Glenn Beck and the Paranoid Style

By Simon Maloy

"The modern right wing … feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power."

The above passage could fittingly be used to describe the character of today’s American right. One need only listen to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) lash out at ACORN’s corrupting influence on the census, or Rush Limbaugh claim that the "socialist" Obama is a "puppet" of the United Nations. It was, however, written in 1964 by historian Richard Hofstadter as part of his iconic essay for Harper’s Magazine titled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Long before ACORN was founded, back when Bachmann and Limbaugh were still in grade school, the American right was practicing this "paranoid style" to great effect, discovering communist monsters hiding under every bed and linking American presidents and Cabinet officials to the great communist conspiracy.

And though the Soviet Union has long since disintegrated, the paranoid style has endured. It found a new voice in talk radio and right-wing activism. It also found a new champion who, better than anyone else, emulates and outright replicates the conspiracy-laden rhetoric from 45 years ago — Fox News’ Glenn Beck. In his rapid rise from morning zoo DJ to the frantic Paul-Revere-meets-Don-Quixote voice of modern conservatism, Beck has crafted a rhetorical style that is every bit as conspiratorial and irrational as the ’60s-era right-wing firebrands who inspired the political movement he now leads.

(To be clear, no one is saying that Beck or anyone else suffers from a mental disorder. As Hofstadter wrote, it’s not a state of mind that’s under examination, but rather it "is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant." Beck, however, has compared himself to mathematician John Forbes Nash, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.)

Beck’s roots in the ’60s fringe

It’s no accident that Beck is so practiced in the "paranoid style." His philosophical guru was one of the fringe conservatives that Hofstadter wrote about. As copiously documented by’s Alexander Zaitchik, Beck has spent the past several years studying and promoting the writings of W. Cleon Skousen — "the man who changed Glenn Beck’s life." Even in the eccentric world of 1960s anti-communist activism, Skousen was considered an extremist crank. Zaitchik wrote that Skousen "aligned himself with [John Birch Society founder] Robert Welch’s charge" that just about every member of the Eisenhower administration — including Eisenhower himself — was a communist agent. Hofstadter judged Welch to be his era’s foremost practitioner of the paranoid style; Skousen, for his part, authored a pamphlet defending the John Birch Society in which he argued that people who attacked the group "usually did so without realizing they were promoting the official Communist Party line."

As his increasingly strident anti-communist zeal estranged him from more respectable conservative groups, Skousen broadened his outlook and expanded the great communist conspiracy into a nefarious plot for world domination. Skousen’s 1970 book The Naked Capitalist is a touchstone work of New World Order conspiracy theorism, and is also a fine example of Hofstadter’s "paranoid style" in action. The Naked Capitalist was Skousen’s review of Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy & Hope, and in it Skousen wrote that Quigley was an "insider" in a grand "power complex" that will "eventually attain total global control." To Skousen, Tragedy & Hope was "a bold and boastful admission by Dr. Quigley that there actually exists a relatively small but powerful group which has succeeded in acquiring a choke-hold on the affairs of practically the entire human race." Quigley, in his review of The Naked Capitalist, accused Skousen of "inventing fantastic ideas and making inferences that go far beyond the bounds of honest commentary."

Skousen’s globalist conspiracy is a manifestation of what Hofstadter deemed the "amoral superman," an enemy who uses his seemingly inexhaustible power and/or wealth to direct the course of history and bend it to his sinister will so that he might benefit from the suffering of others. The actors and events in Skousen’s conspiracy are real enough, but the threads he uses to weave together the conspiracy are spun from, as Hofstadter writes, a self-imposed lack of "enlightenment" and a refusal to see "how things do not happen." Skousen casts himself in a similarly inflated role — the beleaguered everyman whose unique insight into the inner workings of the enemy allow him to valiantly stand up in opposition, a mindset Hofstadter identified as "the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph."

Skousen’s "ultimate triumph" entailed fighting back against "the whole superstructure of world-wide conspiracy" by removing from office "[e]very Democrat, Republican or Independent from the top of the Federal government right down to the lowest official on the local level, who has been consistently supporting the collectivist policies and tactics of the global network." This absurd and unachievable goal was Skousen’s first step in restoring "American society to its traditional position provided within the framework of the Constitution as visualized by the founding fathers." He cast a pox on both parties — Democrats were "the party through which the Wall Street globalists and the Left-wing international conspiracy have accomplished most of their subversion," and the Republicans "tried to out-do the Democrats in both spending and big government."

Hofstadter concluded of people like Skousen: "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."

