Ever wonder how history would have changed if W. Cleon Skousen and Robert Welch had had their own radio and tv shows, access to the internet and continued exposure on 24/7 "news" shows that need to fill every second of the day with something, anyting? If they had been able to talk daily to millions instead of spreading the word through dedicated small cells of true believers? Glenn Beck is a good bet for how it might have appeared.
Skousen and Welch were hardly household names, though the organization Welch founded, the John Birch Society, was well known. Both men manufactured much of the irrational fear that drove certain extreme segments of U.S. society during the Cold War. For the Birchers, communists lurked in every town hall, around every corner, in every civic organization and electoral office on up to the White House. For the leaders of the ultra right during that era, and for some of their followers, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a closet communist, pulling off the free world’s most elaborate ruse.
Skousen was a purveyor of equally wacky theories, spinning out books of paranoid fantasies and twisted history.
Beck is the contemporary revival of these 50s-era, ultra right wing, conspiracy mongers, and his ideological lineage is traced back to Welch and Skousen, thoroughly discredited though they may be, in a compelling essay by Sean Wilenz in this week’s The New Yorker.
“Beck’s version of American history relies on lessons from his own acknowledged inspiration, the late right-wing writer W. Cleon Skousen, and also restates charges made by the Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch. The political universe is, of course, very different today from what it was during the Cold War,” writes Wilenz. “Yet the Birchers’ politics and their view of American history – which focused more on totalitarian threats at home than on those posed by the Soviet Union and Communist Chuna – has proved remarkably persistent. The pressing historical question is 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.”
How and why, indeed.
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here