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 eighteenth-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 nineteenth 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, of 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 water-boarding, as well as widespread secret wiretapping. And, on the basis of far-fetched "originalist" interpretations of the US Constitution, they would deny the federal government the power to engage in almost any form of economic regulation or support of the general welfare, including public health.
They are even nuclear radicals, and many seek to obstruct the New START treaty with Russia, which would modestly advance the arms-control agenda pursued by all Republican presidents since Richard Nixon. Tea Party candidates have even hinted that armed resistance to the US government may soon be justifiable.
But nothing illustrates the radicalism of the new right better than the recent attack by the Fox News commentator Glenn Beck on the financier and philanthropist George Soros. Soros is of Hungarian and Jewish origin, and Beck's attack, called "The Puppet-Master?", recycles, almost in carbon copy, the tropes of the most virulent anti-Semitic ideologies of the totalitarian movements of the first half of the twentieth 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, US 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 Obama's policies to those of Hitler. (Recently, Roger Ailes, Fox's founder and president, said of the management of mild, sober National Public Radio, "They are, of course, Nazis.")
Wilson, Hitler, and Obama are linked by a chain of highly permissive 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 (never mind that some conservatives did as well); the eugenics movement influenced Hitler; Obama, too, is a progressive. Therefore progressives, Hitler, and Obama are the same!
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 façade…"
Now a new epicenter for the Wilson-Hitler-Obama axis has been identified in the person of George Soros. While horror-film music plays and clips of history's disasters are shown on the screen, 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 US, 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 US.
Beck doesn't say so, of course, but what Soros has actually done is give support through his Open Society foundations to pro-democracy 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 lie that is resuscitated in "The Puppet Master?".
Since roughly 1994, when Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of the US 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? Glenn Beck's assault on Soros - and the unmistakable stench of its atrocious antecedents - suggests what sort of revolution they may have in mind.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.