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Profile: W. Cleon Skousen

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W. Cleon Skousen.W. Cleon Skousen. [Source: Skousen2000 (.com)]Author W. Cleon Skousen, a supporter of the John Birch Society (JBS—see December 2011), writes an article attacking the Time profile of the JBS (see March 10, 1961) as being part of an orchestrated Communist attack on the organization. The article came about after the international Communist Party “ordered” the “annihilation” of the JBS, Skousen says. Skousen denies the group’s penchant for secrecy, saying that it was openly set up in 1958 as a network of “study groups” examining the threat of Communism to American society. The organization, he writes, is nothing more than “a study group program with a strong bias in favor of traditional American constitutionalism.” By 1960, the JBS earned the enmity of competing conservative groups, Skousen says, because the organization “had rallied together most of the best informed and hardest working patriots in many cities.” However, he writes, JBS members tend to be part of other conservative movements as well. The JBS worked to defeat a bill, slated to be introduced in January 1961, that would largely defund the House Committee on Un-American Activities “so it could not investigate the Communist Party.” Skousen says that JBS efforts derailed the bill, handing the American Communist Party “an overwhelming defeat.” After the bill was defeated, Skousen says, “a manifesto… from Moscow” ordered the destruction of the JBS, as it posed the primary danger to “Communist progress” in the US. The Time magazine profile of the JBS was part of that effort, Skousen says, after the organization was attacked in the pages of the Daily People’s World, a West Coast publication that Skousen says was “the official Communist newspaper” of that area. Within days, the information in the article was reprinted in Time’s own article, which reached far more people than the People’s World. “[T]he thing which astonished me,” Skousen writes, “was the rapidity with which the transmission belt began to function so that this story was planted in one major news medium after another until finally even some of the more conservative papers had taken up the hue and cry.” Skousen calls the article a Communist plant filled with fabrications and lies. He says that JBS leader Robert Welch’s accusations that President Eisenhower and other pro-American world leaders are Communists were made in “private communication[s] to his friends” and were never part of official JBS principles, and took place well before Welch founded the JBS in 1957; therefore, Skousen writes, to report Welch’s characterizations is to smear the JBS. Skousen also denies any racism or anti-Semitism on the JBS’s part, and uses a sympathetic 1963 report by the California Senate Factfinding Committee to “prove” his claims. The report concluded that Welch and the JBS have “stirred the slumbering spirit of patriotism in thousands of Americans, roused them from lethargy, and changed their apathy into a deep desire to first learn the facts about communism and then implement that knowledge with effective and responsible action.” Skousen concludes that while Americans are free to disagree with JBS principles and actions, any criticism of the organization should be considered potential Communist propaganda designed to smear the organization and reduce its effectiveness. If the criticism does not come from Communists themselves, it plays into Communist hands. As he claims to have been told by “[a] former member of the Communist Party National Committee,” “The Communist leaders look upon the stamping out of the John Birch Society as a matter of life and death for the Party.” (Skousen 1963)

Richard Mack speaks to a tea party rally in Post Falls, Idaho, in November 2009.Richard Mack speaks to a tea party rally in Post Falls, Idaho, in November 2009. [Source: Rajah Bose / New York Times]The New York Times publishes a large front-page story on America’s “tea party” movement. The report is written by staff reporter David Barstow, who researched the story for five months, first joining a bus tour by the Tea Party Express (see August 28, 2009) and then staying for the month of October in and around Spokane, Washington, to interview tea party members and others, such as white supremacist militia members, who have some affiliation with tea party organizations. The first person he mentions is a retiree named Pam Stout, who once worked for federal housing programs and is now aghast at the government’s handling of the economic crisis. She told Barstow that one day “she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated—even manufactured—by both parties to grab power.” She went to a tea party rally, then a meeting of the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots, where she surprised herself by nominating herself for president. Under her leadership, the Sandpoint group joined a coalition, Friends for Liberty, that includes representatives from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project (see March 13, 2009 and After), the extremist, anti-Communist John Birch Society (JBS—see March 10, 1961 and December 2011), and the Oath Keepers (see March 9, 2009 and March 2010), a far-right militia organization. Stout told Barstow that her family worries that she has become enmeshed in a group of conspiracy theorists and ad hoc revolutionaries, but she said she has never felt more engaged. (Barstow 2/15/2010; Marx 2/18/2010)
Increasing Tilt towards Anti-Government Militia Ideology - Barstow writes that many tea party members are like Stout, with an inclination to conservative anti-government politics, but also with a fear of eventual government tyranny that has driven them to join the movement. “These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the tea party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement,” he writes, “a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates, and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve. Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show.” Many tea partiers hold former President Bush and President Obama in equal contempt, holding them jointly responsible for deliberately undermining the Constitution and the free market system “for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites” (see February 4-8, 2010). Coalition groups like Friends of Liberty are “forming hybrid entities of tea parties and groups rooted in the Patriot ethos. A fear of government tyranny is one of the most common ideological threads running through virtually all tea party organizations.”
