March 2011

Essays

Guy Rundle

The Fox News show

Sarah Palin "reloads" at a campaign rally in Anchorage, Alaska, 2010. © John Moore / Getty Images
Rupert Murdoch’s populist creations

In February, scarlet-wrapped, big-haired, possible presidential candidate Sarah Palin emerged from a period of media silence to give a speech at the Ronald Reagan centenary dinner in Santa Barbara, California – the sun-baked American no-place that Reagan had somehow made his own. She ran through the mantra of unashamed ancestor-worship that the Republican Reagan cult has become, recounting to the audience the myth of the American Fall – that the US had gone wrong with Lyndon B Johnson’s Great Society, with Jimmy Carter’s human rights multilateralism and again with Bill Clinton’s moral depravity.

It was the usual Palin performance – the sentences tripping over each other, somewhere between natural leader and cheerleader. It’s the style that has wowed supporters across the continent but this time subsequent reaction among mainstream conservatives was curiously muted. The faithful could still be won over by the photo shoot of Palin riding at the Reagan ranch, chestnut hair trailing in the wind, while blogger Tammy Bruce raved: “Hey World, this is what a steel fist in a velvet glove looks like: Liberals, Islamists and Globalists take note.” It was left to the New York Times to note that amid all the ra-ra, Palin hadn’t actually offered any policy prescription – and perhaps at this point in time, that wasn’t enough.

The Reagan oration was Palin’s first outing since her disastrous intervention in the wake of the Tucson shooting of Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords, by a mentally disturbed young man. Giffords’ had been one of the “target seats” featured in Palin’s “Don’t retreat, instead – reload!” campaign, which featured gunsights on selected seats. The particular nihilism of the attack stung Americans into a grieving reflection on the loose talk of guns and retribution that had become a part of political life, and Palin took the storm full force. Her camp’s initial response – that the graphics were in fact “surveyor’s symbols” – was bad enough, but worse was her later response that criticism of her was a “blood libel”, which managed to combine historical illiteracy, insensitivity and a teenage-level narcissism.

Palin had screwed up before – most recently by confusing North and South Korea, when the former was pummelling the latter with missiles – and many mainstream Republicans had long since given up on her as a standard-bearer. The “blood libel” comment marked the point at which the pro- and anti-Palin camps went into open warfare – leading to speculation that it was a Dada strategy to rally stalwart supporters, the only explanation other than staggering ineptitude that would fit the facts.

Palin wasn’t the only conservative superstar having problems in the new year. As Barack Obama’s dignified handling of the Tucson shooting repositioned him as the representative of the nation, most conservatives kept their heads down. Not so Glenn Beck, the frenetic, permanently sub-hysterical host of Fox News Channel’s weeknight show at 5 pm, who had over the two years since Obama’s election become even more of a cultural hero to sections of the Right than Palin. More than any conservative pundit, Beck had delved deep into the reservoirs of paranoid American right-wing politics, coming up with interlocking networks of enemies of society – from National Public Radio to the United Nations – to explain the malaise and disappointment of much of his audience. Following the Tea Party protests of early 2010 over health care reform – in which Barack Obama was regularly, often simultaneously, accused of being a socialist, communist and fascist – some conservatives shied away from casting such easy comparisons. Beck wasn’t one of them, making Hitler and Nazi comparisons on more than 200 occasions over the course of 2009–10 according to one tally. Most of them were aimed at Obama, but they were also directed at secular humanism in general, which Beck saw as little more than a road to the death camp.

