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.