Targeting Republicans as Well as Democrats - Barstow continues: “These coalitions are not content with simply making the Republican Party more conservative. They have a larger goal—a political reordering that would drastically shrink the federal government and sweep away not just Mr. Obama, but much of the Republican establishment, starting with Senator John McCain” and other Republicans whom they consider part of the “government conspiracy” to destroy democracy. While tea parties routinely target Democrats in elections, they are also targeting more moderate Republicans, especially those who support ideas or legislation that they feel is part of the “conspiracy.” Republicans who supported the government bailouts of large corporations are being targeted, as are those who support global warming legislation or who have shown any impetus to work with the White House or with Congressional Democrats (see January 29, 2010). Barstow notes that the tea party movement is anything but homogenous and rigidly organized: “It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure.” Some groups are “essentially appendages of the local Republican Party,” but many are not. However, many of the beliefs espoused by individual tea partiers tend to be reflected in most groups. Not all believe that Obama wants to impose a dictatorship, with or without McCain’s help, but many do. The frustration expressed by Stout in the economy and the government’s response to it is echoed throughout tea party groups in every state.
Turning to Radical Ideologies and Conspiracy Theorists - One of the tea partiers’ favorite thinkers is Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck (see March 29, 2009). Beck’s often-revisionist, often-inaccurate opinions led many tea partiers to read the Federalist Papers (or, more often, right-wing blogs about the Federalist Papers), conspiracist “exposes” of the Federal Reserve, and the novels of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Online resources tailored for tea party organizations provide a wealth of what Barstow calls “radical critiques of Washington.” Two of the primary sites are ResistNet.com and InfoWars, both of which combine far-right ideology with a plethora of conspiracy theories covering everything from 9/11 and the Federal Reserve to the New World Order (see September 11, 1990). Some tea partiers are joining with militia groups, or forming their own, and making stockpiles of food, gold, and weaponry to prepare for the end of civilization. Many tea party leaders say they believe that a return to a strict adherence to constitutional law would solve most of the nation’s problems, but many of them espouse a radical view of the Constitution, such as that delineated by radical Constitutional revisionist W. Cleon Skousen (first popularized among the tea party community by Beck—see 1963). Many want to completely do away with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the federal income tax, and most government agencies, all of which they say violate the Constitution. Some go even farther, advocating secession, states “nullfying” federal laws, and the formation of citizen militias. The tea parties in the Pacific Northwest, Barstow writes, have been shaped by influences such as libertarian Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) and by the sometimes-violent anti-government activism of northern Idaho (see Early 1970s, 1980-1982, 1983-1995, and February 15, 1995). The 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge (see August 31, 1992), which occurred in nearby Idaho, is a touchstone for many tea partiers, just as it was for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see August 21-31, 1992). Many, but not all, tea party members and groups embrace the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama is not a natural American citizen. A favorite news blog, WorldNetDaily, routinely electrifies the movement by warning of new White House plans to build massive internment camps and stuff them with tea party members, or of plans to send waves of United Nations troops throughout the nation to confiscate Americans’ guns. ResistNet regularly warns that Obama is trying to convert Interpol, the international police organization, into his own personal police force, and advises tea partiers to “grab their guns.” Tea partiers like Mary Johnson of New Mexico points to the Bush-era wiretapping scandal as proof that the government can, and is, preparing to bring democracy to an end. As the groups’ fear and contempt for the federal government grows, Barstow writes, they turn more frequently to “fringe” groups such as white supremacist, anti-government militias. In Indiana, a militia coalition called Defenders of Liberty is networking with tea party groups and other “Patriot” organizations throughout the state. Darin Stevens, the leader of the Spokane 9/12 project, told Barstow that before tuning in to Beck’s show, he had paid almost no attention to politics. After the recession hit and his personal financial structure started to collapse, he began watching Beck. “I had no clue that my country was being taken from me,” he explains. He began the Spokane chapter of Beck’s 9/12 project, and was astounded that 110 people attended the first meeting. Stevens now belongs to the Oath Keepers as well as the 9/12 Project. Spokane tea partier Leah Southwell became a convert after stumbling on Paul’s speeches on YouTube. Southwell turned from being a successful Mary Kay makeup sales representative to being a self-described member of “the uprising.” Southwell, through Paul, is now fully supportive of the Patriot ideology, and holds as evident truth a number of conspiracy theories involving the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, and the Council on Foreign Relations. “The more you know, the madder you are,” she told Barstow. “I mean when you finally learn what the Federal Reserve is!” Southwell is now a local official with the John Birch Society. She says that the affiliation between organizations like the JBS and the tea parties will continue to grow: “Most of these people [tea partiers] are just waking up.” Former car salesman Richard Mack, a longtime militia supporter who co-wrote Ruby Ridge survivor Randy Weaver’s memoirs, is a favorite speaker at tea party events. “People just do not trust any of this,” Mack told Barstow. “It’s not just the fringe people anymore. These are just ordinary people—teachers, bankers, housewives.”