The position exasperated many liberal Jews, among others, and by December last year even Abraham Foxman, the conservative of the Anti-Defamation League, had had enough, joining 400 rabbis in a petition to the Fox News president, political street-fighter Roger Ailes, expressing their disgust at Beck’s schtick. Perhaps they hoped to shame the whole organisation into change; they hoped in vain. Fox News said that the letter had been organised by the liberal establishment to discredit a conservative hero. Yet it was bravado. As recently as October, Foxman had written Beck a gushing letter praising him for his patriotism. Now even Bill Kristol, the hereditary monarch of conservatism and editor of the Weekly Standard, was taking to the airwaves to tell Beck to shut up. And Newt Gingrich, hitherto the most stalwart of Republicans, had publicly told Palin to “think before speaking” – novel advice on the American Right. Barely a month after Republicans had taken control of Congress in January this year, the Right was in disarray. What had gone wrong?

Both Palin and Beck were beneficiaries of the new conservative environment created by Fox News in the wake of Obama’s 2008 election victory. In the month of his eightieth birthday, Rupert Murdoch might have hoped that Fox News would be the crowning glory of his political media empire, a reliable conveyer belt of conservative opinion, delivering an audience and an electorate, the media dimension of Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority”. But it hasn’t worked out that way. In 2008, despite Fox News’s frantic efforts, Obama had gained victory against the fervent, indeed borderline-psychotic, opposition of the conservative media – a victory got by a grassroots movement, matching money with mass mobilisation.

In the wake of that loss, both Ailes and Murdoch appear to have concluded that it was not enough to have a right-wing news network shouting from the sidelines. It was time to go the mattresses. The long-running show Hannity & Colmes, featuring right-wing bruiser Sean Hannity and the pallid moderate Alan Colmes (or “liberal to be determined” as he was listed in the pilot episode) was wound up in January 2009 to make way for a new prime-time line-up, conservative from toe to top. The addition of Glenn Beck – taken from CNN’s low-rent Headline News network – completed the transformations.

Beck had no inhibitions about the journalistic divide. Round-faced and flabby without being corpulent, Beck has a put-upon, plain-man look other right-wing pundits lack. His manner is that of an eighth-grade history teacher who can’t believe the dumb answers he’s hearing from his pupils, i.e. American culture, causing him to traipse around his studio with exasperation and stupefaction. Merely social conservative before the Obama election, he subsequently began to load on all the domestic themes of the libertarian Right, from abolition of the Federal Reserve and return of the gold standard, to an end to direct election of the Senate. More obsessively he began telling his viewers of the coming economic apocalypse, brought on by a cabal of enemies – connections between which he sketches on an old-style blackboard – the most formidable of which is the currency trader and social activist George Soros, whom Beck appears to believe runs the world.

Beck joined with the Tea Party – the radical ‘constitutionalist’ movement that had sprung up in the wake of Obama’s proposal of a $1 trillion economic stimulus package – as enthusiastically as any chimp. He had already started a movement of sorts of his own: the 9/12 Project, a network of community groups working to recover a “feeling of togetherness” by following nine principles and 12 values that had been present the day after September 11 – a mixture of patriotism, pseudo-Buddhism and Dan Brown–style numerology that is a perfect expression of Beck’s method. Though it would later be slated as an ‘astroturf’ – that is, pseudo-grassroots – movement, the early Tea Party was genuine enough, largely a renaming of groups that had supported the extreme libertarian candidacy of Texan congressman Ron Paul – anti-war, anti-deficit, state rights – in the ’08 election. They’d quickly been taken over by more conventional conservatives, and feted by advocacy groups such as FreedomWorks, run by a radical Ayn Randian former senator, the felicitously named Dick Armey.

Even so, it was faltering until Fox News got behind it, simultaneously organising and reporting on the first national Tea Party, in which people gathered in city-hall forecourts and convenience-store car parks across the nation to protest against Obama’s mild Keynesian and social market reform proposals as interchangeably socialist, communist and fascist. Many were influenced by Liberal Fascism (2008), a book by the National Review editor Jonah Goldberg; it argued that modern American left-liberalism was fascist because it shared fascism’s interest in ideas such as ‘community’ and the ‘organic’.

