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You'll notice a pattern in all stories: There are three kinds of characters: heroes, villains and there but for the grace of God go I.
-- Glenn Beck
Glenn Beck started strong. After joining Fox News on the eve of President Obama's inauguration, he quickly built an audience of two million viewers per night, particularly impressive for a 5:00 p.m. timeslot. The New York Times heralded Fox News's "mad, apocalyptic, tearful rising star." Time magazine featured Beck's protruding tongue on its cover. Television audiences rated him their favorite TV personality after Oprah Winfrey.
In the mold of America's greatest demagogues, Beck built his popularity on fear. He told chilling stories of 1960s radicals plotting with union leaders, environmentalists, and a radical black president to devour the country from within. Once America had been reduced to a shell, the conspirators would decree emergency powers and establish an Orwellian dictatorship in which "real Americans" lived in poverty and oppression, thereby fulfilling the aspirations of the twentieth century's greatest villain, Woodrow Wilson.
When your career is based on scare tactics, you have to keep developing the narrative. Your audience demands fresh twists and new villains who are even more monstrous. As a result, demagogues often fallen into a common trap. They extend their imaginary webs of conspiracy ever wider until they alienate too many powerful people.
Father Charles Coughlin, a Depression-era Catholic priest who preached anti-Semitic paranoia on the radio, implicated the Roosevelt administration in his conspiracy theories and consequently lost his radio show. Senator Joseph McCarthy disgraced himself in the eyes of the country when he vilified U.S. Army officers. Robert Welch, founder of the anti-communist John Birch Society, attracted the scorn of conservatives when he accused former President Eisenhower of treason.
In 2010, Glenn Beck's ratings began to slip. His stories had become monotonous. His audience was drifting. So Beck chose a new villain for his conspiracy narrative, the Jewish billionaire George Soros.
Soros must have seemed like an easy target. Republicans' made him their favorite bogeyman after he publicly campaigned against President George W. Bush's reelection in 2004. Prominent conservatives like Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and former majority leader Tom DeLay took turns accusing Soros of various plots from the war on Christmas to Congressional ethics investigations.
But Beck pursued anti-Sorosism with a level of zeal and imagination unmatched by his fellow conservatives. His placement of a rich Jewish financier at the center of fantastical plots to take over the world bore too much resemblance to the old Jewish conspiracy theories of Father Coughlin's day. Beck's programs soon drew charges of anti-Semitism, a serious transgression even on Fox News.
In January 2011, four hundred rabbis signed an open letter in the Washington Post condemning Beck's show. In response, Beck compared America's Reform rabbis to Islamic radicals, which earned him no affection in the Jewish community. After a storm of protest, Beck apologized, telling his audience, "You have to guard your honor and your integrity because people have to be able to believe you."
But it was too late for that. Like bursting stock market bubbles, disgraced demagogues tend to fall swiftly. Conservative journalists who had long avoided the subject of Beck's doomsday routine began to criticize his conspiracy theories as "offensive," "hysterical," and "disturbing." Prominent Republicans reportedly confronted Fox owner Rupert Murdoch and Fox News president Roger Ailes about the potential embarrassment that Beck might create for the party. Within weeks, Fox News announced, "Glenn intends to transition off of his daily program." On June 30, Beck aired the last Fox News installment of his grand conspiracy saga.
The question is, why did they wait so long? Beck's rambling did not suddenly become offensive, hysterical, and disturbing in 2011. He has been embarrassing the Republican Party for three years straight. Yet few conservatives objected when Beck called Obama a racist who hated white people, when he promoted McCarthy-esque witch-hunts against government officials, or when he speculated that the White House was plotting a communist revolution.
Many Republicans saw Beck as a useful instrument for galvanizing opposition to President Obama. Others were afraid to pay the political cost of confronting him.
But there is something else. Had Beck hurled the N-word or dressed in white robes, conservatives would have competed to out-condemn him, but the goofy, self-deprecating Mr. Beck did not fit the model of a dangerous bigot. Many people across the political spectrum dismissed him as a harmless entertainer or a clown.
Yet this charming clown was far more dangerous than any snarling caricature of bigotry. Beck is a man who can reach inside human beings to coax their darkest urges to the surface. Like Coughlin, McCarthy, and Welch, he plays on fear to unlock our repressed hatreds.
History abounds with men like these. Most flare and burn out with little trace. A few endowed with great talent and favorable conditions have shaped their fearful followers into potent forces of cruelty. Demagogues like Hitler and Radovan Karadzic assume monstrous proportions in historical memory, but they began much like Beck--charismatic crackpots who told tales of secret plots by powerful villains.
Glenn Beck never came close to such heights of power, but for a time, he had more influence in America then any serious conspiracy theorist since Joe McCarthy. That he produced no lasting damage is a testament to our country's resistance to the pathology of fear.
Times change, however. The next time someone like Beck casts his shadow over the country, we may prove more vulnerable to such persuasions.
There but for the grace of God go we.
Michael Wolraich (@wolraich) is the author of Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies about the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual.