Earlier this month, in a lengthy article about Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, I mentioned that Beck based his “9 Principles” on the supposed 28 founding principles of the United States asserted in the book The 5000 Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen. The 9 Principles, however, are just the beginning of Skousen’s influence on Beck. In an article published last week on Salon.com, Alexander Zaitchik sheds a bit more light on the life and beliefs of Skousen, the father of Glenn Beck’s warped ideology:
What has Beck been pushing on his legions? Leap, first published in 1981, is a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. Leap argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs — based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith — that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined. The book reads exactly like what it was until Glenn Beck dragged it out of Mormon obscurity: a textbook full of aggressively selective quotations intended for conservative religious schools like Utah’s George Wythe University, where it has been part of the core freshman curriculum for decades (and where Beck spoke at this year’s annual fundraiser).
But more interesting than the contents of The 5,000 Year Leap," and more revealing for what it says about 912ers and the Glenn Beck Nation, is the book’s author. W. Cleon Skousen was not a historian so much as a player in the history of the American far right; less a scholar of the republic than a threat to it. At least, that was the judgment of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which maintained a file on Skousen for years that eventually totaled some 2,000 pages. Before he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen’s own Mormon church publicly distanced itself from the foundation that Skousen founded and that has published previous editions of The 5,000 Year Leap.
Skousen worked as an administrator for the FBI in the 1930s and ‘40s, then got a job as Chief of Police in Mormon Central, Salt Lake City, Utah. Eventually he was fired by mayor J. Bracken Lee, whom Zaitchik describes as “ultra-conservative,” for enforcing Mormon morality too harshly, including spending city funds on constantly breaking up card games in which big-time Mormon muckety-mucks participated. During the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s, Skousen published his book The Naked Communist, and became a regular on the right-wing lecture circuit. He even somehow acquired a faint air of credibility in some circles. But most who knew him, knew better. As Zaitchik puts it, “When Skousen’s books started popping up in the nation’s high-school classrooms, panicked school board officials wrote the FBI asking if Skousen was reliable. The Bureau’s answer was an exasperated and resounding ‘no.’”
In 1969, while teaching at Brigham Young University, Skousen began enthusiastically championing the book Tragedy and Hope by Carroll Quigley. The book so inspired Skousen that he wrote an essay entitled “The Naked Capitalist,” which he self-published in 1970, and which has become a foundational document for anti-globalist conspiracy theorists. By this point even Skousen’s fellow Mormons were starting to disassociate from him. Zaitchik again:
Terrified, the editors of Dialogue: The Journal of Mormon Thought invited Tragedy and Hope author Carroll Quigley to comment on Skousen’s interpretation of his work. They also asked a highly respected BYU history professor named Louis C. Midgley to review Skousen’s latest pamphlet. Their judgment was not kind. In the Autumn/Winter 1971 issue of Dialogue, the two men accused Skousen of “inventing fantastic ideas and making inferences that go far beyond the bounds of honest commentary.” Skousen not only saw things that weren’t in Quigley’s book, they declared, he also missed what actually was there — namely, a critique of ultra-far-right conspiracists like Willard Cleon Skousen.
Fanatically religious, dishonest and sloppy, paranoid, delusional New World Order conspiracy nut, apparently rather stupid — sound like anyone we know? And that’s not all! Skousen, like his philosophical off-spring Beck, was also something of a racist:
Toward the end of Reagan’s second term, Skousen became the center of a minor controversy when state legislators in California approved the official use of another of his books, the 1982 history text The Making of America. Besides bursting with factual errors, Skousen’s book characterized African-American children as “pickaninnies” and described American slave owners as the “worst victims” of the slavery system. Quoting the historian Fred Albert Shannon, “The Making of America” explained that “[slave] gangs in transit were usually a cheerful lot, though the presence of a number of the more vicious type sometimes made it necessary for them all to go in chains.”
The most telling aspect of the connection between Skousen and Beck to me, though is this: it’s only been two years since Glenn Beck first read The 5000 Year Leap. To hear him go on and on about it on the radio and TV, to see how profoundly his view of the world has been influenced by it, you’d think Beck and Skousen were old friends. But no — like his Mormonism, Beck’s conversion to an unabashed W. Cleon Skousen disciple is a relatively recent development. Maybe that explains Beck’s zeal in touting the old kook’s work to anyone who’ll listen. Aren’t the new converts usually the most enthusiastic? It’s as if they’re trying to make up for lost time.
Alexander Zaitchik has also written an excellent three-part series on the career of Glenn Beck, going back to his early days in morning radio when no one outside of his local market knew who the fuck he was, and when he chased ratings by making fun of overweight employees at competing stations, and once telephoned the wife of a rival DJ on the air to make fun of her recent miscarriage. At least not much has changed. Glenn may have transitioned from a crude morning zoo host to a faux-earnest populist crusader, but he’s still just as vulgar, dishonest, shameless, and desperate for attention as he ever was.