Amorphous Structure - Local tea party groups often join, in one degree or another, one of several competing national tea party organizations such as ResistNet or the Tea Party Express, most of which are organized, staffed, and funded by conservative lobbying groups such as FreedomWorks (see February 16-17, 2009, February 19, 2009 and After, February 27, 2009, March 2, 2009, March 13, 2009 and After, April 14, 2009, and April 15, 2009) or Americans for Prosperity (see Late 2004, February 16-17, 2009, February 19, 2009 and After, and April 2009 and After). Some tea party groups have been joined by, or in some cases overrun by, other groups, from “birthers” to militias, supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, pro-gun groups, and the sovereign states movement. Many coalitions such as Friends of Liberty were formed in opposition to what leaders called the endless “hijack attempts” by state and county Republican Parties. Dann Selle of the Official Tea Party of Spokane told Barstow, “We had to stand our ground, I’ll be blunt.”
Support from Elected Politicians - Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and a possible 2012 Republican candidate for president, has joined with Texas tea parties in supporting the state’s secession from the United States. Nevada Republican Joe Heck, who ran for Congress in 2008, attacked both parties for moving the nation towards “socialist tyranny” and solicited tea party support at a rally in Las Vegas. Indiana Republican Richard Behney, running for the US Senate, told tea party supporters that if the 2010 elections did not turn out to his liking: “I’m cleaning my guns and getting ready for the big show. And I’m serious about that, and I bet you are, too.” (Barstow 2/15/2010)

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) interviews David Barstow, the New York Times reporter who just published a front-page research article about the “tea party” movement (see February 15, 2010). Barstow says the article was sparked by the raucous, sometimes-violent events of the “town halls” of the summer of 2009 (see July 23, 2009, July 24, 2009, July 27, 2009, July 27, 2009, July 28, 2009, August 1, 2009, August 1, 2009, August 2, 2009, August 2, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 3, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6-7, 2009, August 6-8, 2009, August 7, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 8, 2009, August 10, 2009, August 10, 2009, and August 11, 2009).
Joined Tea Party Express Bus Tour, Stayed in Spokane Afterwards - He joined the Tea Party Express bus tour (see August 28, 2009), and covered over 30 tea party rallies in a little over two weeks. Barstow realized, he says, that the Tea Party Express (TPE) was but one of many distinctive tea party organizations. TPE’s goal is to gain seats for Republicans in Congress, and the tour organizers “were not really representative of the tea party movement as a whole, which was very much a grassroots creation that was drawing in lots of newcomers who were extremely concerned about preserving their independence and not being co-opted.” Some tea party organizers agonized over whether to host the TPE tour in their towns. But, Barstow goes on to say, the bus tour itself was incidental to the final story. He was far more interested in the stories of ordinary Americans like Pam Stout, an interview subject who went from being completely uninvolved in politics to becoming president of her local tea party chapter. So many Americans’ lives have been impacted by the recession, Barstow says, and many of those people have turned to their local tea parties to try to get involved in a movement to express their frustrations and perhaps do something about the government that they blame for allowing the economy to fail. The other driving force behind the tea parties, he says, is the members’ overwhelming fear of “impending tyranny.” Most tea partiers fear that American democracy will disappear, perhaps during their own lifetimes, to be replaced by some form of dictatorship or “one-world government” (see February 4-8, 2010). After the TPE bus tour concluded, Barstow stayed in Spokane, Washington, for the month of October 2009, interviewing many tea partiers and affiliated people. He chose the area because of its history of anti-government activism. He says he wanted to cover not just formal tea party organizations, but other groups with connections to the tea parties, including the 9/12 movement (see March 13, 2009 and After), the John Birch Society (JBS—see March 10, 1961 and December 2011), the Campaign for Liberty, and groups with strong ties to white supremacist militia organizations. From time spent in and around Spokane, he learned that the area’s tea parties are quite disparate and factionalized, though “you can make too much of that. If you spend enough time talking to people in the movement, eventually you hear enough of the same kinds of ideas, the same kinds of concerns, and you begin to recognize what the ideology is, what the paradigm is that they’re operating in.… There’s a fear that both parties have been complicit in this giant charade that has done enormous damage to ordinary Americans. It’s very complex, and yet at the same time there is something coherent about it.”