It was here also that the nasty racial edge first fully and publicly emerged, with sinister Obama clown masks and placards about Muslims and birth certificates. Fox News had found that even the social movements that it wanted to present as the voice of the “silent majority” had to be built at the very centre of the matrix. Murdoch for his part appeared comfortable and relaxed about this, later telling an interviewer that Beck was “a terrific populist … have you seen his ratings?” The proto–Tea Partiers, a more bookish bunch, hadn’t had much time for Palin. But for those who swelled the movement in 2010, she was a natural leader and figurehead, an object of devotion. The know-nothingism that had turned off a fatal number of independents only endeared her further to the base. Who cared what newspapers she read? Who read newspapers anyway? She communicated via Facebook and Twitter, becoming a leading part of the ‘Britney-isation’ of the US – the process whereby the practices and priorities of teenage girls became those of the culture as a whole, life becoming an unending process of cliques, networks and communication. She was lucky in her enemies – Meghan McCain, the privileged self-parodic daughter of John, told the world that “all of my friends think Palin’s crazy”, a stamp of approval for Palin as an outsider to all the outsiders populating the Tea Party movement.

Crucially, Palin also joined Fox News, in early 2010. One of their anchors would cross to Palin for comment on the “Obamacare” health care bill and she would begin in her Church-mom style, “Oh y’know, we’re takin’ bek our country from the liberal elite and the lamestream media …” and on it would go, sections of a stump speech learnt and endlessly re-used in multiple combinations. Both ends of the conversation were being paid for by Fox News, so what was going on here? Was she a player? A commentator? It didn’t matter anymore. Palin’s wager – or that of the conservative groups backing her – was that that might be a sufficient staging ground for a primary and presidential run. She was a force of nature.

Like all natural forces, her effect was indiscriminate. By mid 2010, it was clear that Palin was turning into as much of a problem as an asset for the Republican party. She continued to flirt with questions about Obama’s birth certificate. She coined the malapropism ‘refudiate’, and then brazened it out by talking about Shakespeare’s tendency to create new words. And her reality TV show – Sarah Palin’s Alaska on Discovery’s Learning Channel – was what is usually called a brave move for a potential candidate.

Beck, meanwhile, had gone rogue on the Fox News reservation. His 5 pm show now featured a large performance area, with blackboards, whiteboards, a poster wall and other accoutrements. Flow charts showed interconnections between Soros, the New York Times, activist peak body ACORN, obscure professors, public radio and the like. A live audience of 80 or so was on hand so that the intensity of the spectacle could be maximised. Best of all was the puppet show. Beck would manipulate two large marionettes representing Soros and one other, while talking in a faux mittel-European accent about controlling the world. It was gobsmacking stuff, a literal re-staging of crude pre-World War II anti-Semitism, but done in a postmodern style, simultaneously a literal message and self-parodic, and thus deniable.

Cognitive dissonance was total: on a network owned by Rupert Murdoch, Beck was assailing global financiers who manipulated plain folks with disinformation. Murdoch appeared unconcerned by this, or by Beck’s increasing appetite for something way beyond bank-bashing, and going all the way to an old-school division between a real economy and a “parasitic” financial sector. To this he has added a radical notion of the American Fall – at his “Restoring Honor” rally, organised on Washington DC’s National Mall in 2010 on the date and place of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, he spoke of the only course of action for the US being a return to God.

Palin was one of the speakers at that rally, and her appearance there may be, in retrospect, a high point, the two dimensions of the American Right coming together – Beck its angst-ridden sad clown, haunted by fears of failure and the Fall, and the darkness of history; Palin its relentlessly cheerful cheerleader, pointing towards the future, and possessing a historical memory of 15 minutes. The energy was with the Tea Party. They had a simple message – that all had gone awry because the country had departed from the Constitution – and a subterranean myth to explain it: the presidency had been usurped by a black foreigner.

