Glenn Beck is a charlatan. A clown. A buffoon. He belongs on a second tier stage in Vegas, and he very well may end up there, some day. He is not dangerous, but his ability to exploit the legitimately angry dispossessed reveals something that is dangerous. Decades of right wing economic policies have undermined unions, the middle class, the social safety net, and the sense that we are all in this together, moving into a better future. Few believe their children or grandchildren will inherit a better world. People are afraid, and they don't understand why they are afraid. And while Glenn Greenwald is correct that by not seizing the mantle of populism, the Democrats have created a void that was ripe for exploitation, that inevitable exploitation has come to be personified by the likes of Glenn Beck. He disseminates lies and disinformation, preying on the vulnerable, distracting them from even beginning to be able to grasp the real reasons why their dreams seem more and more illusory, and their ability to maintain even a basic sense of security and comfort more and more tenuous.
Dana Milbank is about to publish a book on Beck, and the poor guy did his research. Presumably, afterward, he had to sterilize himself with turpentine and kerosene. In an article in the Washington Post, over the weekend, he provided a brief summary of what he has learned about Beck. And he began by recounting an anecdote from Beck's 2003 memoir. Beck admits to having been strongly influenced by Orson Welles, who used to travel around Manhattan in an ambulance. The sirens were screaming not because Welles was ill, but because it was a good way to beat traffic.
Most of us would regard this as dishonest, a ploy by the self-confessed charlatan that Welles was. Beck saw it as a model to be emulated. "Welles," he writes, "inspired me to believe that I can create anything that I can see or imagine."
But as Milbank points out, Welles was an admitted charlatan. First and foremost, he was a showman, one of the rare filmmakers about whom the word "genius" legitimately applied. Welles was the master of illusion, making magic of manipulation. For the most part, he used that genius and mastery to entertain and create art, although it famously got well out of hand with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast. But Beck casts himself as something genuine. He cries as if he's capable of genuine sympathy and empathy. But his manipulations and machinations are not merely for entertainment, and they're not even merely for self-aggrandizement. First and foremost, they are used to enforce and reinforce the very political and economic structures that subjugate the people whose alienation and disillusionment find false solace in the theatrical rantings of people like Beck.
I was reminded of Beck's affection for deception as he hyped his march on Washington -- an event scheduled for the same date (Aug. 28) and on the same spot (the Lincoln Memorial) as Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic march 47 years ago. Beck claimed it was pure coincidence, but then he made every effort to appropriate the mantle of the great civil rights leader.
King, the peacemaker. The adherent to the principles of Gandhi. The man who wrote and lived "Strength To Love." And then, there's Beck, who says he chose the date of his rally without even knowing its historical significance, attributing the coincidence to "divine providence." And the most disturbing part is that some people apparently believe him.
As Beck attempts to turn the world inside out and upside down by claiming the mantle of a movement he probably would have opposed, and whose means he is too small even to begin to comprehend, Milbank lists some of Beck's greatest moments as a champion of civil rights.
- As a radio host, performed an on-air skit that mocked a stereotyped Asian accent, forcing his station to apologize.
- On CNN, while interviewing Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, demanded proof that Ellison isn't working with "our" enemies.
- Called President Obama a "racist" who has a "deep-seated hatred for white people."
- Claims Obama was elected because he isn't white.
- Claims Obama is moving us into slavery.
- Asserted that the president's very name is Un-American.
- Claims Obama seeks reparations from white America, to "settle old racial scores."
- Has claimed Obama is tied to or influenced by "radical black nationalism" and "Marxist black liberation theology" and the New Black Panther Party, which Beck claims is part of Obama's "army of thugs."
It would almost be funny if so many didn't take it seriously. And if their taking it seriously wasn't part of a deeply disturbing hidden agenda. As Frank Rich explained, on Sunday:
There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are.
Their self-interested and at times radical agendas, like Murdoch’s, go well beyond, and sometimes counter to, the interests of those who serve as spear carriers in the political pageants hawked on Fox News. The country will be in for quite a ride should these potentates gain power, and given the recession-battered electorate’s unchecked anger and the Obama White House’s unfocused political strategy, they might.
All three tycoons are the latest incarnation of what the historian Kim Phillips-Fein labeled “Invisible Hands” in her prescient 2009 book of that title: those corporate players who have financed the far right ever since the du Pont brothers spawned the American Liberty League in 1934 to bring down F.D.R. You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal “socialism” of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our “socialist” president.