Increasing Militia Influence - Barstow says the influence of far-right, white supremacist militia groups on the tea party organizations in the Northwest and other areas is increasing. Even tea partiers who do not belong to or support militias often accept the idea of militias and civilian paramilitary training (see April 8, 2009, May 8-15, 2009, January 14, 2010, February 2010, July 23, 2010, August 24, 2010, August 24, 2010, and May 5, 2011).
Understanding the Tea Parties - To understand the tea parties, Barstow says, one must read the literature that informs the movement. He recommends reading books such as W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5000-Year Leap, a radical reinterpretation of the US Constitution; Edward Griffin’s The Creature from Jekyll Island, a book purporting to prove the Federal Reserve is a fraudulent institution; and Atlas Shrugged, the novel by Ayn Rand that explicates her “objectivist” social philosophy. Barstow says the tea party movement is informed by “a robust intellectual subculture” that helps shape members’ world views. According to Barstow, the tea parties are not, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has maintained, becoming the activist conservative wing of the Republican Party (see April 21, 2010), but something more. “They are seeking a bigger transformation than just nudging the Republican Party a little bit to the right,” Barstow says. “A lot of the coverage is about how these people want smaller government and less taxation. That’s true, and yet it doesn’t completely get what’s going on.” (Marx 2/18/2010)

Mother Jones reporter Stephanie Mencimer publishes an article on one Washington, DC-area “study group” of the Constitution as sponsored by a local “tea party” organization. Such “study groups” have “mushroom[ed]” in number across the nation, according to Mencimer’s fellow Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum. The study group Mencimer examines was held in Woodbridge, Virginia, “a hotbed of tea partiers and anti-immigration Minutemen,” Mencimer writes. The group is led by Rick Dalton, a volunteer from the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS). Dalton travels the country lecturing and leading “study groups” about the Constitution for tea party organizations around the country. Mencimer writes: “Many tea partiers believe the country’s economic and political woes are a direct result of Washington abandoning the Constitution, which they believe calls for an extremely limited federal government that does not concern itself with matters like bank failures or health care reform. They’ve turned to the founding document with the fervor of evangelicals seeking inspiration from the sacred texts of the past.” (Mencimer 5/2010; Drum 9/2010)
Connection to Radical Reinterpretation of Constitution, Fox's Beck - Many tea partiers, including Dalton, look to a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution as espoused by the late W. Cleon Skousen, a Mormon who told people he was an aide to then-FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. In 1981, Skousen published a controversial book, The 5000 Year Leap, a controversial reinterpretation of the Constitution that in recent months has been promoted by Fox News talk show host and tea party icon Glenn Beck; Beck wrote the foreward to the new edition of the book, which has achieved bestselling status. Skousen is the original founder of NCCS. Dalton is a graduate of George Wythe University, an unaccredited institution founded by Skousen protege Oliver DeMille, and a teacher at the unaccredited Heritage Academy charter school in Mesa, Arizona, a school largely attended by formerly homeschooled children. Dalton’s instructional presentation at the Woodbridge seminar is largely derived from Skousen’s teachings; some of the participants are clearly conversant in Skousen’s works and can recite from his workbook The Making of America, which Dalton uses in the presentation.
Constitution a Divine Instrument - According to Skousen, the material in the Constitution stems directly from information given by God to Moses. That, according to Skousen, makes the Constitution something of a divine work. Skousen taught that Northern Europe was settled by one of the “lost tribes of Israel,” and that the Anglo-Saxons, the descendants of this “lost tribe,” kept the teachings of Moses alive for thousands of years until their descendants emigrated to America and incorporated Moses’s wisdom into the Constitution. Mencimer calls Skousen’s “lost tribes” teaching “a piece of historical poppycock that has long held traction in the white supremacist movement.”
