NEW YORK — Whenever I hear people on America’s Republican right call themselves “conservative,” I experience the mental equivalent of a slight electric shock.
A conservative is someone who, in the tradition of the 18th-century English parliamentarian Edmund Burke, believes that the established order deserves respect, even reverence. A liberal, by contrast, is someone ready to alter the established order in pursuit of a vision of a better world.
The Whig historian of the 19th century Thomas Macaulay described this difference well. There were “two great parties” in England, he wrote, which manifested a “distinction” that “had always existed, and always must exist.”
On the one side were liberals, “a class of men sanguine in hope, bold in speculation, always pressing forward . . . and disposed to give every change credit for being an improvement.”
On the other were conservatives, “a class of men who cling with fondness to whatever is ancient, and who, even when convinced by overpowering reasons that innovation would be beneficial, consent to it with many misgivings and forebodings.”
By this the standard, the right in the United States — the party of Fox News, the “tea party” and, increasingly, the Republican Party itself — are no longer conservatives. They are radicals.
They are ecological radicals, denying the scientific consensus on global warming; they are prepared to let the Earth cook. What could be less conservative than that?
They are legal radicals, supporting the form of torture called waterboarding, as well as widespread secret wiretapping. On the basis of far-fetched “originalist” interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, they would deny the federal government the power to engage in almost any form of economic support of the general welfare, including health. They are nuclear radicals: Many sought to obstruct the New START treaty with Russia, which will modestly advance the arms-control agenda pursued by all Republican presidents since Richard Nixon.
But nothing illustrates the radicalism of the new right better than the recent attack by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck on the financier and philanthropist George Soros, who is of Hungarian and Jewish origin. Beck’s attack, called “The Puppet-Master?,” recycles the tropes of the most virulent anti-Semitic ideologies of the totalitarian movements of the first half of the 20th century.
Beck, who denies that he is anti- Semitic, is a conspiracy theorist of classic vintage, though the content of his alleged conspiracies is, to put it bluntly, weird. True, some of it is classic McCarthyite red-baiting. Of Obama’s White House, he says, “there are communists, Marxists, revolutionaries all around this president.”
Stranger still is his attack on, of all people, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson is fingered as the originator of “progressivism,” which, in turn, is — believe it or not — also identified as the point of origin of Nazism and Bolshevism. Beck regularly likens President Barack Obama’s policies to those of Adolf Hitler.
Wilson, Hitler and Obama are linked by a chain of association altogether typical of conspiracy theorizing in general, and of its anti-Semitic variety in particular: Wilson was a “progressive”; some progressives dabbled in eugenics; the eugenics movement influenced Hitler; Obama, too, is a progressive. Therefore, progressives, Hitler and Obama are connected!
Of all this we can say what the political thinker Hannah Arendt said of the anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Its effect is to “reveal official history as a joke, to demonstrate a sphere of secret influence of which the visible, traceable and known historical reality was only the outward facade. “
Now a new epicenter for the Wilson- Hitler-Obama axis has been identified in Soros. While horror-film music plays and clips of history’s disasters are shown, a voice intones: “Eighty years ago, George Soros was born. Little did the world know then, economies would collapse, currencies would become worthless, elections would be stolen, regimes would fall. And one billionaire would find himself coincidentally at the center of it all.”
Going on to accuse Soros of creating a shadow government in the U.S., the show claims that this “greatly resembles” similar organizations that “he has created in other countries” supposedly “before instigating a coup.” Thus, Beck falsely charges that Soros has instigated coups abroad while implying that he plans to carry one out in the U.S.
Beck doesn’t say so, of course, but what Soros has actually done is to give support through his Open Society foundations to prodemocracy movements in many countries. Many of them, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, were ruled by Communist regimes at the time. One would think that a self- proclaimed conservative like Beck would support that sort of activity.
But since when have conspiracy- mongers been hampered by contradiction?
Indeed, they have historically been no more bothered by engaging in contradictions than in ignoring facts. After all, the Nazis accused Jews of being the secret force behind both capitalism and communism — a contradiction as well as a lie that is resuscitated in “The Puppet Master?”
Since roughly 1994, when Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans have taken to calling themselves “revolutionaries” — not a word often found on the lips of conservatives. Has the time come to take them at their word?
Beck’s assault on Soros — and the unmistakable stench of its atrocious antecedents — suggests what sort of revolution they may have in mind.
Jonathan Schell is a fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at Yale University. © 2011 Project Syndicate
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.