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Glenn Beck is obsessed with Hitler and Woodrow Wilson. (I'm just saying.)
Of course, those who call themselves progressives today have little in common with the Progressive Era of a century ago; it's mainly a term the left adopted after Republicans turned the word "liberal" into an epithet during the 1980s. Beck, however, is determined to draw a straight line from capital-P Progressives to modern-day progressives.
In the spring of 2009 he invited a conservative Wilson scholar to his TV show. "Woodrow Wilson and FDR captured the Democrats for this progressive movement and took us fundamentally off the tracks that our founders had built and moved us into another direction. True or false?" ("Very true," the guest answered.)
But how? "You get the progressives on both sides who brought you the income tax, forced sterilization of the inmates, eugenics, Prohibition," Beck explained on a later show.
Beck even found a way to blame Wilson for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- 20 years after Wilson left office and 17 years after his death. "You want to know why they bombed us? It didn't come out of the blue. You want to know why? Because Woodrow Wilson told England, 'You need to align yourself with us and not Japan.' And so we humiliated Japan." (It was the most creative reading of 20th-century history since "Animal House," when Bluto asks his frat brothers: "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no!")
"Woodrow Wilson, he was a progressive just like this president," Beck said. "He talked about, you know, ways to get things done by going around Congress. . . . Guess what? This is a progressive in the White House. That's what he's doing."
And finally, on Sept. 18, 2009, Beck delivered proof of the nefarious link between the two presidents: the "Tree of Revolution."
The tree, which Beck illustrated on his ever-present chalkboard, looked to be a sturdy oak. Buried where the trunk sat was Wilson. To the left of Wilson, also in the roots, was Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary. To the right of Wilson was Saul Alinsky, the late social radical. Farther up the trunk was SDS -- Students for a Democratic Society, a group that protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Above SDS were the words "Cloward and Piven," an obscure reference to two Columbia University academics who in 1966 wrote a Nation magazine article proposing a radical anti-poverty strategy that Beck believes is the basis of an enduring leftist conspiracy to destroy the American economy.
On the left branch of the tree were the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the ACORN community group. On the right branch of the tree were Bill Ayers, Obama's "terrorist" pal; Van Jones, an Obama adviser Beck had just driven to resign; and something called "the Apollo Alliance." Beneath that -- a low-hanging fruit? -- was Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Then it started getting complicated. Jeff Jones, who with Ayers was part of the Weather Underground, is an adviser to Apollo -- where Van Jones used to work! And Jeff and Van have the same last name -- Jones!
Dollar bills were pasted to the branches on the chalkboard, forming leaves. "All these places where there are dollar bills, George Soros has his hands in it," Beck explained.
He then unveiled more elements of the arboreal conspiracy: The Apollo Alliance, funded by Soros, wrote Obama's stimulus bill! Apollo's Jeff Jones, along with Obama friend Ayers, "came right from SDS," which is "code language for Marxism," and formed the Weather Underground, responsible for "blowing up the Pentagon"! (Actually, the group blew up a bathroom, but still . . .) ACORN founder Wade Rathke is connected to SEIU because "his brother Dale is at SEIU, we think." (SEIU denies this, and there is no evidence for it.) The whole bunch was inspired by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, who wanted to "get everyone on welfare, just start racking up the bills so the American financial system would eventually collapse."
In summary, Woodrow Wilson mated with an Argentine revolutionary and a Chicago radical, gave birth to a 1960s antiwar group and a pair of Columbia academics, who in turn spawned ACORN, the SEIU, the Apollo Alliance, the Weather Underground, George Soros -- and Barack Obama.
"We've told you that these are radicals," Beck proclaimed as he outlined this airtight case. "We've told you that there are communists, Marxists, revolutionaries all around this president."
And it's all Wilson's fault for being the fertilizer of the Tree of Revolution. No wonder Beck is so mad at him.
Wilson's ties to Che, like Obama's ties to Hitler, are history as you never read it -- and as it never occurred. But that's how history is taught in Professor Beck's classroom. "I know you're busy," he pleaded with his Fox viewers one night in March 2010. "The last thing you want to do is pick up a book and read about Woodrow Wilson -- I hate this guy." But, Beck continued, "you're going to have to. You're going to have to learn history."
Or, to be more precise, you're going to have to relearn history, night after night, until it matches Glenn Beck's worldview.
For more Outlook coverage of Glenn Beck, the tea party and the battles within the conservative movement, see "Why don't honest journalists take on Roger Ailes and Fox News?" by Howell Raines; Gerard Alexander's "Conservatism does not equal racism," David Weigel's "Five myths about the tea party" and Steven Hayward's "Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?"
Dana Milbank is an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post. This essay is adapted from his book "Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America," forthcoming Tuesday. He will be online Monday, Oct. 4, at 11 a.m. ET to chat. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.