You can say this for Glenn Beck: He's charismatic, he was right on ACORN and Van Jones, and he's correct to point out that the government in Washington doesn't work for the common good. The affable Beck articulates the legitimate anger and frustration millions of Americans feel when faced by the fact that the country is in a hot mess of trouble.
But here's the thing: Beck is a white Jeremiah Wright, a crazy-pants conspiracy theorist whose worldview is rooted in the paranoid teachings of a far-right Mormon political guru named W. Cleon Skousen. Before signing up as a recruit in Beck's army, conservative Becketeers had better think long and hard about where their affable leader is taking them.
A few weeks back, the red-hot Fox News Channel phenom spent nine minutes on the air leading a seminar on public artwork in New York City. By the time he was finished, Beck had illuminated a propaganda conspiracy linking communists, fascists, the Soviet Union, the Rockefeller family and the United Nations. This is the sort of weirdo rant you expect to encounter on fringey Web sites. You don't expect to see it on national television.
But that's a big part of Beck's shtick. He's always carrying on about sinister Obamaite conspiracies threatening to overthrow the constitutional order. On the Fox & Friends morning show, Beck declared: "The Manchurian Candidate couldn't destroy us faster than Barack Obama. If you were planning a sleeper to come in and become president of the United States, this is how he would do it."
How is it that a man can call the American president a traitorous subversive and not be laughed, or booed, off the national stage? He's a happy-go-lucky Howard Beale. Paddy Chayefsky, you should have lived to see this moment.
Beck's paranoia doesn't come from nowhere. His man Skousen was a fanatical Mormon reactionary so far to the right that the Latter-day Saints church finally felt compelled to distance itself from his teaching.
Beck, an enthusiastic Mormon convert, pushes Skousen's 1981 book, The 5,000 Year Leap, a tendentious pseudo-history of the United States that interprets the founding in religious terms. Texas Gov. Rick Perry recommended it at the recent Values Voter Summit in Washington. And if the pious nationalism of that book were all you knew about Skousen, you would be hard-pressed to see what the big deal was.
But Skousen wrote many less anodyne books about politics — and held views far darker than revealed in the hokey but harmless Leap. In a 1976 lecture, the audio of which is available on the pro-Skousen site Awake AndArise.org, Skousen rails like an Old Testament prophet, quoting Mormon scriptures and detailing how Satan is working with "secret combinations" — a Mormon theological term — within political parties, churches, labor unions and the wealthy elite, especially the Rockefeller family, to bring about the "One World Order."
Skousen, like his follower Beck, is obsessed with the idea that these secret combinations are conniving to overthrow the U.S. Constitution. Though it is not part of official LDS doctrine, some Mormons believe in an apocalyptic prophecy attributed to church founder Joseph Smith, who supposedly taught that the Constitution would one dark day be hanging by a thread and that Mormon elders would rescue it.
The pudgy, sweet-natured Beck offers a more palatable form of this paranoia — but all his fruit and sugar can't hide the Skousenite firewater. How ironic that conservative Christians who unjustly dunned conventional Mitt Romney because of his LDS faith are uncritically backing the squirrelly Beck, who looks like he's casting himself as hero of a prophetic Mormon melodrama.
There are conservatives who know perfectly well that Beck is an unhinged buffoon who traffics in crude, ridiculous ideas. But unlike the hapless GOP, he's popular and effective in the political war against Obama. So these conservative cynics adopt a "no enemies to the right" approach to Beck, even though he's mainstreaming the ooga-booga worldview of a crank prophet who believed, with the John Birch Society, that Eisenhower was a closet commie.
This is foolish. Not every enemy of Obama is a friend to conservatism. In 1962, in a time when conservatives needed all the help they could get, William F. Buckley nevertheless published in National Review a lengthy denunciation of paranoid Bircher Robert Welch. How long, Buckley asked, can the right tolerate his malicious gibberish without losing credibility? National Review eventually sidelined the Birchers for good over their "psychosis of conspiracy," thus doing the right an enormous service by making conservatism more credible with the American mainstream.
Today, poor Bill is in the grave, Glenn Beck's ratings are soaring, and most conservatives don't see what the problem is. One way or another, they will.
Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist.