I remember back when Glenn Beck was a big star with his hugely successful Fox News show. At the time, my father’s girlfriend was dying, and she was addicted to the show. It was obvious that there was a religious aspect to it. She tuned in each day and it was like a gnostic experience to her. She turned on the television, and Glenn Beck revealed secret knowledge to her. He put her entire life’s experiences into a narrative that explained everything. It was a sad end to what had been a fairly interesting life, which included many years going all over the world in a little sail boat.
What makes it most pathetic is that while Beck was a great showman, he had almost nothing with regard to content. He made a great deal out of insights that were not only obvious but meaningless. It was much like watching a child who realizes that “history” has the word “story” in it. While it is true, it also doesn’t tell us much about the word or the world. But Beck was so good at saying it like it meant something, it isn’t surprising that people were fooled. His whole shtick is that any bit of information is just the visible part of the iceberg.
The best example of this was what appeared to be news to him: that Nazism was actually “National Socialism.” This was usually presented very much as Jon Stewart presented him — with intense emotion to the point of stammering. This meant that the actual thing that was terrible about Nazism was that it was a socialist form of government. That wasn’t even true once the Nazis were in power. And this was a major conflict that Joseph Goebbels had — that he felt that Hitler and the Nazi leadership had abandoned that aspect of their movement. Goebbels was a true believer who didn’t understand that it was always and forever about power and only power. (Not that Goebbels wasn’t a truly vile person.)
But it is a curious aspect of conservatives to be so hung up on trivialities. I can call myself George Clooney, but that doesn’t make me attractive. Ideas don’t seem to matter. If my father’s girlfriend appreciated Beck as a gnostic, it is just as true that Beck himself is a gnostic. He has certain set ideas about the world, and by God he is going to find that secret knowledge to prove it. But what’s remarkable is that Beck is hardly alone. There as so many conservatives who seem to be smarter who don’t look any deeper.
A great example of this came out on Monday at National Review — William F Buckley must be fidgety in his grave. Kevin D Williamson wrote, Bernie’s Strange Brew of Nationalism and Socialism. He noted, “In the Bernieverse, there’s a whole lot of nationalism mixed up in the socialism. He is, in fact, leading a national-socialist movement, which is a queasy and uncomfortable thing to write about a man who is the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was murdered in the Holocaust.”
Forget that it is normally the left in other countries, and not the right, that most drapes itself in the flag. Because, you know: Nazism was National Socialism. That’s all that matters. Therefore, if you can call someone a nationalist and a socialist, then you must be calling them a Nazi. In other words: the extent of Williamson’s understand of Nazism is found in the term “National Socialism.” It’s shocking.
But of course, as usual for a conservative, Williamson isn’t interested in making any kind of point. He’s acting like a naughty boy at the back of the class who’s laughing about the spitballs he is launching at the teacher. Or perhaps better would be Beavis and Butt-head, “Ha ha! I called the liberal Jew a Nazi! Ha ha!” Pretty pathetic from a publication formed for the express purpose of giving the conservative movement a little intellectual heft.
But this is what conservatism is in modern America. It isn’t serious. It isn’t smart. It is, more than anything, a kind of identity politics where we are good and they are bad — by definition. Nothing else needs to be discussed. There are serious conservatives out there who do balk at this nonsense. But it is a vanishingly small part of the movement. And I can’t help but think that they only continue to call themselves conservative out of habit.