By Dana Milbank
Sunday, October 3, 2010; B01
Glenn Beck, the conservative television and radio host, is an amateur historian. Very amateur.
One day, he rhetorically asked his Fox News viewers: "Why did we buy Alaska in the 1950s?" A good question -- because "we" purchased Alaska in 1867. Another day, he gave his version of European history: "We have the Age of Enlightenment, 1620 to 1871, uh, 1781. This was a time when people said, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute, we can think out of the box.' This is coming out of the Dark Ages." That was thinking outside of the box, because the Dark Ages ended in about 1000 AD, six centuries earlier than Beck claimed.
Beck has created an online "Beck University" to spread his unique views of the past and has hosted "Founders' Fridays" on his television show, devoted to rewriting the nation's early history as that of a fundamentalist state.
When the subject turns, as it usually does, to President Obama, Beck again sees lessons from history. In particular, he has seized upon two individuals who he believes provide excellent historical parallels to the 44th commander in chief: Woodrow Wilson and Adolf Hitler.
You don't understand how Obama is tied to a genocidal monster and to an American president who died 86 years ago? Allow Professor Beck to explain.
On Aug. 11, 2009, in the middle of a summer of rage-filled town hall meetings over health care, Beck said he would describe some Obama administration plans that "should horrify America . . . particularly if you're elderly, handicapped or have a very, very young child." And with that, the lesson began.
American "progressives" such as Wilson, Beck explained, were responsible for inspiring "the Nazi eugenic idea [which] evolved naturally into the eventual Holocaust and the deaths of 6 million Jews." He went on: "The builder of the master race was only part of the problem in Germany, made possible after they began to devalue life. They tried to figure out how much is a life worth, and put a price on how much each individual was worth -- and some were worth more than others."
Naturally, this led straight to Obama. Beck explained -- without benefit of actual fact -- that Obama's advisers favor health-care rationing and sterilants in drinking water, and then he went on to endorse Sarah Palin's allegations that Americans would have to stand before Obama's "death panel" so bureaucrats could decide who was worthy to live.
Voila! We go from Hitler's eugenics to Obama's health-care plan, with an assist from poor Woodrow Wilson.
Telling the nation that Obama is leading the country into Nazism is outrageous -- and that's exactly why Beck has been so successful. He averages more than 2 million nightly viewers on his Fox show, brings in $32 million in annual revenue from his various ventures, according to Forbes magazine, and is an unofficial leader of the tea party and its mass anti-government rallies.
Beck has achieved this in part because he is willing to do what other leading right-wing talkers are not: "to give a platform to the conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists," as the Anti-Defamation League puts it. His fellow Fox News host Bill O'Reilly once said Beck succeeds because he is willing to "take it five steps further than I do."
At the heart of Beck's technique of amplifying fringe theories is his obsession with Nazism. For much of the past 70 years, there has been an unwritten rule in U.S. political debate: Avoid Hitler accusations. Once you liken your opponent to the Nazis, any form of rational discussion becomes impossible. But Beck, it seems, has a Nazi fetish. In his first 18 months on Fox News, from early 2009 through the middle of this year, he and his guests invoked Hitler 147 times. Nazis, an additional 202 times. Fascism or fascists, 193 times. The Holocaust got 76 mentions, and Joseph Goebbels got 24.
And these mentions are usually in reference to Obama. In August 2009, for example, Beck played an old tape of Obama making the case for a "single-payer" government-run health-care system. "I am not comparing him to this, but please, read 'Mein Kampf' for this reason," Beck told his radio listeners. "You see that Hitler told you what he was going to do. He told the Germans."
And when the administration bailed out General Motors and Chrysler, Beck's thoughts gravitated once again to the Nazis. "This is fascism!" he screamed on his radio show. "This is what happens when you merge special interests, corporations and the government. . . . But at some point, you know what poem keeps going through my mind is 'First They Came for the Jews.' People, all of us, are like, 'Well, this news doesn't really affect me. Well, I'm not a bondholder. Well, I'm not in the banking industry. Well, I'm not a big CEO. I'm not on Wall Street. I'm not a car dealer. I'm not an autoworker.' Gang, at some point they're going to come for you!"
This was a rather unusual rendition of Martin Niemöller's famous lines about the Holocaust ("First, they came for the socialists . . . "), but for Beck, it was standard operating procedure. A few months later, he again invoked the passage on his radio show, only this time he and his colleagues at Fox News were the victims being rounded up for extermination, while the Gestapo was the Obama White House, which was denying Fox's interview requests.