Beck takes up the paranoid mantle

On October 6, 2006, Beck interviewed then-CNN colleague Lou Dobbs on illegal immigration and gave his first televised indication that he was growing increasingly fascinated with the work of Cleon Skousen. Beck asked Dobbs: "Was Carroll Quigley right on the shadow government, on the companies taking over and really controlling everything? Because it’s really the only thing that I can put my finger on to say, ‘Why aren’t we doing anything about illegal immigration?’ We’re run by companies now, aren’t we?" Beck went on to say that he believes "global corporations" are turning America "into MexAmeriCanada."

It was straight out of The Naked Capitalist and, as such, fit nicely within the contours of the paranoid style. Hofstadter wrote about what happens when its practitioners find "the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed." Beck, not seeing anyone in government pursue his preferred course on illegal immigration, ascribed this lack of action to the connivance of "global corporations," saying quite bluntly that "it’s really the only thing I can put my finger on."

Beck’s fascination with Skousen goes well beyond occasional references on cable television. Salon’s Zaitchick writes that Beck first read Skousen’s book The 5,000-Year Leap — a history of early America that selectively quotes the founding fathers to present the founding of the country as a deeply religious affair — in 2007 after a friend sent him a copy. According to Skousen’s son: "When Beck read it, suddenly the effusive and disembodied principles of freedom that he had been trying to dig up and put together all came together and he could make sense of them."

It came together so neatly for Beck, in fact, that he put Skousen at the very heart of what eventually came to be known as The 9-12 Project. The day Beck tearfully unveiled the project on his Fox News program he gave away free copies of Leap to his studio audience. Beck told them that this "fantastic" book explains "the 29 principles that our founders put together, and how they put this genius country together." Beck also authored a foreword for the 30th anniversary edition of Leap, calling it "divinely inspired," and he sells the book on his website. Like Skousen, Beck casts the country’s problems as a symptom of a drift from what he thinks the country originally was at its founding, and the solutions entail a return to that ill-defined notion of early America.

Beck even took to promoting and defending the John Birch Society. On the July 25, 2007, edition of his CNN program, Beck interviewed John Birch Society spokesman Sam Antonio to discuss the Security and Prosperity Partnership, an economic and security initiative of the United States, Canada, and Mexico that the John Birch Society believes is a vehicle "to stealthily merge the three North American nations." Beck started off the segment by saying: "Sam, I have to tell you, when I was growing up, the John Birch Society, I thought they were a bunch of nuts, however, you guys are starting to make more and more sense to me."

But more than anything else, Beck has taken to the unique brand of conspiracy-mongering endemic among ’60s aficionados of the paranoid style such as Skousen. And like the paranoid stylists of old, each of Beck’s conspiracies has at its heart either Marxism, socialism, communism, or some combination of the three. His "amoral supermen" are labor leaders, community activists, leftist groups from the ’60s, and even a few long-since deceased presidents, all of whose "radical" views now find expression with President Obama.

  • On August 25, Beck put together an absurdly elaborate chart linking communists to Obama and the green jobs movement, suggesting that when Obama said he wanted to "fundamentally transform" the country, he was going to do so in a way that is "not unrecognizable to someone — Venezuela — like Hugo Chavez." What is happening, said Beck, is that "the radicals" are "filtering up" and being "scrubbed clean," and that’s proof Obama hasn’t "rejected Marxist principles."
  • On September 18, Beck claimed that only he — and not the "mainstream ‘fringe’ media" — can see "the big picture" represented by his "Tree of Revolution" (a chalkboard drawing of a tree), which connected ACORN and President Obama to Students for a Democratic Society and Woodrow Wilson.
  • On October 5, Beck attempted to explain how a speech delivered by Deepak Bhargava, the executive director of the Center for Community Change, who has no input into administration policy, indicates how Obama is "designing the crisis" that will change America’s financial and foreign policy. The evidence he offered in support of the charge was that Bhargava and Obama both used the word "transform."
  • On October 28, Beck theorized that the United States, in order to pay its debts, will continue printing money and drive inflation up, at which point the country will drop the dollar as its currency and establish a new currency backed by land, which the government will seize through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Explaining that this is exactly what happened in the Weimar Republic, Beck also prophesied that the Chinese would assist in undoing some of the "real rights that we had in our Constitution." Beck said that he hoped he was wrong about this, but "can’t think of anything else" to explain what he sees happening.

Beck also frequently references the so-called Cloward-Piven strategy, which calls for an overloading of government-provided services to force the government into providing a "national income" for every citizen. Columbia University sociologists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven made this argument in a 1966 article for The Nation, and ever since it has been a bugaboo for right-wing conspiracy buffs who see every movement to augment government services as a stealth attempt to implement the "strategy." On November 3, Beck implored his viewers to Google the Cloward-Piven strategy, explaining (accessed from the Nexis database): "This is important, because Cloward and Piven, the Cloward and Piven strategy, it’s what they’re doing. They’re collapsing the system and replace it with a system of guaranteed annual income for all the workers! Workers of the world unite!"

