"It all adds up to me having to admit that I was wrong. Our government is not marching down the road towards communism or socialism. … They’re marching us to a non-violent fascism. Or to put it another way, they’re marching us to 1984. Big Brother, he’s watching … Like it or not, fascism is on the rise."
That’s Glenn Beck, this year’s hottest American talk show host. He’s talking, on his top-rating cable show, about the Obama administration — and as he speaks the screen shows a backdrop of goose-stepping Nazis.
We live in extreme times, our political certainties destroyed by the global financial crisis. Amid the ruins of that pre-GFC consensus, Glenn Beck has emerged as an unlikely star, a top-rating host of radio and TV shows in which he presents the most paranoid fantasies of the far right as well established fact.
Before describing President Obama as a fascist, Beck had repeatedly dubbed Obama a Marxist — even speculating that he was the prophesied anti-Christ. The Glenn Beck Program discussed plans by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish concentration camps for dissidents (a rumour, Beck said, that he was unable to debunk), and enthused about how armed groups of conservative whites would fight against the government in a looming civil war.
The satirist Stephen Colbert describes the formula as "Crank up the crazy and rip off the knob!" — and it’s hard to disagree.
"Maybe I’m alone," says Beck, discussing Obama’s immigration reforms, "but I think it would be just faster if they just shot me in the head. You know what I mean? How much more can he disenfranchise all of us?" He implores Obama to set him on fire and then slowly douses his co-host from a petrol can, all the while waving around a cigarette lighter. It is one of the more deranged segments in recent TV history and, like a car wreck, it exerts its own grisly fascination.
The remarkable success of The Glenn Beck Program — since moving from CNN to Fox in January, each episode typically attracts two million viewers — depends, to some extent at least, upon the rubbernecking fostered by its host’s bizarre antics. Beck is a beneficiary of the changing American media landscape in which the US networks recognise that blending news and commentary produces content that is simultaneously cheap and popular.
As a result, Americans increasingly learn about the world from broadcasters without any attachment to the norms of traditional journalism. Beck might regularly feature interviews with politicians (invariably of the extreme right) discussing the week’s events. But his shows are first and foremost "infotainment", compered by a man who learned his craft on the comedy circuit. When challenged, he describes his on-air persona as a "rodeo clown". It’s all in fun, he says, not to be taken too seriously.
Except, of course, when it is.
In April this year, a man named Richard Poplawski ambushed and killed three Pittsburgh police officers. Poplawski was a paranoiac white supremacist. He feared a sinister cabal controlling the federal government, the media, and the banking system. These malevolent internationalists were, he thought, coming to take his guns. On the neo-Nazi site Stormfront, Poplawski illustrated his theories with Youtube clips of Glenn Beck discussing the supposed FEMA concentration camps with Congressman Ron Paul.
Naturally, in the wake of Pittsburgh, Beck professed outrage at any association with Poplawski. Why, the man was a Nazi, a nut, solely responsible for his own crimes. The vast majority of Beck’s fans were ordinary Americans, law-abiding folk as appalled at gun massacres as anyone.
Which was, no doubt, true. Yet, in his new book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalised the American Right, the journalist David Neiwert argues that Beck — and others like him — should not so easily escape responsibility for a violent fringe. For years, Neiwert has been monitoring the mainstreaming of the particularly dangerous kind of right-wing populism he calls "eliminationism". An example: on a radio show syndicated to 160 stations, Beck once mused: "I’m thinking about killing [filmmaker]Michael Moore, and I’m wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it."
It is, Neiwert says, increasingly common to hear media figures with mass audiences discussing liberals as carcinogens on the body politic. In prominent blogger Michelle Malkin’s book Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild, liberals are insane; in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, they are fascists; in widely syndicated radio host Michael Savage’s The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military (and in scores of similar books) they are traitors, destroying the nation from within. The three titles above were all bestsellers.
Yes, the last decade saw an equal proliferation of Bush-bashing texts. For Neiwert, however, eliminationism fundamentally differs from the anti-Republican stylings of Moore or Al Franken because of its rhetorical violence. Once you diagnose liberalism as a cancer, its excision is already implied. There is, therefore, a certain inevitability to the tone of Savage’s radio show. "I say round them up and hang ‘em high," he tells his listeners.
