] gesture coming out of the Republican Party that I've seen is coming from Karl Rove, of all people -- an unlikely dissident, but there he is, who on primary night pointed to one of the Tea Party candidates in Delaware and said some of her statements were nutty and she might not prevail in November ... after which he was set upon by Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and the whole blogosphere and told to get back in line -- which he did a couple of days later, coming back on Fox News a couple of days later and saying that he thinks 'Christine O'Donnell is a great candidate and should be supported.' So he was whipped back into line."