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One of the most important lessons of the Great Depression can be taken from the political, rather than the economic, response. As economic collapse shook the faith of populations a new sort of public figure emerged, one that put a premium on being loud and simple. They soon dominated the airwaves; scapegoating, ridicule, and paranoia were the staples of this new breed, and the nation’s problems were often put on the back of a specific ethnic or religious minority. This wasn’t just a left- or right-wing phenomenon; sometimes it was even a mix of the two. In America this tendency was typified by Father Coughlin, the inventor of hate radio, who commanded a vast audience through the Thirties. Coughlin first championed Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal and then, in 1934, turned against them, spouting conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism and doing his best to usher America down the aisle taken by Germany and Italy under Hitler and Mussolini.
The voices of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have much in common with Coughlin. But their message is distinct in many ways—they are not anti-Semitic, for example. And they have different targets for their hatred. But Beck and Limbaugh are more powerful than Coughlin ever was. They have tight ties to the Republican Party and their messages quickly emerge as partisan political dogma.
David Frum, a former speechwriter to President Bush, has focused on the destructive role of the radio hatemongers. They have coarsened the dialogue within the Republican Party and prevented a discussion of the problems that require sorting—in part, no doubt, because they are a significant part of those problems. Ken Silverstein recently quoted Frum’s remarks regarding Limbaugh. Here’s his take on the man whose soaring ratings now position him to be the next Limbaugh, Fox News’s Glenn Beck. Frum first gives us some snippets from a recent Beck special in which he pushed some sinister conspiracy theories surrounding FEMA post-hurricane rescue operations and then explained that a crazed gunman in South Alabama who went on a lethal shooting spree at sites where he had been employed and fired had been “pushed to the wall by political correctness.”
The audience for Beck’s Friday night special were each given copies of two books. One of them was Cleon Skousen’s Five Thousand Year Leap. Skousen, who died in 2006, is 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. There’s always been a market for this junk of course. Once that market was reached via mimeographed newsletters. Now it’s being tapped by Fox News.
Conspiracy theories always flourish during economic downturns. They flourished during the terrible slump of the 1890s (when they captured even so fine a mind as Henry Adams) and again in the 1930s. Today’s slump – so vast, so difficult to understand – opens the door again. Right-wing populist conspiracy theorizing often overlaps with the left-wing variety. And yet there are significant differences. Beck speaks to a feeling that this powerlessness is somehow new, somehow a departure from the natural order of things:
”This is your country, you are still in control. … Now you’re being forced to bail those people out. There are more of us than there are of them. We surround them.”
It’s not a new message of course. In fact, big parts of it seem almost self-consciously copied from Peter Finch’s legendary declamation in the movie Network. Of course, Finch was only pretending to be crazy. He was an actor performing a role. Then again – so probably is Glenn Beck. But what about Fox News? What’s their excuse?
America saw and rejected this strain of paranoid politics before, but it was a test of the nation’s political mental health and stamina then. It likely will be so again.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.
The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.
Minimum number of cats fitted with high-tech listening equipment in a 1967 CIA project:
Zoologists suggested that apes and humans share an ancestor who laughed.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”