Beck, like Skousen, also sounds the alarm on "world governments" and the "new order." On November 17, Beck hosted Damon Vickers — a regular on the wildly conspiratorial Alex Jones Show — and wholeheartedly embraced Vickers’ theories on the coming emergence of a global currency, the "global world government," and a "new world order." On November 13, Beck claimed that Obama’s invitation of labor leaders to the White House for a jobs summit was merely a cover, and their real purpose in meeting is "designing a global order." Beck’s evidence for this claim was that SEIU president Andy Stern had visited the White House 22 times by that point, and that Stern once said "workers of the world unite." According to Beck: "They’re not creating jobs, they’re creating a new order. They are transforming our society." On October 27, Beck insisted that U.S. participation in the 2009 United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen "could mean the end of U.S. sovereignty."

It’s this sort of apocalyptic rhetoric that Hofstadter pegged as emblematic of the paranoid style — the evil of the conspiracy isn’t localized, it’s widespread and persistent: "The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization." Beck frequently warns his listeners and viewers that "time is running out" and that it may be "too late." Beck also predicts the deaths of entire nations, value systems, and societies. On November 24, he issued this warning: "The final chapters, if we don’t wake up, America, are being written about us right now."

Beck’s America is one that is beset on all sides and constantly on the verge of collapse. On November 19, he proclaimed that health reform legislation would mean "the end of America, as you know it." On October 28, he said that high government spending will result in "a system that doesn’t really look a lot like America as you know it." On May 15, he warned that if the press doesn’t report on alleged collusion between NBC and the Obama administration, "it’s the end of America as we know it" (accessed from Nexis).

As such, Beck frequently touts his own importance, casting himself the reluctant hero who sees the conspiracy where no one else can and warning America against the evil onslaught, most memorably when he said that his fight against health care reform was akin to preventing the 9-11 terrorist attacks. On that same show, Beck announced: "In the 1990s, I was on the radio warning people about Osama bin Laden, not because I was some super-smart genius. I just listened to the man’s words. I really believed him." If it seems unlikely that Beck, who was still a morning zoo DJ in the ’90s, was warning America about Osama bin Laden, that’s because it is. Beck’s own website features a recording of Beck’s WABC debut in 1998, in which he reads a threatening statement from Osama bin Laden and responds by mocking the Al Qaeda leader’s name before joking that his turban is too tight.

On October 5, Beck laid it on thick, telling people how proud he is that his show makes people feel "uncomfortable" because it’s "good to ask honest questions that make you uncomfortable. It makes you think out of the box." He continued: "You can call me names. You can make fun of me — whatever. I’m doing what I believe is right. I am doing a job as a private citizen right now. I’d love to have The New York Times, The Washington Post, a duo like Woodward and Bernstein, even if they would just go for the Pulitzer, even if they didn’t believe it, just go for the Pulitzer, would you? I’d love for them to look into these things so, quite frankly, I didn’t have to." Beck’s message, in case it wasn’t clear, is that he isn’t just doing the job of the rest of the media — he’s doing it better than they can, and he’s doing it on his own.

Beck’s sense of self-importance can be unsettling at times, particularly when he muses on his own violent death as a consequence of standing up to the conspiracy. On September 8, Beck announced that the "biggest names, the most powerful people on the planet on the left" were lining up against him and asked his listeners to "keep me in your prayers, keep my staff in your prayers, for safety, for wisdom, please." Later in the show he got even more explicit: "You can try to put the lid on this group of people, but you will never silence us. You will never — you can shoot me in the head, you can shoot the next guy in the head, but there will be 10 others that line up."

All the elements of Beck’s paranoid ethos converged recently as he announced his intention to move beyond the realm of political commentary and take an activist role in the political process. During a rally at a Florida retirement community, Beck told his gathered audience that "what we’re experiencing now is really a ticking time bomb that they designed about a hundred years ago at the beginning of the progressive movement," the purpose of which was to use both the Republican and Democratic parties to create a "socialist utopia." Beck’s prescribed antidote was a plan to "bring us back to an America that our founders would understand" by developing "a 100-year plan" in the mold of the Chinese — the rationale being: "Two can play at that game." Of course, at the center of the "100-year plan" is Beck — or as he referred to himself, America’s "Constitution czar." All the facets of the paranoid style are there — an improbably wicked conspiracy to undermine the country perpetrated by the nation’s powerful elite, a gauzy plan of action to take back America that emulates the tactics of the enemy and is crudely wrapped in the trappings of patriotism, and Beck offering himself as the nation’s savior.

Real-world consequences

An easy response to Beck’s conspiratorial rhetoric is to dismiss it as a ploy — he doesn’t really believe it, he’s just a showman, a self-described "rodeo clown" who is trying to sell books and advertising. And that very well may be true. The only person who really knows if Glenn Beck believes what he says is Glenn Beck.