Racist, 'Capitalist' Teachings of NCCS - NCCS has gotten into trouble in the past over imparting pro-slavery and other racist ideology in its works; Skousen’s The Making of America incorporates material from a 1934 essay by slavery apologist Fred Albert Shannon, who wrote in part, “If the pickaninnies [a racial slur referring to African-Americans] ran naked, it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school, they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates.” In his Woodbridge seminar, Dalton criticizes slavery, but skips the Constitutional amendments referring to slavery and civil rights for minorities. Instead, he teaches that the Constitution protects the capitalist “free market,” and “proves” his contention by saying that the early Jamestown settlers starved because they were “Communists” until a new “HDIC—head dude in charge” took over and saved the settlement by using Biblical and free-market capitalism to provide a new and distinctly American direction. Dalton tells the participants that Karl Marx invented the income tax (Mencimer notes that it was actually first proposed by William Pitt the Younger, a conservative British lawmaker). According to Dalton, the federal government is subverting the Constitution by spending federal monies to buy or build any structures outside of forts, magazines and arsenals, dockyards, and post offices. “What about national parks?” he asks. “Think of all that land that could be put on the rolls and generating taxes!”
Interviews - Mencimer interviews a number of participants during the lunch break. Construction inspector Robert Jeffery tells Mencimer that he does not believe in gun law restrictions, saying that the Second Amendment is all the “concealed carry permit” he needs. He says Dalton’s teachings prove to him that the nation must return to “the founding principles to understand where the country had gone off track.” Ken Vaughn, who leads the Northern Virginia branch of the 9/12 Movement (see March 13, 2009 and After), says he became interested in the Constitution study groups after the Obama administration began “bailing out firms that had no right to be bailed out. I think that made people wake up and look at our debt and think, ‘Maybe we need to make changes.’” Ann Hardt, a Mormon, has three of her homeschooled children in tow, and tells Mencimer that she uses Skousen’s educational materials to teach her six children history. She is a veteran of the NCCS seminars and a tea party member. (Mencimer 5/2010)

Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum compares the “tea party” movement to earlier organizations, each formed, he writes, to oppose Democratic presidencies. “[T]oo many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it’s brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate,” he writes. “But it’s not. It’s not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It’s what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League (see August 23, 1934 and After). When JFK won the presidency in the ‘60s, the John Birch Society flourished (see November 1963). When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the ‘90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it’s the tea party’s turn.” While differences between the various groups are substantive, Drum writes, the similarities are overwhelming. Drum notes that industrialist Fred Koch, an early backer of the Birchers (see 1940 and After), gave way to his sons, David and Charles Koch, who helped launch the organization that would become FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, both of which are major funders and organizers of the tea party movement (see 1979-1980 and 1984 and After). Tea partiers rely on a 50-year-old radical reinterpretation of the Constitution, W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5000 Year Leap; Skousen’s anti-Communist polemics were popular with the Birchers. And Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society (JBS—see March 10, 1961 and December 2011), believed that the 17th Amendment, which affirms the direct election of US senators, was what Drum calls “a poisonous concentration of power in the federal government.” Tea partiers and Fox News hosts hawk this same theory today (see October 16, 2009, April 8, 2010, and June 11, 2010). Drum writes that, far from being motivated by personal economic hardship (tea party supporters tend to be more affluent and less affected by the economic downturn than the average American—see April 14, 2010) or even because of a dislike of President Obama because of his race, the tea party exists because “[e]ver since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.”
Constitutional 'Purity' - One similarity is the focus of each group on what they term the “purity” or “sanctity” of the US Constitution, even as they apply their sometimes-radical reinterpretations of constitutional mandates. “The Liberty Leaguers… spoke of it with ‘worshipful intensity,’” Drum writes. “The John Birch Society—which is enjoying a renaissance of sorts today (see July 22, 2007, August 4, 2008, October 10, 2008, April 13, 2009, April 19, 2010, and August 24, 2010)—says of itself, ‘From its earliest days the John Birch Society has emphasized the importance of the Constitution for securing our freedom.’ And… study groups dedicated to the Constitution have mushroomed among tea partiers” (see May 2010).
