In the summer of 2006, Glenn Beck told his CNN Headline News audience that Armageddon would come on August 22nd. On August 23rd, he needed a new scare story. (More)

Blowing Smoke, Part II – John Birch and Glenn Beck

This week Morning Feature explores Michael Wolraich’s Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual. Yesterday we considered the history of persecution politics. Today we look at why persecution narratives are so attractive and persecution politics so successful. Tomorrow we’ll discuss Wolraich’s proposed solutions.

Note: On behalf of the faculty, staff, and student body, I’d like to welcome Michael Wolraich to the BPI Campus. He began blogging at TPM Café before opening dagblog two years ago, and is a regular contributor at CNN. Mr. Wolraich will join us for this week’s discussion, and we hope he enjoys his visit enough to stay and pursue one of our many degrees.

A Legendary Crank

Glenn Beck’s debut in televised paranoia was less than spectacular. In 2006 the long-time radio talk show host landed a job on CNN Headline News, which said he would offer “an unconventional look at the news of the day.” He did. That summer he offered a series of broadcasts predicting that Iran and/or Russia would attack Israel, probably on August 22nd, and that attack would trigger World War III, the apocalypse, and the Second Coming. It was an old scare story. Predictions of the end of the world go back thousands of years. They’re still popular – consider the 2012 hype – but their track record isn’t good. Of course, that’s always true until the end of the world actually comes, but it didn’t come on August 22nd, 2006. So Beck had to find other scare stories.

Beck knows better than to make up stories out of whole cloth. As we saw last October, his childhood idol was Orson Welles and Beck listened to Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast again and again, his dreams already set on a career in radio. When Martians recast as Iranians and/or Russians didn’t work, Beck went looking for new material … and found it the writings of someone David Frum described as:

[…] one of the legendary cranks of the conservative world, a John Bircher, a grand fantasist of theories about secret conspiracies between capitalists and communists to impose a one-world government under the control of David Rockefeller.

That was Willard Cleon Skousen, who in 1958 wrote The Naked Communist, a book the National Review‘s Mark Hemingway described as “so irrational in its paranoia that it would have made Whittaker Chambers blush.” By 1970, with the Mormon church under pressure to allow black priests, Skousen wrote The Naked Capitalist, proposing a dark cabal of government and business forces secretly steering us toward one-world, totalitarian government. In 1979, as the religious right erupted over proposed IRS regulations to require minority recruiting in Christian schools, Skousan claimed David Rockefeller conspired with global bankers to elect President Jimmy Carter.

In 1981, apparently having run out of naked bogeymen, Skousen wrote The Five Thousand Year Leap, which Princeton historian Sean Willentz described as “a treatise that assembles selective quotations and groundless assertions to claim the U.S. Constitution is rooted not in the Enlightenment but in the Bible.” In 2009, Beck wrote the forward for Leap‘s newest release, after promoting the book on his show for over a year. It Leap-ed to #1 at Amazon, and local branches of Tea Party activists use it as a study guide.

Scary Black Men

When Glenn Beck landed on Fox News in January 2009 he was, as Michael Wolraich writes, “ready to take his conspiracism to the next level.” The right wing had plenty of scare-mongers, but Beck brought something exceptional to the table: storytelling. A scary story needs a strong Villain, and Bill O’Reilly had already claimed billionaire financier George Soros. So Beck created his own villain:

A shadow government is giving the Obama administration unprecedented power with virtually no oversight…. They don’t need to be confirmed by the Senate, they rarely go before commitees, they can claim “executive privilege” when asked to testify, and they’re accountable to no one but the president himself.

And the czariest czar of them all was Van Jones, then Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation. Jones was a former black nationalist, or at least showed up at Yale Law School with a Black Panther book bag. He was a convicted felon, or at least arrested and released while covering a San Francisco protest as an intern. He was a communist, or at least dabbled in it for a few years before embracing eco-capitalism. He said “This movement is deeper than a solar panel … we’re going to change the whole system.” And he’s black. Just like President Obama. Just like Jeremiah Wright. What more proof could America need?