The stonking 2010 mid-term results, with 63 House and five Senate seats going to the Republicans, looked like the Right’s triumph. In fact it was the point at which it all began to fall apart. The Republicans had won the Lower House of Congress handily, but they had narrowly missed out on gaining a majority in the Senate – due largely to the unpalatability of Tea Party candidates such as Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. That loss could prove crucial should Obama have the opportunity to appoint, among other things, new Supreme Court justices – an opportunity which would change the composition of the court to that of liberalism for decades to come. The narrow loss served to further sharpen the recriminations between Tea Party stalwarts, and those who had wanted to reach out to independents in key areas.

Most alarmingly for the new Republican leadership, some Tea Party senators – such as Rand Paul, the son of Ron Paul – were talking about voting against a raising of the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, a legal measure necessary to continue the country’s day-to-day borrowing. The threat reminded some of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, when Newt Gingrich shut down American government services by blocking supply, and handed Bill Clinton a second term. Yet those seemed minor worries at a time of Republican resurgence. In an episode of glorious kitsch, they began the 112th Congress in January by sharing out the Constitution and reciting it in series – though the sentence describing slaves as counting for three-fifths of a citizen was excised.

But the celebrations were over almost before they began because of the Giffords shooting. Six people were killed, including, unbelievably, a nine-year-old girl born on the day of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001. A trawl of Jared Lee Loughner’s online archive, which includes a series of bizarre films on YouTube – would reveal him to be a young man clearly undergoing some sort of schizophreniform breakdown, his thinking about politics and public affairs conducted in bizarre circular syllogisms, with angst about the reality of language. Loughner’s madness latched easily onto the Fall myth of the Tea Partiers, drawing in their obsessions about the gold standard – without it money was “unreal” – and the unconstitutionality of the entire federal government. His violent madness did not of itself invalidate those beliefs per se, but it was difficult for conservatives to explain how someone who had acted on all the various memes of Tea Party–esque conservatism was, by definition, criminally insane.

The Right had become a mess – Fox News in particular. Rupert’s neat little machine for contributing to the permanent Republican majority had become a compendium of the obsessions and projections of the American conservative fantasy. Much of the increasingly strident social conservatism, the doom and gloom, appealed to Murdoch’s own increasing personal turn in values – a move that was nothing other than what Murdoch had always done: be a totally average middle-class man at each stage of his life, moving from optimistic progressivism, to a focus on fiscal conservatism, to the slow advance of grumpy senescence.

What he and the Right establishment never really understood, or fully believed, was that the strains within American conservatism would be stronger than their ability to hold them together. After all, modern American conservatism combines a belief in the possibility of endless economic expansion and that of settled small town values with an imperial foreign policy. The triple threat was bound to pull apart sometime, and the combination of a financial crisis, a bogged-down war, and a Democratic administration taking them both over and using them to create change, was enough to pull it all apart. One small group of conservatives – the so-called paleocons, whose most high-profile leader was Patrick Buchanan – had already split away, creating the American Conservative magazine, which was virulently anti-war, realist in foreign policy, and anti-Zionist.

But they didn’t have a large chunk of a TV network. By February this year, in the face of the Egypt uprising, Beck had gone over to their side, enunciating a radical isolationist foreign policy: the US should just withdraw from its empire and be an armed neutral country “like Switzerland”. It was this subversive thought – coupled with Beck’s increasing angst about the American record of supporting dictators – that prompted Bill Kristol to try to shout him down in the Weekly Standard. Holocaust schlock, no problem. But once the talent starts attacking the American empire, it’s time to pull the rug. Beck showed no sign of backing down, telling the audience of his radio show that “People like Bill Kristol … they’ll do anything to keep the Republican power entrenched.” Fox News had pitched a big tent, hoping it would contain the circus it had started. But the clowns have spilled out of the jalopy, and it may be that Rupert’s creation will be what guarantees Obama a victory in 2012.

Guy Rundle
Guy Rundle is the global correspondent-at-large for Crikey. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 US Presidential Election and two Quarterly Essays, ‘The Opportunist’ and ‘Bipolar Nation’.

March 2011

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