t the first antitax Tea Parties in February, some of the conservative malcontents who took to their city parks and traffic intersections to protest President Barack Obama’s policies waved placards they’d designed that morning: “Atlas is Shrugging” and “Who is John Galt?” They were making reference to Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, in which productive members of society rebel and retreat from the economy, leaving the “looters” to reap what their high taxes and regulation had sown. The signs were there, literally, from the get-go: the conservative reaction to Democratic rule was rooted in apocalyptic visions of a state gone mad, between two covers.
In subsequent months, the right-wing revolt against Obama has continued to seek inspiration from printed manifestos. While the old guard, the Sean Hannitys and Bill O’Reillys, can still sell books, the titles that appear more prominently in Amazon rankings and on folding tables at marches are a mix of newer stars and unlikely ur-texts. They have adopted an old guide for the left because they think liberals used it to plot their political takeover. They’ve latched onto other books that promise to reveal how so many of their fellow Americans have been lulled into supporting Europe-style socialism. The movement’s most popular books have loftier aspirations, providing activists with new ammunition—from the Founders, economists, the conservative media—to rebel against the president.
Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, by Saul Alinsky (1971). John McCain’s too-late attempt to tar Obama with his connections to New Left veterans like Bill Ayers didn’t amount to much at the polls. Ironically, that failure convinced many conservatives that Obama’s wild-eyed pals and mentors had been on to something, and this 1971 tract by famed community organizer Saul Alinsky, long a mainstay of the activist left, is now required reading on the right as well. New employees of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks get copies at the door; James O’Keefe III, the cheeky twenty-five-year-old who planned the hidden-camera sting of ACORN, said he was inspired by Alinsky’s call for lefty radicals to “make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.”
Alinsky’s recommendation to mock political opponents has been even more influential. “It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule,” he writes. “Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.” For evidence of how that works, ask Susan Roesgen, a CNN reporter who grew enraged by a Tea Party sign comparing Obama to Hitler, snapped at a protester, and lost her job.
The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World, by W. Cleon Skousen (1981).During his lifetime, W. Cleon Skousen—Mormon theologian, historian, and New World Order conspiracist—was regarded by most mainstream conservatives as a kook. In many bookstores it would’ve been hard to find a copy of his 1981 book The 5000 Year Leap, in which Skousen—who died in 2006—argued that the Founders were divinely inspired when they drafted the Constitution, and were convinced that “without religion the government of a free people cannot be maintained.”
Fortunately for Skousen’s publishers, the historian has found a posthumous disciple in Glenn Beck, who wrote the forward to the new edition of The 5000 Year Leap and has called the book “essential to understanding why our Founders built this Republic the way they did.” The book shot to number one on Amazon’s best-seller list when Beck endorsed it in March, and sales have remained strong. Skousen’s ability to wend together Bible verses and economic theories from Ludwig von Mises to Milton Friedman has provided intellectual ballast for the Tea Party crowd. There are flashes of nonsense, such as the instructions to meditate on the wings of the American eagle, complete with illustration. But Skousen outlines a conservative Christian case that debt will morally wreck America, a message that has resounded at the Tea Parties.
Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto, by Mark Levin (2009). Talk-radio host Mark Levin is hardly the first conservative shouting head to write a book—Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Bill O’Reilly have all produced best-sellers. But those books didn’t much inform the conservative movement—they took aim at fleeting targets and mostly served to reinforce the authors’ broadcasting franchises. Levin’s book, by contrast, has become totemic, a sort of little red book for the right; in radio ads, Rush Limbaugh called it the kind of book that gets passed between heretics, hidden in a brown wrapper.
On his syndicated radio show, Levin—a conservative lawyer and Reagan administration veteran—will joke about Hillary “Rotten” Clinton’s thighs and Nancy “Stretch” Pelosi’s skin. On the page, he’s a sober intellectual. His manifesto is divided into ten stoic lessons—“On the Free Market,” “On Immigration,” “On Enviro-Statism”—culminating in a list of conservative demands. That list doesn’t differ much from the minutes of an Orange County GOP breakfast, and the book has proved more influential for its snack-sized lessons in economics and history. “Modern Liberalism,” writes Levin, “promotes what French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described as a soft tyranny, which becomes increasingly more oppressive, potentially leading to a hard tyranny (some form of totalitarianism).”
Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies, by Michelle Malkin (2009). The community organizing group ACORN had vexed Republican campaign operatives for decades. It’s now a household name among rank-and-file conservatives, in part thanks to Michelle Malkin’s work portraying the group as a “criminal enterprise,” the ultimate example of the liberal push to centralize power and loot taxpayers. The conservative columnist and blogger gathered months of reports and blog posts about the president and his team and put them between covers, with seventy-five pages of endnotes. (Tellingly, the jacket copy promotes Malkin not as a conservative bomb tosser, but as an investigative journalist.)
In addition to making “ACORN” a popular catch-all epithet at the Tea Parties, Malkin—who is Filipina American—has also been the chief exponent of the argument that the media gave the Obamas a free ride because of their race. “Cronies come in all colors,” she writes of Bill Ayers. “White, black … and pinko, too.” EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson also got a pass because “national journalists seemed more interested in her skin color than the dark spots on her resume.”
Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine, by Glenn Beck (2009). In the new conservative pantheon, the ratings-grabbing Fox News talk-show host Glenn Beck is the great synthesizer and popularizer, leaning heavily on sources such as Skousen and compressing their already-limited explanations of economic theories into short blasts of anger at “the Ivy Leaguers” and bankers. This slim paperback (there is no hardcover edition) hit the shelves in June 2009, and it has all the signs of quick turnaround. Beck’s own writing composes only 104 pages of the book; the rest is given over to his 9.12 Project’s manifesto, a short reading list, and Paine’s Common Sense. The direct contrast between Paine and Beck does the TV host no favors; the book reads like a transcript of his show, with comparisons of the political parties to the criminals in Ocean’s Eleven and all-caps calls to action: “WE ARE NOT SHEEP. AMERICANS HAVE NEVER BEEN SHEEP.”
Beck’s manifesto is as muddled as it is popular. He argues that the tax code, bailouts of failing banks, Americorps, and all the programs of the modern state are about control, not charity, and certaintly not the preservation of capitalism. At the same time, he argues that a fine result of the 1994 Republican Revolution was the enforcement of decades of progressive legislation, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. The ideology and the solutions are a bit of a mess—Beck’s ideal government is run by rotating teams of Tea Parties and torch-wielding villagers.
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David Weigel is a reporter for the WashingtonIndependent.