In its despair and confusion, a large segment of the American populace is prepared to believe anything it’s told, in part because we are a country less and less educated.

Watching Glenn Beck’s performance at his “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., this month, I thought of a Sinclair Lewis character, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a politician who poses as a populist. Once elected president, he turns the United States into a fascist dictatorship, aided by an angry, unknowing electorate and a paramilitary group called the Minute Men.

Read how Lewis described Windrip 75 years ago in his novel “It Can’t Happen Here” and think Beck:

“He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

Entirely incorrect. In its despair and confusion, a large segment of the American populace is prepared to believe anything it’s told, in part because we are a country less and less educated, unschooled in basic essential knowledge about America and the world.

I remember a conversation my friend and colleague Bill Moyers had with journalist and author Susan Jacoby on “Bill Moyers Journal” in 2008 –– just after the publication of her book, “The Age of American Unreason.”

She cited a 2006 National Geographic-Roper Survey: “Only 23 percent of college-educated young people could find Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Israel, four countries of ultimate importance to American policy on the map — a map, by the way, that had the countries lettered on it. So in other words, it wasn’t a blank map, (which) meant they didn’t really know where the Middle East was either.”

It’s not much of a leap from there to the Pew Research Center survey last month reporting “nearly one in five Americans (18 percent) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009.”

The jump in the “Obama is a Muslim” numbers is sharpest among Republicans. But as New York Times blogger Timothy Egan noted in an entry headlined, “Building a Nation of Know-Nothings,” it’s “not just that 46 percent of Republicans believe the lie that Obama is a Muslim, or that 27 percent in the party doubt that the president of the United States is a citizen. But fully half of them believe falsely that the big bailout of banks and insurance companies under TARP was enacted by Obama, and not by President Bush.”

According to a survey conducted last year by The American Revolution Center, a non-partisan, educational group, more than half of American adults “mistakenly believe the Constitution established a government of direct democracy, rather than a democratic republic.” A third of American adults don’t know that the right to trial-by-jury is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and “many more Americans remember that Michael Jackson sang ‘Beat It’ than know that the Bill of Rights is part of the Constitution.”

So is it any wonder that many Tea Partiers are equally unknowing of the fact that much of their grass roots movement is bankrolled by fat cats with ulterior motives like billionaire libertarians David Koch and his brother Charles, who, as a former associate told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, seems to have “confused making money with freedom?” Or that continuing tax cuts for the rich while supporting deficit reduction are inherently incompatible concepts? Or that raging Islamophobia plays right into the hands of radical terrorists who use our bigotry to incite and recruit? Or that Glenn Beck just says whatever craziness pops into his head?

Years ago, I attended a rally protesting government cuts in funding for education and the arts. One of the speakers suggested that we boomers may be the first generation to teach the next generation less than we know. That often-willful ignorance may turn out to be our final, fatal mistake –– the greatest American tragedy of all.

Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, N.Y., is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.