We the People

Walter Benn Michaels in Le Monde Diplomatique:

Over the summer two stars of the American right had a friendly argument about who poses the greatest threat to the United States. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly went with the conventional wisdom: al-Qaida. During the Bush administration, it was the clash of cultures that organised the way American conservatives saw the world. When they worried about issues like illegal immigration, what they were afraid of was al-Qaida operatives mingling among the future valet parkers of Chicago and meatpackers of Iowa. But O’Reilly’s new colleague and ratings rival, Glenn Beck, had a more surprising answer: it’s not the jihadists who are trying to destroy our country, it’s the communists. When Beck and the Tea Party, the rightwing populists most closely tied to him, express their deepest worries, it’s not terrorism they fear, it’s socialism.

What’s surprising is that worrying about communists was more characteristic of the Eisenhower years than of post-9/11. Even more surprising is that Beck is a generation younger than O’Reilly. He hadn’t even been born in 1963 when Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, gave the speech about Krushchev’s promise to keep “feeding us socialism” mouthful by mouthful until one day (today, according to Beck, who cites this speech frequently) we wake up and realise we’ve “already got communism”.

Most surprising of all is that this reinvention of the cold war is working. Tea Partiers rush to expose the communists in the Democratic Party; on Amazon’s bestseller lists, the highest ranking political book is FA Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and even the celebrated radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has started worrying about the “communist” spies “who work for Vladimir Putin”.

Why communism? And why now? Islamophobia at least has some pretext based in reality: jihadists really did kill thousands of Americans. But not only were there no communists on the planes that hit the World Trade Centre, today there are virtually no communists anywhere in the US, and precious few in the former USSR. Indeed, if there’s one thing Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama can agree on, it’s their enthusiasm for what Putin (at Davos!) called “the spirit of free enterprise”. And yet, like anti-semitism without Jews, anti-communism without communists has come to play a significant political role on the right, especially on what we might call the anti-neoliberal right.