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.
Better than anyone on the right, Glenn Beck manages to give a humanity and emotion to a movement that serves the richest at the expense of the middle class.
While America should have been demanding that Wall Street executives be held accountable for the horrors they unleashed, he focused on questions like, “Is health care reform reparations?” “Were there white slaves?” “Why am I talking about Woodrow Wilson, again?”
An admitted clown who has an implacable ability to make his audience unaware that his joke is on them, Beck was the only host on television who seemed as unhinged as that moment in history. As a result, he raked in millions and millions. And since being let go by Fox, he’s made even more.
What’s the secret of Beck’s success?
Better than any pundit alive, he understands spectacle. Glenn Beck has more in common with Hulk Hogan or Andy Kaufman than William F. Buckley or George F. Will.
He uses the “spectacle of excess” to generate “emotion without reserve,” as Roland Barthes described the drama of men grappling in their underpants in his essay, “The World of Wrestling.”
In 2009, when the world’s economy was teetering on collapse, Beck’s attempt to seek “justice” by invoking Nazi-ism and Communism to destroy the president who’d inherited the financial crisis seemed, at times, like playing with fire in a warehouse full of dried straw.
Now, of course, we see Beck and the Tea Party for the cruel jokes they are. Not only is the movement’s approval rating constantly hitting new nadirs, but now it is finally getting the sendup it deserves — by professional wrestling.
The WWE has reintroduced wrestler Jack Swagger with a Tea Party manager, Zeb Coulter. Both are “patriots” who don’t like “people with faces not like mine.”
Surprisingly, this has upset Glenn Beck. He, apparently, doesn’t like unfair caricature.
“I can take it from a lot of people,” Beck said, after suggesting that billionaire George Soros had purchased the WWE. “I can’t take it from the stupid wrestling people.”
When the WWE asked Beck to come on its show Monday Night Raw and call its fans “stupid,” he turned down the offer, tweeting that he was busy doing anything else.
Again, Beck is showing his genius.
As Barthes notes, “In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.”
If Beck were to step out of his ring and into the one where he belongs, suddenly the fans who have made him very rich might finally see what kind of spectacle they’re really being sold. And Glenn Beck is way too smart to let that happen.
Because while Zeb Coulter and Jack Swagger can get away with breaking character, Glenn Beck cannot.
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