One of my greatest fears is that history will forget the role Fox News and Glenn Beck played in the Tea Party movement.
Of course, big tobacco and conservative billionaires the Koch brothers had been planting the seeds of a right-wing populist uprising for decades. And when the movement rose up, that infrastructure quickly mobilized to make the movement effective by hiring the top organizers, and funding events and groups all over the country. But these groups had been trying to spur such a movement since 1984 to little or no effect.
What made the Tea Party possible in 2009 was the combination of the three distinct elements America that will never again tumble into place and unlock America’s great wealth of antipathy, misunderstanding of the Founding Fathers, and poor spelling.
First and foremost, the economy was cratering in a way that few understood at the time. The Dow was cut in half, a new foreclosure record was being set every 30 days and the nation was losing nearly a million jobs a month.
Second, there was the shock of an African-American being elected President of the United States. Some suggest that race was the only motivating factor for the movement, which would be easier to believe if similar — and some would say more effective – hatred and paranoia had not been targeted at Bill Clinton. But few would argue that everyone in a nation that only allowed states to ban interracial marriage in the late 1960s was ready to cheerfully accept a black president 40 years later.
Third, TV — specifically Fox News — actively participated in organizing Tea Party events in an unprecedented manner that exploited the the swelling anger from the first two factors. Again and again, people at the first Tea Party rallies said, “I’ve never been involved in politics before!”
What got these suddenly enraged and engaged off the couch?
First, a former hedge fund executive, CNBC’s Rick Santelli, captured the mood of those who hadn’t lost their homes yet by demanding that the government not “subsidize the losers’ mortgages.” His rant in February 2009 is often credited with birthing the Tea Party movement.
And while no one was noticing the irony of a populist movement being born on the floor of one of America’s largest financial trading markets, Fox News was giddily organizing on behalf of a llican Party that could no longer call itself the Republican Party.
Fox News hosts constantly promoted and reported on what they called “non-partisan Tea Party” events, as Media Matters extensively documented at the time.
And the Fox News host that best channeled and commoditized the vague anger of the moment was a man who had only joined the channel in 2009. With his All-American ability to cry on command, the host who led the rebranding the of the far right as the voice of those afflicted by the crisis was Glenn Beck.
Of course, ignoring and/or disparaging Glenn Beck is a noble calling. I credit Angelo Carusone’s “Stop Beck” movement with playing a crucial role in helping Fox News recognize that the costs of giving their air to this former morning zoo DJ were higher than the benefits, which included the channel’s best ratings.
But many on the left want to ignore Beck’s special genius just because it’s used in the pursuit of such a vile agenda.