The Profound Danger of Glenn Beck
There is a tendency amongst moderates and liberals to simply laugh-off or scoff at Glenn Beck because he makes no factual or rational sense. What he says is historically inaccurate, thus he comes across as farce—someone difficult to take seriously. Yet obviously millions of Americans do just that (witness the Tea Party Movement, in many ways Beck’s personal creation), and it is a mistake on the part of liberals, not to mention intellectuals and the news media, not to take him seriously. Beck’s project is fundamentally corrosive, and must be publicly addressed as dangerous.
Jeff Smith argues in his excellent book, The Presidents We Imagine, that in the Great Depression, we conjured presidents (in various fictional treatments, if not also in the real life FDR) “who could reach deeply enough into citizens’ lives to solve their everyday problems.” In contrast, Glenn Beck conjures a villain—an “other,” a foreign exotic (including name, ethnicity, color, but also education and intellect) who is reaching deeply enough into citizens’ lives—marriage, health care, gun ownership, taxes, liberties—to destroy their “way of life.” If presidents are, like the nation, something we imagine, then the rhetorical project to connect Socialism and Fascism to Obama is not simply a political power play. Socialism and Fascism were real historical dangers (though sometimes they too were imagined). But the residue of those real and imaginary battles with the enemy linger. Obama, thus, is not an opponent in a democratic political arena. He is an enemy that must be eradicated, just as those previous threats were “eradicated.”
The right seeks an escape clause by arguing that what Beck does is no different than the vilification of W. Bush by liberals. Perhaps they base this claim at the level of affect, for in terms of factual specificity, they are simply wrong. Liberals pointed to specific Bush policies—such as the invasion of a sovereign nation, the suspension of the Constitution, an imperial approach to government powers, etc.—as reasons for why he should be voted out of office, if not impeached. For the current rhetorical project of the right, however, it is the vagueness of the attacks—the symbols without concrete or factual referents and their lack of correspondence to reality—that is their power. Sure, they point to specific things like health care reform or the federal stimulus legislation, but those are opposite of what the right says they are—both are efforts that bolster and sustain capitalism. Beck, in particular, has been successful at conjuring other specifics, again as shadow objects (Van Jones, Acorn, “Social Justice” Christians)—entities whose vagueness and obscurity are also their value.
Furthermore, Beck’s usage and deployment of the same techniques as that which he charges Obama of being gives this rhetoric power as well. He employs Fascist techniques in his accusations of Obama as Fascist “other.” As political scientist Murray Edelman argued, we mirror our enemies. Thus, Beck animates the Obama-Fascist he has created—he gives it life. Perhaps the audience should be forgiven for mistaking the exact location of the Fascism in the spaces between the reality and its (mirror) image. But we shouldn’t let Beck’s audience off the hook so easily. For such open signifiers allow audiences to fill them with an array of fears and hatreds, including that of racist thinking (blacks, immigrants, Arabs), economic anxieties (fat cat bankers, the deficit, taxation), and culture war fissures (abortion in the Health Care Reform legislation, supposed federal gun legislation, gay marriage).
Which leaves us with the question of the news media: Does the Miltonian self-righting principle apply here (“Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worst in a free an open encounter”)? Who will supply the truth to counter this (beyond Jon Stewart)? Is this simply partisan speech or clever hate speech? If the former, should it be addressed as aggressively as if it were the latter, with the full moral and ethical weight of the community in near universal rebuke? Does the fact that he appears on Fox News make it seem simply partisan, therefore giving it cover as “acceptable” political speech? All of these questions need answering, and soon, for as history has demonstrated, demagoguery rarely exists without the collatoral damage of real-life victims.