The columnist Ann Coulter’s best-selling books include a text entitled Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. With treason traditionally attracting the death penalty, it’s no surprise when Coulter tells an interviewer that she prefers to communicate with progressives via "a baseball bat". On another famous occasion, she said of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, "My only regret […] is he did not go to the [liberal]New York Times building," a quip that she subsequently amplified and repeated.
Is there anything new in this? Haven’t there always been fringe blowhards calling for violent retribution against America’s enemies within and without?
Well, yes, to a degree.
In 1964, Richard Hofstadter published a famous essay entitled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". In it, he provides examples of paranoid thinking in 18th century America, centred on the perfidious scheming of Masons and Illuminati. He also identifies something different about its contemporary manifestation. "The modern right wing …," he writes, "feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion."
In the early 1970s, right-wing politicians recognised that such narratives of decline provided an opportunity to prise poorer whites in the Southern states away from their traditional Democratic affiliation. Demonisation of perfidious liberal elites proved consistently successful for the Republicans for many years and inevitably generated a fringe who took the rhetoric too seriously.
In the last recession, the paranoid wing of right-wing populism coalesced into the so-called Patriot movement — a strange amalgam of survivalists, anti-communists, white supremacists and gun enthusiasts built around a fevered retelling of the anti-elitist narrative. These militias were strongest in hardscrabble communities where financial hardship fuelled anger at the Clintons as slick-talking interlopers selling out the nation to sinister forces at home and abroad, and where a dizzying conspiracy involving the United Nations, the New World Order and the Zionist Occupation Government seemed less terrifying than the generalised indifference of an economic downturn. The toxic milieu of the Patriots spawned Timothy McVeigh — and a wave of other domestic terrorists responsible for over 40 violent incidents between 1995 and 2000.
The militias faded after the Clinton years, partly because of the economic recovery, partly because the far right felt less visceral antipathy to George W Bush and partly, perhaps, because the "war on terror" provided an external focus for internal rage. Yet, all through the Bush administration, the conservative infrastructure pushed the same populist message: the president was a swaggering Texan man of the people; his enemies, effete and treacherous intellectuals.
That strategy reached its nadir at the last election with the McCain/Palin ticket. Sarah Palin campaigned on almost nothing other than her anti-elitism: for her supporters, Palin was an ordinary hockey mom coming to clean up Washington, her very inexperience proof of virtue. In that respect, Obama’s victory — the defeat of the oxymoronic "Team Maverick" by a black liberal — was seen as the end of the so-called "Southern strategy", with the Republicans’ preferred talking points decisively rejected by an increasingly young and increasingly multicultural electorate.
In the wake of the Obama landslide, many Republican strategists recognised a need to change course but the populist forces they unleashed now possess their own momentum. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, a key event for the right-wing rank-and-file, shock-jock Rush Limbaugh delivered the plenary address to rapturous applause. Afterwards, a journalist asked Michael Steele — a black man whose election to the chair of the Republican National Committee was seen as broadening the party’s appeal — whether Limbaugh was now the de facto Republican leader. Steele said no. Limbaugh, after all, was a pioneer of media eliminationism, a man who famously described President Clinton’s 13-year-old daughter as a "dog", dismissed the Abu Ghraib photos as "fraternity hazing", accused Michael J Fox of faking his Parkinsons’ symptoms and, during the election, complained about Obama, "We have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president."
When Steele called Limbaugh’s rhetoric "incendiary" and "ugly", massive pressure from the rank-and-file forced him into grovelling retraction, thus effectively ceding leadership to a tub-thumping hatemonger.
Limbaugh’s influence over the Republicans partly reflects developments in the media, with the public sphere now irretrievably fractured. Once upon a time, the citizenry relied upon a handful of papers and TV channels, which, for better or worse, provided common ground for even the most divisive debates. Today, with newspapers in steep — perhaps terminal — decline, Americans select from a digital smorgasbord, shaping their intake according to individual preferences. One can now avidly consume news via the TV, internet and the radio without ever confronting views with which one disagrees.
