Glenn Beck’s Phony Rich-Guy Populism
Topic: Progressive Op-Ed Program
This article also appeared at Alternet.org
One curious consequence of the Democrats’ electoral triumph last year has been the rise of Glenn Beck, a right-wing populist whose daily ravings on Fox News have helped inspire the anti-government “tea party” rallies across the country. In a lot of ways, Beck’s popularity reflects the current emotional state of American conservatives.
When they ran the entire government just a few short years ago, it was fashionable for conservatives to tune into braying, overconfident bullies such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Now that they’re totally shut out, however, they’ve found solace in the conspiratorial and weepy Beck, who stokes their fears that shadowy elements within the government are plotting to end freedom as we know it.
The irony is that Beck is only really opposed to big government when Republicans aren’t controlling it. For instance, he has no issues with allowing the government to torture prisoners and is supportive of police brutality. And those big government bailouts of the financial industry that Beck rails against on a regular basis? Back when George W. Bush was president, Beck actually chided Congress for not giving more money to rescue the banks.
So Beck isn’t against big government. Rather, he’s opposed to government action that helps the poor at the expense of the rich. For instance, have you ever seen a conservative oppose tax cuts in any form? Well, Glenn Beck does, but only if they’re being given to poor people. Indeed, when economist Jeff Frankel appeared on Beck’s show to advocate giving tax cuts “to low-income, working Americans,” Beck compared him to Josef Stalin and accused him of trying to “redistribute the wealth.”
In his own way, Beck is tapping into the American tradition of rich-guy populism where wealthy elites portray themselves as noble victims of a tyrannical government hell-bent on taking their hard-earned money and giving it to unworthy poor people. Novelist Ayn Rand is primarily responsible for creating the modern incarnation of rich-guy populism, as her books portrayed productive capitalists pitched in a constant struggle against governments, unions and other organizations that inhibited their ability to have a limitless income. In Rand’s calculus, one was either a “rational being” motivated by one’s own self-interest to be productive and make money; or a “suicidal animal” who only survived by sponging off the work of the producers. Rand was fond of describing such “unproductive” people as “looters” and “parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.”
You can see how Beck incorporates this mindset into his daily diatribes against the government. The most telling example of this came during the summer when Beck compared the current effort to reform health care to giving reparations to the descendants of slaves. In his standard conspiratorial fare, Beck said that the purpose of health care reform wasn’t to give more Americans access to affordable, quality health care, but to act as a slush fund to reward racial minorities. Although Beck adds a toxic racial element to the equation, his basic framework is straight out of Ayn Rand: the government is using its power to take money away from productive people and to give it to unworthy parasites.
Although this sort of phony populism is absurd on its face, it has been used effectively for decades to wage a siege war against progressive government policies. The tactics vary, but the common strategy is to persuade the rest of the American people to support legislation that only benefits the very richest.
Take for example the debate over the inheritance tax, which until 2001 was only paid by the wealthiest two percent of Americans. For years now, rich-guy populists have successfully rebranded it as the “death tax” and have portrayed it as a nationwide scourge that is bankrupting small family farms.
Sadly, then, rich-guy populism has become a staple of American political discourse. Progressives who design and implement policy can do themselves a favor if they simply anticipate that whatever they propose is going to attacked as violating the rights of the rich, who in the right-wing’s view have become America’s most deeply oppressed minority.
This article was produced as part of Commonweal Institute's Progressive Op-Ed Program