For nearly a century, the Anti-Defamation League has stared unflinchingly into the dark corners of America's social psyche -- the places where combustible tendencies such as hatred and paranoia pool and, sometimes, burst into flame.
As a Jewish organization, the ADL's first preoccupation naturally is anti-Semitism, but in the last few decades it has extended its scrutiny to the whole range of bigoted malevolence -- white supremacy, the militia movement, neo-nativism and conspiratorial fantasies in all of their improbable permutations. These days, the organization's research is characterized by the sense of proportion and sobriety that long experience brings.
That makes its recent report on the extremist groups and propagandists that have emerged since President Obama's election -- "Rage Grows In America: Anti-Government Conspiracies" -- particularly notable. For the first time in living memory, the ADL is sounding the alarm about a mainstream media personality: Fox News' Glenn Beck, who also hosts a popular radio show.
The report notes that while "other conservative media hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, routinely attack Obama and his administration, typically on partisan grounds, they have usually dismissed or refused to give a platform to the conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists." By contrast, "Beck and his guests have made a habit of demonizing President Obama and promoting conspiracy theories about his administration. ... Beck has even gone so far as to make comparisons between Hitler and Obama."
What gives all of this nonsense an ominous twist is Beck's announcement that he intends to use his TV and radio shows to promote a mass movement that will involve voter registration drives, training in community organizing and a series of regional conventions that will produce a "100-year plan" for America to be read from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a mass rally Aug. 28.
As Beck wrote on his website, "I know that the bipartisan corruption in Washington that has brought us to this brink and it will not be defeated easily. It will require unconventional thinking and a radical plan to restore our nation to the maximum freedoms we were supposed to have been protecting. ... All of the above will culminate in The Plan, a book that will provide specific policies, principles and, most importantly, action steps that each of us can take to play a role in this Refounding."
Hard times predictably throw up their demagogues. Still, even allowing for the frenetic pace of our wired world's 24-hour news cycle, it's remarkable how quickly the arc of Beck's career has come to resemble that of the Great Depression's uber-demagogue, Father Charles Coughlin. In the months after the crash of '29, Coughlin turned what had been a conventionally religious weekly radio broadcast into a platform for championing the downtrodden working man. He was an early supporter of the New Deal, coining the slogan "Roosevelt or Ruin," but quickly turned on the president for a variety of complex ideological and personal reasons. Coughlin flirted with Huey Long, launched an unsuccessful political party, published a popular newspaper, Social Justice, and even inspired and supported a kind of militia, the Christian Front, some of whose members were arrested by the FBI and charged with plotting a fascist coup.
As the 1930s dragged on, Coughlin, a longtime admirer of Francisco Franco, became virulently anti-Semitic, isolationist and pro-German. He also was extraordinarily popular. At their height, his weekly broadcasts attracted more than 40 million listeners. Still, after he lashed out at German Jews in the wake of Kristallnacht, many major urban radio stations dropped his program. Influential American prelates, the Vatican and prominent Catholic New Dealers had worked for some time to persuade Coughlin's superior, the archbishop of Detroit, to silence him. Shortly before the U.S. entered World War II, a new bishop was installed, and Coughlin was ordered to cease broadcasting. He accepted the clerical discipline and retired into a long life of bitter silence.
It's hard to imagine any contemporary cable system dropping Fox News simply because Beck is an offensively dangerous demagogue -- not with his ratings at least. His new foray into politics, though, presents Rupert Murdoch's network with a profound challenge. Is it willing to become the platform for an extremist political campaign, or will it draw a line as even the authoritarian Catholic Church of the 1940s did? CNN recently parted ways with its resident ranter, Lou Dobbs -- who now confirms he's weighing a presidential bid.
Does Fox see a similar problem with Beck -- and, if not, why?