Glenn Beck is an American hero. Considered a buffoon at best by his liberal detractors, Beck is in fact a showman par excellence who draws on the passions of a small and alienated minority to create a television program that has done more to keep Americans safe than 10,000 public-service announcements. And for that, he deserves a medal from the Department of Homeland Security.
DHS, you might recall, issued a report in April on the threat posed by right-wing extremists, a report that many conservatives angrily denounced as a crude smear. Michael Savage, a radio host known for his scabrous denunciations of Democrats, liberals, vegans, backgammon enthusiasts, and other sinister elements, went so far as to file suit against the government in a fit of pique. But after a Holocaust Museum security guard was murdered by a deranged white supremacist, many observers loudly wondered if right-wing extremism represented a real and potent threat. After all, the shooting followed the slaying of George Tiller, the Kansas doctor best known for performing controversial late-term abortions. Are the two events a dark potent of a violent domestic terror campaign? The answer is probably no, and credit belongs to that most underappreciated part of the news business: cable talk shows.
If you watch some of Glenn Beck's more incendiary moments through the eyes of a crank, you get a very different perspective.
Of course, this runs counter to a familiar narrative. Tiller, for example, was frequently derided on The O'Reilly Factor. The Factor is a bizarro inversion of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, in which the wiseacre host berates an endless stream of alleged pedophiles and punks in lieu of puffing up "A-list" celebrities. Without villains, the show falls apart. And among others, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Tomasky, and Gawker went beyond just condemning O'Reilly for his incendiary language about Tiller, whom he dubbed "Tiller the Baby Killer"; all three suggested a connection between O'Reilly's rhetoric and Tiller's eventual murder. Scott Roeder, the man who actually killed Tiller, seems to have at least contemplated terrorist violence since at least 1996, when he was arrested for keeping an impressive array of bomb-making supplies in his car. One gets the sense he didn't need some cable-news blowhard to inspire him to violence. The obvious rejoinder is that O'Reilly's harsh tone could contribute to a hostile climate in which Internet obsessives can flourish. It's far more likely, however, that in giving voice to strong, harsh views, O'Reilly, like Beck, actually tamps down the threat of violence.
Remember that political violence runs deep in the American tradition. The United States was founded by sober Whigs, but independence was won by wild-eyed insurrectionists. While genteel Bostonian abolitionists protested against the evils of slavery, John Brown plotted a bloody uprising in the American South. The Weather Underground set off bombs to bring fascist AmeriKKKa to its knees and the white nationalist Timothy McVeigh did the same thing, though to far bloodier and more spectacular effect. America has more than its fair share of murderous idealists, and that's no less true today. The question is how we can keep this violent streak under wraps.
One approach is epidemiological. Like the swine flu, extremism should be subject to quarantine. Hateful sentiments should be suppressed to the extent possible, the better to prevent their spread. In Western Europe, neofascist political symbols and rhetoric are tightly regulated on the theory that violent extremism is a bacillus that must be contained. The end result, ironically enough, is that neofascist political movements, ranging from France's National Front to Britain's obnoxiously racist BNP, have had shockingly high levels of electoral success. By marginalizing certain political tendencies, the European approach makes it harder to domesticate them.
A healthier approach is to allow a wide array of screamers to soak up the angry energy of alienated citizens. Following the 2004 presidential election, a number of enraged lefties believed that George W. Bush's presidential campaign had stolen the presidential election by manipulating the vote count in Ohio through the misuse of electronic voting machines. In years past, this might have been ignored as a fringe belief. But it so happens that MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was willing to give the story considerable attention. Because Olbermann was willing to lend credence to the Ohio story, true believers treated him as an honest broker. And when Olbermann eventually moved on, they did too, for the most part.
Glenn Beck does something very similar. During a fascinating live chat with readers of The Washington Post, Beck addressed the question of extremist violence a number of times. One reader asked Beck point blank if he, like many of the commenters on his Web site, advocated a violent revolution. Beck condemned violence, and said that "we need to model ourselves after Martin Luther King and Gandhi." Another reader thoughtfully asked how Beck avoids pushing fringe groups to violence, to which Beck responded that "the fringe groups hate my guts. The fringe groups think I'm a government stooge." And in a sense the fringe groups were right. Rather than stoke the fears of his audience, Beck's occasionally loopy warnings about socialist totalitarianism and the coming American civil war actually inoculate his viewers against truly extreme sentiments. You couldn't invent a better government stooge than Beck.
If you watch some of Beck's more incendiary moments through the eyes of a crank, you get a very different perspective. Back in 2006, when Beck was still on CNN's Headline News, he interviewed newly elected Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives. After providing numerous caveats about his deep affection for Muslims, Beck said to Ellison: "Prove to me that you are not working with our enemies!" Written down, this sounds rather stark. But in its delivery, wrapped in soothing tones and earnest self-disclosure, it actually comes across as rather winning. Ellison actually chuckled before asserting his patriotic bona fides. To someone who grew up in a diverse big city environment, the question sounds impossibly gauche if not offensive. Beck, however, is speaking for members of his audience who really want to know if Keith Ellison is working with America's enemies. All the diplomatic finesse in the world won't get around the fact that these questions are out there, and in a democracy they deserve to be heard.
I'll admit to a soft spot for Glenn Beck. When a friend made me watch a lengthy Beck segment on the "Bubba Effect," in which angry rednecks revolt against an Obama-led federal government in a climate of total economic collapse, I was meant to laugh at Beck's insanity. Instead, I was struck by how Beck was taking a lot of deep-seated and often unspoken anxieties very seriously. Aside from his weirdly hypnotic eyes—the main reason I'm not a regular viewer of his program—Beck's great strength is that he's a kind of national therapist for some of America's craziest people, few of whom are willing to go in for professional help. Without Beck and O'Reilly and even Olbermann, how exactly would these people let off steam? I don't want to know.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.