As Wolraich writes:

In this powerful jeremiad, Glenn Beck went well beyond the guilt-by-association tactics that Sean Hannity employed before Obama’s election. Beck’s point was not simply that Obama “pals around” with black nationalists and communist revolutionaries. His point was that Obama is a black nationalist and a communist revolutionary. By juxtaposing their speeches in quick succession, Beck blurs these three men together. They are all angry black men who hate white people; they are all secretly building a communist revolution to redistribute the wealth and privileges of the whites they despise to the American Indians, the immigrants, and the people of color. Thus, Beck deftly combined conspiratorial villainy with the white persecution narrative.

The Progressive Hunter

But it’s not just Van Jones, President Obama, and Reverend Wright. George Soros is involved. So is ACORN. So are unions, or at least the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the groups pushing hardest for the Employee Free Choice Act. And Health Care For America Now (HCAN). And … and … and … all of Them.

Who are They? Progressives, of course. Not even all progressives agree on what progressivism is, so like “secular humanism” it was a blank canvas on which Beck could paint. And we progressives have a secret plan:

  • Phase I – Nationalize private industry, obviously, because President Obama bailed out the banks and the auto industry. Well, actually Congress bailed out the banks during the Bush administration, but don’t get picky.
  • Phase II – Control the media, obviously, because President Obama appointed Mark Lloyd as chief diversity officer of the FCC. Lloyd is black. Case closed. Never mind that the Washington Post described Lloyd as having “a midlevel position at the FCC” and “no power to set policy.”
  • Phase III – Round up the dissidents, obviously, because President Obama wants to expand the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps and there’s clearly no reason to do that except to go after Glenn Beck.

“We’re coming to a time when voices like mine will disappear,” Beck warned his audience. But he will never give up. “I am going to be like the Israeli Nazi hunters. I’m telling you, I’m going to find these big progressives and to the day I die, I’m going to be a progressive hunter.” And there is a Holocaust coming. Maybe you haven’t noticed, because “first they came for the bankers.”

The Storyteller

Beck’s conspiracies sound crazy, snipped apart and presented in isolation. But they don’t sound crazy to his audience, because he connects them in compelling stories. Beck doesn’t talk about news or policy, except as the backdrop for an epic struggle between the Heroic Everyman – Beck and his audience – and Arch-Villains conspiring toward world domination. Beck’s world offers a zero-sum game, with white, straight, Christian, male, conservative capitalists (“Real Americans”) on one team and minorities, LGBTs, non-Christians, feminists, liberals, unions and everyone else (“Progressives”) the other. As Wolraich writes:

Beck’s stories are not the individual fantasies of millions of Don Quixotes whacking away at their own private windmills. Rather, his stories collectively make up a single epic saga shared by many of his admirers. Beck’s Don Quixotes don’t see themselves as solitary knights on their own epic quests. They are an army of Don Quixotes who have joined forces to battle the Great Progressive Windmill Menace.

His stories tap into a shared narrative that stretches back to the John Birch Society, one where even the slightest change in the distribution of wealth and privilege – except to give more wealth and privilege to the wealthy and privileged – will send us down the slippery slope into the abyss into Awful. Thus, if minorities get better access to health care, whites can’t see a doctor. If LGBTs can marry, straight marriage is ruined. If Muslims can build a community center, Christians are being persecuted. If workers’ standard of living improves, investors are being robbed.

The progressive movement won the battle for America’s moral values, and conservatives know it. Explicit appeals to racism, sexism, and government-imposed Christianity no longer sway most Americans, and we are fast losing our taste for homophobia and wealth privilege. In order to sell their core agenda – more wealth and privilege for the wealthy and privileged – conservatives had to adopt a progressive narrative … stories that cast the privileged as the persecuted or at least the soon-to-be persecuted. Glenn Beck tells those stories.

But so can we. And as we’ll see tomorrow, our stories have an advantage. They’re true.

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Happy Friday!