The nation may have taken a step toward communicative sanity this week with the fall of arch-reactionary, proto-fascistic, and paranoid-style Fox News host Glenn Beck. We don’t use these descriptive terms lightly when it comes to Beck, who has repeatedly called on the American right to engage in coercion and violence against its enemies.
In 2005, Beck publicly fantasized about murdering Michael Moore, as seen in the following excerpt from his program:
“I'm thinking about killing Michael Moore, and I'm wondering if I could kill him myself, or if I would need to hire somebody to do it. No, I think I could. I think he could be looking me in the eye, you know, and I could just be choking the life out — is this wrong? I stopped wearing my What Would Jesus — band — Do, and I've lost all sense of right and wrong now. I used to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I'd kill Michael Moore,’ and then I'd see the little band: What Would Jesus Do? And then I'd realize, ‘Oh, you wouldn't kill Michael Moore. Or at least you wouldn't choke him to death.’ And you know, well, I'm not sure.”
More recently, in mid-2010, Beck called on the audience at an NRA meeting to initiate a violence against the Democratic Party. He complained that he was tired of the American public “not getting’ it” when it came to recognizing the dangers the Democratic-“Marxist” threat. In serving up his audience “a touch of the truth,” Beck made outlandish neo-McCarthyite links between Nazi Germany – which he referred to as a “national socialist workers union” - and oppressive “giant government” (defined as social welfare spending for the poor and union protections for American workers) in the U.S. and Western Europe. He told NRA members that “this country will never fail by an outside force,” but will “be destroyed” by the “free love, smoking dope, having sex in the mud hippies” who “are running our country now” and “putting pressure on our country from the inside.” The miscreants who threatened to ruin American liberty and prosperity from within, Beck shouted, “are not Democrats….[they] are Marxist revolutionaries.” The American political system, he ranted, was “being rotted from the inside” by the dastardly “Marxist-Lenninist” Obama campaign for “change.” Beck rolled up his sleeves and shed his jacket, reminding his audience of the importance of maintaining “a well-regulated militia.” He told the nation’s leading gun enthusiasts that “you might need one because the government’s not doing its job.”
Beck recently repeated his support for violence against “the left,” calling for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to declare war on American labor unions because of their alleged engagement in what Beck called “economic terrorism.” The charge of economic terrorism gained traction with Beck and his followers after the 2011 Left Forum, a gathering of liberal and left progressives that takes place in New York City every March. Beck’s paranoid ire was directed with special force at former SEIU organizer Steven Lerner, who called during a Left Forum session (one of more than 300 at the two-day gathering) on progressives to “move [the] disruption of Madison to Wall Street.” Beck latched on to Lerner’s statement that activists should work to “cause a new financial crisis” to win newfound reforms benefitting American workers and citizens. Beck’s attack was the product of an infiltration campaign on the part of the right – which has engaged in surveillance of progressive and liberal institutions to “expose” supposed dire left-wing “threats” and “corruption.” In the case of Lerner and the Left Forum, Beck appealed to Attorney General Holder with the charge that the gathering “seriously endanger[s] the welfare of the United States…The escalation of Mr. Lerner’s threats,” Beck claimed, “would clearly constitute domestic terrorism and pose substantial harm to the American people and the economy.”
How was Lerner, along with other “terrorists” on the left, conspiring to “destroy America”? Lerner’s statements amounted to little more than support for militant but thoroughly nonviolent, Madison-inspired, and popular activism at the workplace and community levels. Lerner called for Americans to engage in a mortgage strike through a “strategic defaults” campaign. Such a campaign would be similar to what’s already happening in the housing market, with many Americans strategically deciding not to pay their mortgages either because they can’t afford them, or because they don’t see the point in making payments on a house that is already far underwater. The other key part of Lerner’s “terrorist” agenda proposed a “debt strike” in which cities and states would pressure banks to renegotiate loans and interest rates to ease the pressure on debt-ridden state and local governments.
Though Lerner’s call for a campaign to pressure the banking system in the interests of working people and the fiscal health of local and state government has not been embraced by U.S. organized labor, Beck insisted on painting Lerner’s proposals out as a big labor plot to ruin America:
“You can call it a conspiracy theory, but the language that he [Lerner] uses is already being used by labor leaders and those who are whipping people up into a frenzy in Wisconsin and wait until you see how they are going to use the state and county and local labor unions to do exactly what they did to the housing market. It’s the same tactic, gang. The same tactic. And it ends with the destruction of the economic system of the United States of America. They are bringing it on through chaos and bringing down of Wall Street and the stock market.” Beck has reiterated his attempted false connections between militant non-violent civil disobedience and the labor movement by lumping “unions, socialists, and anarchists” together into a single monolithic “threat” to American prosperity and national security.
Beck’s paranoid notion of a “radical” American union “threat” is contradicted by the thoroughly establishment-oriented politics of organized labor. The major unions involved in the Madison protests (such as AFSCME) have refused to seriously consider a general strike throughout Wisconsin, fearing the repercussions should Governor Scott Walker escalate his attack on the state’s workers by firing striking workers. There is of course no place in Beck’s proto-fascistic mindset to grasp the conflict between (a) rank and file activists pushing to keep the independent working class movement alive with opposition to worker concessions and with militant tactics like a general strike and (b) labor bureaucrats and other elite liberals who have folded the Wisconsin struggle into an effort to put the corporate-captive Democrats (the other state-capitalist austerity party) back into nominal power in Wisconsin. “It’s time to put your signs and pick up a clipboard to help get the Republicans out of office,” one Democrat told the giant pro-labor crowd outside the Madison Capital Rotunda last March 12th. .As Lee Sustar recently noted:
“Talk of a general strike–frequently discussed among activists during the three weeks of protests at Wisconsin's Capitol in Madison–dissipated as union leaders pressured union members to approve contracts that contain at least a 7 percent pay cut in order to keep the dues money. Labor's focus now is on recalling eight Republican Wisconsin state senators–which, however worthy a goal, is no substitute for a fight based on labor's power on the job….union leaders continue to sound the retreat, limiting the fight-back against the Republicans to the ballot box, while bowing to more ‘reasonable’ concessions pushed by Democrats….the focus is now on the recall of eight Republican state senators, whose ouster would give the Democrats control of the state senate and slow down Walker's union-smashing, budget-cutting agenda. Thus, the final mass labor rally in Madison March 12 was a kickoff of an electoral campaign rather than struggle at the workplace.”