Fear of 'Creeping Socialism' and Tyranny - Drum writes: “Other shared tropes include a fear of ‘losing the country we grew up in,’ an obsession with ‘parasites’ who are leeching off of hardworking Americans, and—even though they’ve always received copious assistance from business interests and political operatives—a myth that the movement is composed entirely of fed-up grassroots amateurs” (see 1984 and After, Late 2004, January 2009 and After, February 17, 2009, February 19, 2009 and After, March 13, 2009 and After, April 14, 2009, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, July 27, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 5, 2009, July 3-4, 2010, and August 30, 2010). Above all, though, is the recurring theme of “creeping socialism and a federal government that’s destroying our freedoms.” The American Liberty League fought to stop the Roosevelt administration from establishing Social Security, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and what Drum calls an “alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies.” In the 1960s, the John Birch Society (JBS) felt the government was being overrun by Communism and “collectivism.” Drum notes that JBS founder Robert Welch’s mantra, “Less government and more responsibility,” echoes central tenets of tea party beliefs. In the 1990s, then-Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA) became House Speaker in large part because of his opposition to the Clinton administration and his leadership in the right’s battle to defund federal social-net programs. Today, tea partiers echo the JBS in their insistence that Obama is a closet Marxist or socialist, and echo fears from earlier groups that Obama, the Democrat, intends to turn American democracy into a tyranny.
Conspiracy Theories - Drum echoes conservative writer Jonathan Kay by noting the tea partiers’ “insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories” (see February 4-8, 2010). Welch argued that the federal government was bowing to Communist manipulation by fluoridating the water supply (see 1945 and After), but more importantly, promoted the idea that a mysterious group of “insiders” had been running the world since at least 1776, when the Illuminati took over most European governments. The “insiders” continued their influence, Welch avowed, through the years, taking over France after the French Revolution, Russia and other nations after the advent of Communism, and continued to exercise control through such organs as the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. The same groups are at the center of many conspiracy theories embraced by numerous tea partiers. Drum points out the fondness of the “anti-Clinton zealots” for their “colorful and ever-growing bestiary of shadowy plots,” most surrounding their belief that Clinton was a rapist, a murderer, and a drug peddler. Similar conspiracy theories were promulgated by the JBS about John Kennedy. “Today’s conspiracy theories are different in detail but no less wacky—and no less widespread,” Drum writes. The “birther” conspiracy theory, which holds that Obama is not a natural-born citizen, is quite popular with tea party supporters, and many more believe that Obama intends to place conservatives such as themselves in internment camps, a theory peddled by the JBS in the early 1960s. And many believe that ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the now-defunct community service organization, somehow took control of the Democratic Party, destroyed banks by forcing them to make loans to indigent minorities, crashed the economy, and installed Obama into power.
Effectiveness Improving over Time - Drum writes that each iteration of this right-wing phenomenon is more successful than the last. The Liberty League made no impact whatsoever on President Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election attempt. In 1964, the JBS succeeded in helping right-wing libertarian candidate Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) win the Republican presidential nomination. In the 1990s, Gingrich rode the wave of far-right activism to become speaker of the House, and the activism culminated in the impeachment of President Clinton and the election of President George W. Bush. Drum predicts that the latest wave, the tea party movement, will for all intents and purposes take over the Republican Party. In each iteration, moderate Republicans resisted the wave of right-wing change, but, Drum believes, not enough moderate Republicans exist in any position of power to resist the tea party transformation. The GOP has been shifting ever rightward since the 1970s, Drum notes, and the tea party movement has profited from a transformed media environment, where it can present its ideology almost nonstop on Fox News and rely on social media such as Facebook to connect with new recruits. Drum calls the paradigm shift “the mainstreaming of extremism.” In 1961, Time magazine disparaged the JBS as “tiresome” (see March 10, 1961); in 2009, it hailed Fox News personality Glenn Beck as “gifted.” Moderates have virtually no chance in today’s environment of pushing back against the tea party’s rightward surge. “Unlike the Birchers, or even the Clinton conspiracy theorists, the tea partiers aren’t a fringe part of the conservative movement,” Drum writes. “They are the conservative movement.” Drum believes that even with all the tea party’s current success, it will eventually burn itself out, “while its broader identity becomes subsumed by a Republican Party that’s been headed down the path of ever less-tolerant conservatism for decades. In that sense, the tea party movement is merely an unusually flamboyant symptom of an illness that’s been breeding for a long time.” (Drum 9/2010)


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