Glenn Beck, host of his eponymous political television show that aired on the Fox News Channel from 2009 to 2011, once referred to himself as a “rodeo clown.” And indeed he was, at least for those who found little substance in his special brand of breathless rants, in which he ascribed every possible evil to what was then the new Obama administration.
To the liberal ear, Beck sounded incoherent, illogical, and sometimes downright crazy. His relationship with the emerging TEA party looked like the barker at carnival sideshow with a freakish display of kitschy, constitution-waving, stars-and-stripes bombast–a massive revival of all things “Amurkin.”
Beck sold to TEA party activists a reductive, erroneous kind of rhetoric that reflected a pernicious part of America’s political culture. He reduced, and othered, Obama as a socialist who practices a form of Christianity that “most Americans just don’t recognize.” He applied “tyranny” to any progressive policy statements by the administration or the public. In separate programs, he labeled Obama as both a socialist and a fascist, which is contradictory, unmooring both systems from their historical meanings as devil terms befitting the nation’s first black president.
TEA Party activists waved signs reflecting the same rhetoric. During the groundswell of protests during 2009, their fight slogan became “I want my country back!” They never quite explained, however, who precisely took their country from them (although liberals and progressives had a few theories). The Great Recession only fueled the resentment, as foreclosures skyrocketed and retirement accounts drained.
For liberal viewers of politics, the entire spectacle looked like a tempestuous but empty bubble. Even something this crazy could not last, they surmised. One day the bubble would burst. But the bubble never burst. Rather, the bubble expanded to engulf much of the U.S. House of Representatives and The White House.
There is no need to rehash Trump’s numerous speeches, tweets, television appearances, and radio interviews to demonstrate his demented divorce from reality, but when it comes to fallacious, inflammatory political rhetoric, Donald Trump puts Glenn Beck to shame. And like Beck, Trump attracted his own throng of followers with his own presumptuous slogan: “Make America Great Again” (which he stole from Ronald Reagan). Neither Trump nor his followers offered a coherent explanation for how or when America ceased being great (although liberals and progressives have a few theories about that, too).
Many of Trump’s followers internalized the hateful rhetoric. They embraced his call to ban Muslim immigrants and build his border wall, and rationalized his disgusting treatment of women. But many others cast aside all of this, believing that he did not mean to actually carry through with his bigoted and likely unconstitutional ideas, hoping to launch a proverbial missile into the heart of establishment D.C. politics, collateral damage be damned.
But why would empirically-vetted truth–the kind that gets printed in math and science textbooks–become unimportant to an entire population of American activists and voters? Or perhaps the more fundamental question should be: Why have so many Americans willfully abandoned scientific reasoning, one of the philosophical hallmarks of our almost 241 year-old nation, to achieve a political end?
The knee-jerk response for many political observers is to point to a lack of education or to a basic psychological need to ignore facts for political expediency, or simply to bigoted sentiments. And all of those factors likely have played a role to varied degrees. To wit, the exploration of anti-intellectualism in the United States is not a new phenomenon, nor is bigotry of any form. But publicly verifiable information used to possess a universal meaning to Americans of all ideological stripes, at least as decreed within the Constitution. And now, for a significant portion of voters, facts have fallen way to a pre-Enlightenment way of thinking that eschews reason and embraces mythological rhetoric resembling the old relationship between the church, the monarchy, and the public.
The Enlightenment Project Has Failed the Very People Who Founded It
Although Fox News cancelled his television program in 2011, Glenn Beck continues to employ his anti-reality rhetoric on his blog and radio program. After the Indiana primaries last May, in which Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won in their respective parties, he wrote on his website that this election was about “freedom and hope versus tyranny and hate.” He explicated his binary this way:
I really firmly believe and always have that America is about hope and not anger. That Americans want freedom and not intolerance. That we will in the end embrace brotherhood and not hatred. I always believe and still believe that Americans don’t point fingers at race or religion and blame them for our problems.
Or at gender. Or at sexuality. Or at any of the other identities that have reduced, through the law and through cultural shifts in the body politic, the hegemonic power that straight white men have held in the United States since its founding. The binary he draws alludes to an “us versus them” dichotomy: “Hope,” “freedom,” and “brotherhood” serve as conceits for the tradition of an unquestioned white male dominance; “Anger,” “intolerance,” and “hatred” define the questioning of this tradition.
Here is how James Madison defined “tyranny” in Federalist Paper #47:
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
Madison’s tyranny denotes the consolidation of power, whether that power is through birthright or through the election of individuals seeking to consolidate power. And with the consolidation of power comes the consolidation of knowledge, handed from the tyrant to the public through filtered media.
But Madison’s conflict with tyranny referred to the straight white men that constituted the monarchy versus the straight white men governing the American colonies. Classical liberalism underpinning the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution had much to say about defining private ownership and individual autonomy as distinct from monarchistic feudalism, but little to say about class, gender, race, or sexual orientation outside of this group of people.
Then along came Karl Marx, Max Weber, the Frankfurt School, and the twentieth century French sociologists who enhanced the original Enlightenment project. During the mid-twentieth century, postmodernism and post-structuralism critically engaged liberal democracy and capitalism, arguing that liberty also meant social and economic equality across all peoples.
Particularly troubling to the political conservatives during the era of “the Posts”: The control over the higher meaning of the symbols that define America’s entire political and social structure. Certain epithets, once used outwardly to demean specific subclasses of people, have increasingly become socially abhorrent. No longer do “liberty” and “freedom” only define the rise of an oppressed white property-owning class over their white monarchistic oppressors, but now also mean the rise of the many smaller subclasses above the white property-owning class.
More and more the symbols that define American democracy lost their encultured attachment to straight white maleness. The women’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights era, the more recent victories of the GLBT community through gay marriage, have over the last several decades carved a larger space in once straight white male-dominated institutions, particularly political institutions. Straight white men not only began feeling a physical and economic loss to their once privileged status as a national hegemon, but also rhetorically and philosophically, in what has been a remarkably short period of time in history.
Then America elected Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, and that was the last straw: Light the match and cue Glenn Beck and Donald Trump. It was time to take their country back. It was time to make America great again.
White reaction to the interlopers that commandeered the Enlightenment Project has been palpable. The system that once propelled them no longer works for them. The resulting disdain has made life in a liberal democracy much less bearable, and an authoritarian figure much more palatable.
But embracing authoritarianism also means embracing, or at least tolerating, the filtered reality provided by the authoritarian. And this is where twentieth century American conservative media became an instrumental force.
More on the media’s role in Part Two, to be published next month.