But that misses the point. What matters is not what Beck believes, but the beliefs he inspires in his followers.

Hofstadter wrote of his own time: "In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority." Beck is hugely popular among the tea partiers, who themselves hold the attentions of more than one Republican member of Congress. Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann has been their most vocal champion, and several Republican congressmen appeared at her November 5 tea party rally outside the Capitol, missing a vote on the Patriot Act as a result. Several protesters at Bachmann’s rally carried signs comparing health care reform to the Holocaust, comparing the president to Mao Zedong and other communist bête-noirs, and questioning the president’s citizenship.

Such hateful expressions are self-disqualifying and offensive. They also reflect a desire among the tea partiers that is unrealistic and unattainable — preventing Barack Obama from exercising any authority as president, to the point of removing him from office. By pandering to the Beck-inspired tea party ethos, Bachmann and her congressional colleagues are only strengthening the delusion. Meanwhile, as Beck and his cohorts spin their wild conspiracy theories, the self-identified Republicans in the country move themselves more and more to the paranoid fringe. After months of Beck bashing ACORN and casting doubt on the legitimacy of Obama’s election, polling shows that more than half of the nation’s Republicans believe (in complete absence of evidence) that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama.

Beyond the political realm, Beck’s promulgation of conspiracy theories about President Obama and the cataclysmic evils of "big government" has a more frightening effect. A recently released report by the Anti-Defamation League noted the media’s role in the rise of anti-government anger among "people who believe that the Obama administration is illegitimate or even fascistic." They specifically chide Beck for "[going] so far as to make comparisons between Hitler and Obama and to promote the idea that the president is dangerous." The ADL concludes that Beck’s rhetoric plays "an important role in drawing people further out of the mainstream, making them more receptive to the more extreme notions and conspiracy theories."

On the far edge of the extreme right is the so-called militia movement, which rose and fell during the Clinton presidency and is now, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, enjoying a resurgence fueled by the faltering economy and the election of the first black president. The movement is characterized by extreme anti-government conspiracy theories which, the SPLC notes, have been promulgated by media figures like Beck: "Fox News host Glenn Beck, who has called Obama a fascist, a Nazi and a Marxist, even re-floated militia conspiracy theories of the 1990s alleging a secret network of government-run concentration camps."

The divide

Hofstadter wrote that the paranoid style is a "state of mind," not an ideology, and can hardly be considered an exclusive characteristic of the right. The left-wing also has its conspiratorial cranks who are as stubborn in their beliefs as they are ill-informed. However, this style and the attendant sense of victimization it engenders have become so tightly woven into the fabric of mainstream conservatism as to make the two near-indistinguishable. As the Washington Monthly‘s Steve Benen wrote, "[T]here’s a clear and impermeable line between the progressive mainstream and the left fringe. The line between the Republican Party/conservative movement and the far-right fringe barely exists."

Consider the recent special election in NY-23, in which conservative candidate Doug Hoffman, after receiving the endorsements of several national-level Republicans and conservatives, forced the moderate GOP candidate out of the race and eventually lost, handing the traditionally Republican district over to the Democrats. Hoffman originally conceded the race to Democrat Bill Owens, but after some prodding from Beck, "un-conceded" — after Owens had already been sworn in. His reasoning was that "ACORN, the unions and the Democratic Party" tampered with the results to deny him victory.

Sarah Palin, one of the national conservative stars who made Hoffman’s candidacy possible, alleges in her new book that ever since she was tapped to be Sen. John McCain’s running mate, she has been the victim of a conspiracy perpetrated in equal parts by the media, the McCain campaign, and the Democratic Party, all with the singular goal of trashing her and her family. In Congress, several prominent Republicans have called for an investigation into whether the Council on American-Islamic Relations has infiltrated key national security committees with intern "spies." Rush Limbaugh, the on-again, off-again head of the GOP, has alleged that the president personally conspired to deny him ownership of the St. Louis Rams. Fox News’ Sean Hannity still peddles the long-since discredited theory that Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, was ghost-written by Bill Ayers. The number of instances of rank conspiracy-mongering from the right in Obama’s first year alone is staggering.

Even Obama’s recent trip to Asia, during which he shook hands with and bowed to the Japanese emperor, was taken as an indication of nefarious intent. Limbaugh theorized that it conveyed Obama’s desire to one day be a monarch himself. There’s an argument to be made that Obama’s bow was a minor diplomatic snafu, but, as Hofstadter wrote, "if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination."

It’s that "paranoid imagination" that is consuming conservatism in America, transforming it into a movement defined by its eccentricities. And the most colorful "paranoid imagination" belongs to Beck, who is emerging as the most prominent voice of the movement, and leading his followers further and further down the rabbit hole.

Source: Media Matters for America