For instance, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly recently told his millions of viewers that "some believe" that President Obama sympathised with a "one-world, global-justice view", an outlook which O’Reilly had previously described as "requir[ing]that a one-world government seize private property and distribute it so that every human being has roughly the same amount of resources". The threat from "One Worlders" was, of course, a staple conspiracy of the Patriot movement in the 90s. These days, though, those who find O’Reilly convincing wouldn’t need to sign up for militia training in order to meet other believers. Instead, they could dive into a whole network of internet sites, all of which would confirm the threat to individual property from the One World conspiracy. Indeed, a devotee of right-wing radio, cable TV and blogs might never interact with anyone who wasn’t convinced about the imminent encroachment of the world state.
Clearly, Richard Poplawski was an unstable individual with views far more extreme than the most rabid talk show blusterers. But David Neiwert argues that the Poplawskis of the world become much more likely to act upon their fantasies when they hear their pet theories discussed before an audience of millions.
Thinking of shooting progressives in the streets? Here’s Rush Limbaugh: "I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus — living fossils — so we will never forget what these people stood for."
Oh, of course, Limbaugh was joking. He’s an entertainer, not a journalist. Why should anyone take him seriously? Well, Neiwert suggests a few possible answers: because Limbaugh has an audience of millions hanging upon his every word; because he regularly appears on major TV and radio networks; because leading politicians hold him up as a figure worthy of admiration and praise. And if a big media star like Rush discusses killing liberals but never puts words into action, why shouldn’t a misfit listener console himself that by taking up the gun, he’s bravely doing what others dare only think?
Since 2001, America has obsessively focused on the threat from Islamist terrorism. But between 1995 and 2005, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a group dedicated to monitoring hate groups, recorded over 60 cases of paranoid populist crimes, ranging from bombings and bomb plots to weapons and explosives violations. As Neiwert points out, "if you totalled up several years worth of criminal activity related to Islamic extremism, it would not come close to that of our homegrown terrorists."
Today, the global financial crisis provides fertile soil for the most paranoid populism to revive. A recent Department of Homeland Security report concludes that real-estate foreclosures, unemployment and tight credit "could create a fertile recruiting environment for right-wing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past". The report explicitly compares today’s circumstances to the 1990s, "when right-wing extremism experienced a resurgence fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to US power and sovereignty by other foreign powers".
The response to Obama’s reforms to health care illustrated the process. The American health system leaves some 47 million people entirely uncovered, so much so that, when organisations like Remote Area Medical, formed to tend to developing countries, provided free clinics in California, the queue stretched for blocks. But the Obama Administration’s proposal for some mild reforms to cheapen health coverage generated an almost hallucinogenic rage on the populist right.
A delusional meme about how the reforms involve "death panels" to euthanise the elderly has spread so wildly that, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 45 per cent of Americans think Obama’s reforms would allow the government to curtail health care for older citizens. At the public forums discussing health reform, angry mobs have formed to shout down "socialised medicine". In Michigan, for instance, a father pushed his handicapped son’s wheelchair to the front of the hall and, almost weeping with rage, explained that the reforms would curtail the treatment received by his child (they wouldn’t).
Health reform in the US has always been problematic, not least because the major health insurers, with a vested interest in the status quo, will fight tooth and nail to defeat any changes. Yet what makes the chaos in the town hall meetings so remarkable is the thinly veiled undercurrent of violence. In a meeting where Obama spoke in New Hampshire, a certain William Kostric paraded outside with a sign explaining that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of tyrants and patriots". He had a gun strapped to his leg. There were armed protesters in Tennessee; in Phoenix, a dozen gun-toting men, including one with a military rifle, in the crowd milling around outside another Obama event.
Again, you can see the logic. If Obama really is a communist Nazi coming to kill your grandmother, isn’t armed resistance merely a matter of self-defence? Glenn Beck might hastily warn that "one lunatic like Timothy McVeigh could ruin everything" but maybe that’s just because he doesn’t have the courage of his own convictions.
Today, the health insurers are celebrating the defeat of Obama’s reforms, an outcome to which the palpable sense of menace generated by the eliminationists made an important contribution. We can expect, then, the tactics to be replicated. If angry mobs can be whipped up around health reform, imagine the possibilities over, say, climate change.
It’s a dangerous game being played, and could all too easily end in atrocity. Beck talks about Obama setting people on fire. But it’s Beck — and the media stars like him — who are pouring the petrol and playing with matches.