And Rich referred to the chillingly essential article on the Kochs, by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker.
As their fortunes grew, Charles and David Koch became the primary underwriters of hard-line libertarian politics in America. Charles’s goal, as Doherty described it, was to tear the government “out at the root.” The brothers’ first major public step came in 1979, when Charles persuaded David, then thirty-nine, to run for public office. They had become supporters of the Libertarian Party, and were backing its Presidential candidate, Ed Clark, who was running against Ronald Reagan from the right. Frustrated by the legal limits on campaign donations, they contrived to place David on the ticket, in the Vice-Presidential slot; upon becoming a candidate, he could lavish as much of his personal fortune as he wished on the campaign. The ticket’s slogan was “The Libertarian Party has only one source of funds: You.” In fact, its primary source of funds was David Koch, who spent more than two million dollars on the effort.
Many of the ideas propounded in the 1980 campaign presaged the Tea Party movement. Ed Clark told The Nation that libertarians were getting ready to stage “a very big tea party,” because people were “sick to death” of taxes. The Libertarian Party platform called for the abolition of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., as well as of federal regulatory agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Energy. The Party wanted to end Social Security, minimum-wage laws, gun control, and all personal and corporate income taxes; it proposed the legalization of prostitution, recreational drugs, and suicide. Government should be reduced to only one function: the protection of individual rights. William F. Buckley, Jr., a more traditional conservative, called the movement “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.”
That November, the Libertarian ticket received only one per cent of the vote. The brothers realized that their brand of politics didn’t sell at the ballot box. Charles Koch became openly scornful of conventional politics. “It tends to be a nasty, corrupting business,” he told a reporter at the time. “I’m interested in advancing libertarian ideas.” According to Doherty’s book, the Kochs came to regard elected politicians as merely “actors playing out a script.” A longtime confidant of the Kochs told Doherty that the brothers wanted to “supply the themes and words for the scripts.” In order to alter the direction of America, they had to “influence the areas where policy ideas percolate from: academia and think tanks.”
Of course, legalizing drugs and prostitution and opposing gun control appeals to many, across partisan and ideological bounds. But it's not a stretch to assume that the brothers aren't helping fund organizations such as NORML. They are, however, helping fund climate denialism, which is what you would expect from oil industry billionaires. And while eliminating income taxes and campaign finance laws would greatly benefit billionaires, it would spell the end of the government's ability to check abuses by rapacious industries such as oil, health insurance, and banking, and it also would mean the end of even a semblance of a social contract. It also would mean the effective end of democracy, the new royalty and aristocracy being corporate plutocrats such as Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers.
Little wonder, then, that the brothers are helping fund phony movements now fronted by the likes of Glenn Beck. Because people like Beck wouldn't be capable of mobilizing masses of the manipulated, if not for the power of a propaganda shop disguised as a cable news network, and the financial backing of meticulously calculating billionaires whose real goals are mostly about coalescing their own wealth and power at the expense of the very people they are attempting to manipulate into serfdom. Beck is the front. The clown. The distraction. Behind Beck and his ilk lies the money trail. As Mayer concluded her article:
The Kochs have long depended on the public’s not knowing all the details about them. They have been content to operate what David Koch has called “the largest company that you’ve never heard of.” But with the growing prominence of the Tea Party, and with increased awareness of the Kochs’ ties to the movement, the brothers may find it harder to deflect scrutiny. Recently, President Obama took aim at the Kochs’ political network. Speaking at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser, in Austin, he warned supporters that the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Citizens United case—which struck down laws prohibiting direct corporate spending on campaigns—had made it even easier for big companies to hide behind “groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity.” Obama said, “They don’t have to say who, exactly, Americans for Prosperity are. You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation”—or even, he added, “a big oil company.”
Don't worry about Glenn Beck. Popular history will forget him. He's not a significant political player, and he's not a memorable entertainer. But the people hiding behind Beck and his ilk must be raised to public consciousness. Because so many of the Tea Party faithful don't even know who is promoting what they have been duped into believing is their cause, and certainly don't know the real cause they are being duped into promoting. Most of them are being played for suckers. To the financial backers of Beck and his ilk, most Tea Partiers are but another demographic group to exploit. It would be good for them and for the nation and the world if they ever figured that out.