Sustar continued: “It didn’t have to turn out this way. The willingness of workers in Wisconsin to take more militant action was clear throughout the conflict, and the teachers' sickout could have set the stage for similar job actions across the state….Wisconsin union leaders saw Walker's attack on dues check-off as a threat directed mainly at their own livelihoods–and they pushed workers to accept to concessions in order to protect their own interests at the expense of the rank and file.”
In his Left Forum session, Lerner noted that American unions had little interest in leading the campaign he proposed. This part of his presentation was naturally ignored by Beck, for it did not fit with his fear-mongering assault on what’s left of American organized labor and his fascistic insistence on conflating liberalism with the radical left.
The Left Forum, it should be noted, opened with a surprise, plenary session visit from the 78-year-old progressive activist and academic Frances Fox Piven. Piven was brought on stage without prior announcement because of numerous death threats made against her since Beck attacked her earlier this year as an arch-radical, anti-American “enemy of the Constitution” who wants to “collapse the economy” and “destroy America.” [Piven wonders “why Beck picked me… [when] there…are so many other potential targets, people who are further to the left than me, more inflammatory than me, or more important to movements than I am.”].
Beck’s fanatical rhetoric and alarmist attacks on “the left” might have carried more appeal with the general public had the economy continued to spiral out of control following the 2008 economic collapse. Economic growth has been anemic at best following Obama’s 2009 stimulus, and unemployment remains high at nearly nine percent as of April 2010. As we’ve stepped away from the precipice of total economic collapse, however, Americans are growing increasingly sober and less apocalyptic about the state of the nation’s politics. In short, reactionary fear-mongering loses its cache when periods of economic and political instability begin to subside.
Many appear to be recognizing that Beck and other right-wing pundits’ scare stories about “the end” of America via Democratic “socialism” and “Marxism” are nothing more than ploys intended to return Republicans to power and to enhance the ratings of the right’s increasingly demagogic army of pundits. (Consistent with the partial abatement of Fox News-fueled paranoia, an April CNN poll found that the percentage of the public viewing the Tea Party unfavorably had increased to 47 percent, from 26 percent in January 2010. Thirty-two percent hold a favorable view). As the liberal columnist Dana Milbank notes in the Washington Post, Beck may be walking in the historical footsteps of an earlier right-wing mass media phenomenon who crashed and burned after economic desperation gave him an opening to rant and rave: “Beck, in losing his mass-media perch, is repeating the history of Father Charles Coughlin, the radio priest of the Great Depression. Economic hardship gave him an audience even greater than Beck’s, but as his calls to drive ‘the money changers from the temple’ became more vitriolic, his broadcast sponsors dropped him. He gradually faded from relevance as his angry themes lost their hold on Americans and his anti-Semitism became more pronounced.”
In the case of Beck, corporate America has increasingly distanced itself from the much-maligned hatemonger-in-chief. A boycott campaign undertaken by the liberal group Color of Change was in large part successful in convincing advertisers that their financial support for Beck was largely counter-productive from a public relations perspective. Beck’s regular attempts to equate the Democratic Party with Nazism (a la his FEMA concentration camps claim, in addition to other general attempts to equate Obama and Democrats with Hitler) have succeeded in angering much of the American Jewish community – who don’t take Beck’s cheap Holocaust analogies lightly. Many companies – more than 400 at the time that Fox cancelled Beck’s show – have concluded that Beck is a lightning rod who has drawn negative attention to companies that would prefer to sell products rather than become the subject of boycotts or increased public criticism themselves.
The boycott against Beck appears to have helped initiate a drastic decline in his ratings over the last year. While Beck’s ratings reached an all-time high of approximately 3.5 million daily viewers by early 2010, those numbers had fallen nearly in half by early 2011, as his show’s following plummeted to just under two million a day. The cataclysmic decline in ratings, in addition to the massive advertiser boycott, was too much for Fox to stomach.
Although Fox and right-wing radio companies have long profited by promoting reactionary hatred and conspiracy theories, Beck’s diatribes were incredibly harmful from the perspective of advertisers. In this particular case, conspiratorial fascism (if left unchecked) could have eventually destabilized the nation just as much as it enabled corporate suppression of the masses.
America’s political-economic elites must be asking the simple question: why stoke public anger and increase social instability when corporations are already reaping record profits? Why not just rely on the toxic two-punch of the technocratic-sounding rhetoric emanating from both political parties – which continually drone on about the need to gut social welfare programs and worker rights in the name of “balancing budgets” and “restoring fiscal sanity?” At a time when Americans are publicly rebelling against bi-partisan efforts to destroy what’s left of American union protections, Beck’s Tea Party-brand of faux populism (a la Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) is helping galvanizing what remains of “the left” and may just reignite the labor movement. There is likely serious concern among business and political elites as to whether Beck’s paranoid attacks are worth the hatred (emerging on the right) and counter-mobilization (from unions) that they’ve stoked. Important questions remain concerning what the mid-to-long term fallout will be when Main Street is still badly suffering from a continuing housing and employment crisis.
Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio are the authors of Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011, pre-order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=280225).