02.25.11

Behind the Right's Glenn Beck Backlash

Bill Kristol criticized the Fox News host’s Egypt coverage, and Rich Lowry and others are piling on. But the condemnations are unlikely to spread to the GOP mainstream—and favorites like Rush Limbaugh and Andrew Breitbart are two reasons why.

Is the right turning against Glenn Beck?

This week in Commentary, Peter Wehner became the latest conservative commentator to call out the Fox News host’s absurd ramblings. He joined Bill Kristol, who criticized Beck’s coverage of the uprising in Egypt, Rich Lowry, who piled on, and Matthew Continetti, who called Beck’s oeuvre “nonsense” last summer.

That brings us to their fellow conservative Jennifer Rubin, who writes for The Washington Post. “What should thoughtful conservatives do? I’ve said it before, but it is especially relevant here: Police their own side,” she advised this week. “Rather than reflexively rising to his defense when questioned about Beck, why don’t conservatives call him out and explain that he doesn’t represent the views of mainstream conservatives? Conservative groups and candidates should be forewarned: If they host, appear with or defend him they should be prepared to have his extremist views affixed to them.”

Most commentators newly awakened to Glenn Beck’s flaws haven’t even begun to confront the pathologies running through the stuff put out by the right’s most popular entertainers.

As a Beck critic who criticized the creepy aspects of his on-air personality even when he was touting awesome Friedrich Hayek books, I’d love to see more folks in the conservative movement adopt Rubin’s attitude. But they won’t. One reason is that it’s difficult to condemn Beck in isolation. Acknowledging that his show is indefensible—that’s the core of her critique—means confronting the fact that Fox News under Roger Ailes knowingly broadcasts factually inaccurate and egregiously misleading nonsense every day. How many conservatives are willing to stipulate that?

It also means departing from the conservative movement’s standard approach to its entertainers: It’s verboten to criticize anyone on “your own side” in an ideological conflict many see as binary.

What an outsider like me sees now are conservatives in The Weekly Standard and Commentary orbit who mostly didn’t speak up against Beck until his half-baked theories started to cut against their deeply held foreign policy views. That’s actually understandable. It’s a lot easier to spot absurd rhetoric and appreciate how damaging it can be to public discourse when its subject is a matter dear to us. But Rubin is asking conservatives who don’t share her foreign policy views to appreciate Beck’s pathologies. Sure, a Rich Lowry will take Kristol’s side in a short blog post pegged to a specific feud. It’s going to be very difficult, however, to persuade conservatives to start regularly evaluating Fox News and talk radio on the substance of the rhetoric offered, and policing its absurdities.

The point is driven home by the fact that most commentators newly awakened to Glenn Beck’s flaws haven’t even begun to confront the pathologies running through the stuff put out by the rest of the right’s most popular entertainers. Don’t get me wrong. I very much admire what Rubin wrote and agree that conservatives must start speaking up when the words uttered by prominent allies don’t reflect their values. But does she appreciate that merely repudiating the most blinkered, offensive, transparently untrue rhetoric would require a radical change in how the right conducts itself?

Those writing as if Beck is an extreme outlier in the conservative world should use their newly opened eyes to survey the rhetorical landscape. Yes, his style is singular, and his conspiracy theories are particularly colorful. But is his brand of conspiratorial nonsense really any more blinkered than some of what’s uttered by other conservatives in good standing? Take Rush Limbaugh, the most popular voice in the conservative movement. Lately, he’s taken to making derogatory comments about the first lady’s weight. In the wake of the Tucson shooting, he said of Democrats, “What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country.” He claims that in Barack Obama’s America, it’s OK for black kids to physically assault white kids on school buses and that the whites victimized in these crimes are thought to have gotten what they deserved. He regularly uses bigoted words and imagery to stir racial controversy. And here is an abridged list of the people he has labeled racist in the past several years: Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, Van Jones, Democrats generally, the mainstream media, and the NFL.

Or consider Andrew Breitbart.

Best known for publishing a misleadingly edited video that made Shirley Sherrod appear racist, he says he became a conservative because of the unfair treatment Clarence Thomas received during his confirmation hearings, which makes it very weird that he tweeted this: “If male boss u knew 4 years, hired u job-2-job, gave u raises/promotions & worst infraction was PubicCoke, you know a saint.” His newest obsession is proving that Barack Obama is implicated in a “stealth reparations movement”. He is implicated in destroying the reputation of Juan Carlos Vera. Most relevant to the Glenn Beck fiasco, Breitbart is the proprietor of Big Peace, a strange foreign affairs website that regularly publishes material every bit as blinkered and conspiratorial as a Beck monologue.

Of course, it doesn’t end there. Dinesh D’Souza’s theory is that Barack Obama is a 1950s style Kenyan anti-colonialist. National Review’s Andrew McCarthy published a bestselling book based on the premise that Obama leads a coalition of leftists that has allied itself with our Islamist enemy in a “grand jihad” against America, and a separate pamphlet alleging that our president “embraces Islam’s sharia agenda.” He is one of the main foreign affairs and national security writers for movement conservatism’s flagship publication.

Do I think all these people should be drummed out of the conservative movement? Actually, I’m not one for purges. I’d be happy if their ideological allies would merely call them out when they’re egregiously wrong, rather than giving them a pass to avoid disagreement. It doesn’t matter to me whether every conservative shares my assessment of the controversies I’ve pointed out. But the views I’ve quoted are anathema to so many on the right. It’s time for them to explain as much, rather than reflexively rising to their defense.

Otherwise it appears that among regular conservatives this stuff is uncontroversial.

That isn’t true.

Jennifer Rubin is right: Glenn Beck is a nut. A person of integrity who valued truth and a broadcaster’s responsibility to his audience would never allow the man a platform as big as the one he’s been given. But if the right stops treating ideological allies with kid gloves, it needs to call out nonsense and conspiratorial idiocy that goes far beyond Beck. That makes the prospect of doing so more daunting, and more necessary.

Conor Friedersdorf blogs at True/Slant and The American Scene. Follow him on Twitter at Conor64.