"When they're done with Fox and talk radio, do you really think they're going to leave you alone if you want to ask a tough question?" Beck asked. "If you believe that, you should open up a history book because you've missed the point of many brutal dictators."
Lest you think Beck's Hitler obsession emerged merely when Obama reached the White House, Beck has also found Nazism in Al Gore's campaign against climate change. "Now, I'm not saying that anybody's going to -- you know, Al Gore's not going to be rounding up Jews and exterminating them," Beck said on his radio show in 2007. "It is the same tactic, however. The goal is different. The goal is globalization. The goal is global carbon tax. The goal is the United Nations running the world. That is the goal. Back in the 1930s, the goal was: Get rid of all of the Jews and have one global government."
The comparison continued as Beck likened not just Gore but also the United Nations to Hitler. "You got to have an enemy to fight," he said. "And when you have an enemy to fight, then you can unite the entire world behind you, and you seize power. That was Hitler's plan. His enemy: the Jew. Al Gore's enemy, the U.N.'s enemy: global warming. . . . And you must silence all dissenting voices. That's what Hitler did."
Beck has also decided -- after the fact -- that the Bush administration displayed fascist tendencies. "Like it or not, fascism is on the rise," Beck announced in April 2009. "It's fascism with a happy face. . . . The people who said fascism is coming under Bush and the people who are saying fascism is coming under Obama: You're both right!"
But Obama bears the brunt of the attacks. Beck found more fascism in his 2008 campaign speech calling for an expansion of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and the Foreign Service. "This is what Hitler did with the SS," Beck told one of his guests. "He had his own people. He had the brown shirts and then the SS."
Moments later, Beck added, "I'm not suggesting anything. I'm asking questions. I don't know what this means." (Sure, but why not trot out an SS comparison, anyway?)
As silly as it all sounds, there is something deft about Beck's Obama-as-Nazi allegations. In most cases where someone hurls "fascist" allegations, it's usually the left aiming them at the right. Conservatives, meanwhile, throw the "communist" charge at the left. But Beck found a way around this paradigm. Progressives, he figured, are responsible for both fascism and communism. Conservatives, by contrast, are the opponents of both.
"Fascism and communism are the same," Beck deduced this year. In fact, "sometimes, it's hard to tell Hitler and Marx apart." Particularly because, as far as Beck's viewers can tell, they both now live in the White House.
Unlike his Hitler fetish, Beck's obsession with Woodrow Wilson is of recent origin. "I mean, I got to tell you, two years ago, I knew nothing about Woodrow Wilson," he told his viewers. But after reading a book on Wilson by conservative historian R.J. Pestritto of Hillsdale College, Beck decided to blame Wilson for just about everything bad in the world today -- including Barack Obama, born 37 years after Wilson died.
A sampling of Beck's views of the 28th president:
"This is an evil SOB, man."
"One evil SOB -- bad dude!"
"I mean, he's a dirtbag racist, is he not?"
"I hate this guy. I don't even want to show his picture. No, don't do it. Don't show it. I hate this guy."
"The biggest racist president [who] ever served."
"He was a horror show, wasn't he? A horror show, possibly the spookiest president we've ever had."
On his first show on Fox News, in January 2009, Beck promised to explain "what tactic Obama [is] borrowing from Woodrow Wilson" (and that other ne'er-do-well, FDR) "to make sure his agenda gets pushed right straight through."
As promised, Beck was on the next night, venting his fury at poor Wilson. "A president I never really learned about in school at all, Woodrow Wilson--what an SOB this guy was!" he began.
Had he paid attention in school, Beck would have learned that Wilson was a conservative political science professor and president of Princeton University before he became governor of New Jersey and then president in 1912. This was the Progressive Era in America, a period from about 1891 to 1921, and Wilson ran on a progressive platform.
And that is why Beck hates him. The Progressive Era was the time of muckrakers and such things as the struggle to abolish child labor, break up monopolies, clean up meat-processing plants and give women the right to vote. For Beck, this was a dark time.
"As I study history," the erudite host proclaimed in March 2010, "I see that a lot of the problems -- most of the problems, in fact -- stem from Woodrow Wilson and the progressive movement." Progressivism, he says, is "the cancer"; the movement behind both Nazism and communism; a creed under which "people are secondary to the Earth and animals"; its adherents people who are "full-fledged eugenic racists," barbarians who "will cheat. They will lie. They will steal. And they have, in the past, blown things up if it helps them win."
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.