In the wake of so much speculation regarding the motives of a murderous madman—something none of us can ultimately know—it is worth taking a look at just what have been the extremes of discourse that help legitimate hatred in our society, and could, conceivably, lead some to believe in the legitimization of violence. The role, in recent times, of Glenn Beck is a particularly useful vehicle for examining this question.
When, for instance, Mr. Beck posits the outrageous notion that President Barack Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or white culture,” including, say, his mother and the grandparents who raised him, Beck sounds like a madman to most of us. But not only do his views represent a consensus among many of his Fox colleagues and viewers, they also were actually endorsed by the network owner, Rupert Murdoch.
Between Beck’s television program and his even less restrained daily radio broadcast, Fox is supporting the spreading of some genuinely worrisome, potentially violence-inducing arguments against America’s president. Beck feels no compunction in terming the president the leader of an “army of thugs” and comparing the country under his presidency to “the damn ‘Planet of the Apes.’” Beck has promoted a 1936 book, The Red Network, written by Elizabeth Dilling, in which the author claims that “un-Christianized” “colored people” are “savages” and that “American Negroes have acquired professions, property, banks, homes, and produced a rising class of refined, home loving people” thanks to the “American government and the inspiration of Christianity.”
Eric Boehlert of Media Matters describes one particular incident Beck precipitated during the summer of 2010. For more than a year prior, Beck had focused on the allegedly nefarious activities of a small, progressive foundation called the Tides Center. In 30 separate broadcasts, Beck portrayed the center, which provides administrative services such as payroll, benefits, and insurance to myriad small and startup organizations fighting for social change, as “a central player in a larger, nefarious cabal of Marxist/socialist/Nazi Obama-loving outlets determined to destroy democracy in America,” in Boehlert’s words.
Tides, Beck informed his audience, was staffed by “thugs” and “bullies” committed to “the nasty of the nastiest,” such as indoctrinating schoolchildren and undoubtedly creating a “mass organization to seize power.” In response to Beck’s provocations, a gentleman named Byron Williams left his home in northern California to travel to the Tides Foundation; he had with him enough guns and ammunition to murder the entire staff. Williams believed this would spark a right-wing political revolution.
He was motivated, his mother explained, by the TV news he watched, which demonstrated how “Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agendas.” Williams explained in a jailhouse interview that Beck “blew [his] mind, giving him “every ounce of evidence that [he] could possibly need” to make his decision to turn terrorist. Fortunately, California Highway Patrol officers pulled Williams over on a DUI charge. When Williams opened fire on the cops, a shootout ensued and his plans for domestic terrorism were upended.
Sad to say, such talk is nothing unusual for Beck. Among many, many other examples—some of which I’ve had occasion to mention here earlier—Beck has:
- Suggested that Obama is pushing America toward civil war and deliberately “trying to destroy the country”
- Capped two weeks of violent fear-mongering about progressives by warning that when their attempts at a “soft revolution” fail, eventually progressives “just start shooting people”
- Said the “people around the president” support “armed insurrection” and “bombing”
- Repeatedly insinuated that the Obama administration will kill him
- Used a quote from Thomas Jefferson to warn about coming “rivers of blood”
- Compared himself to “Israeli Nazi hunters” and announced that “to the day I die, I am going to be a progressive hunter”
- Included in his advice to Liberty University grads that they should “shoot to kill” and that graduates “have a responsibility” to speak out, or “blood will be on our hands”
- Informed viewers that the “world is on edge” and said that “those who survive” will “stand in the truth” and “listen”
- Said that some progressive groups don’t have “a problem with blood in the streets”
- Claimed that the present day will seem like good times “when we’re behind barbed wire and just eating rock soup”
In mid-November 2010, Beck took a somewhat surprising step deeper into the right-wing swamps of ignorance and prejudice he often inhabits with a special two-part show devoted to attacking the liberal Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. During the course of a complicated explication of Soros’s alleged activities as a “puppet-master,” Beck—to the shame of everyone involved with production and broadcast of his program—engaged in some of the most offensive anti-Semitic imagery ever purposely shown on American TV. The fact that he did this while accusing Soros, who had to flee the Nazis, of aiding the Nazis against his fellow Jews, only added to the absurdity.
Beck calls Soros his own “shadow government” happily manipulating his “puppet” Barack Obama. He actually equated Soros’s effort in helping democratic revolutions succeed in overthrowing Communism in Europe with evidence that Soros seeks to take over the United States of America. “Not only does he want to bring America to her knees, financially, he wants to reap obscene profits off us as well,” Beck insisted. These notions, and the imagery they evoke, of an unpatriotic Jewish financier somehow manipulating governments and world currencies for his own nefarious purposes, could have come directly out of the Nazi playbook. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in The Daily Beast, Beck’s show was little more than “a symphony of anti-Semitic dog-whistles. Nothing like it has ever been on American television before. And yet Murdoch and the entire News Corporation empire continued to stand by him.”
Jared Lee Loughner, we can all agree, was mentally unbalanced; indeed, murderously so. But what would be a fair assessment of a person who professes to believe all of the above? And why, even now, knowing of the Loughners and the Williamses of the world, do we pretend that his words have no consequences?
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. The above is excerpted from his most recent book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, which was published by Nation Books on January 11, 2011. Sources for all of the above quotations can be found in the book’s footnotes.