Roger Ailes recognized decades ago that incendiary attacks have the potential to backfire when used by political campaigns. “If you come out and say that a guy’s a commie, fag bastard, the public turns you off, not him,” he told The Washington Post in 1972. A news network, playing to a polarized conservative base, not seeking votes in the center, was under no such restrictions.
From the paranoid rants about the creeping threats of communism to odd comparisons between mainstream political leaders and Nazis, Glenn Beck gave voice to some of Ailes’s deepest fears about the Obama presidency. In October 2009, Obama adviser David Axelrod was interviewed during the First Draft of History conference, hosted by The Atlantic magazine. Addressing the polarization that was infecting political discourse, Axelrod mentioned a conversation he had once with a “significant figure on the right”—later revealed to be Roger Ailes—who tried to explain to him why conservatives were suspicious of the president.
Ailes told Axelrod he believed Obama wanted to form a national police force, based on a twenty-one-second clip from a speech where the president proposed a civilian force that would complement the military in providing humanitarian aid around the world. Axelrod quoted Ailes telling him, “You can understand why that has people very nervous. This has shades of Nazism.”
Glenn Beck brought Roger Ailes’s theory to Fox’s audience, claiming that President Obama’s proposal of creating a civilian humanitarian force was “about building some kind of thugocracy.” Later in the program Beck went a step further to claim, “This is what Hitler did with the SS. He had his own people. He had the brownshirts and then the SS.”
The kinship between Roger Ailes and Glenn Beck would become more evident in the spring of 2010, when the host attacked criticism of him by Jewish Funds for Justice president and CEO Simon Greer. Greer had written in a Washington Post op-ed, “If we all attended houses of worship that put government last, human- kind would be last, and God would be last too.” Greer continued, “From where I stand, the house of worship you desire—where God is divorced from human dignity—is not a house of worship at all. When churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship across this country advocate for social justice, advocate for the common good, advocate for America, they, and we, walk in God’s path.”
Beck claimed on his radio program that Greer’s comments about putting “humankind and the common good” first were “exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany,” adding, “a Jew, of all people, should know that.”
In previous eras, a statement like that would have been grounds for immediate termination. But not at Fox. Glenn Beck and conservative pundits such as Ann Coulter had shifted the boundary of acceptable attacks on political opponents. What would have been a major scandal just four years earlier was now par for the course.
In response to Beck’s taunting of Simon Greer, a group of politically mainstream rabbis and prominent Jewish figures led by Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote Rupert Murdoch a private letter:
Mr. Beck has, for quite some time, invoked the Holocaust and Nazi fascism on air in support of political arguments on a variety of subjects. He has compared public officials to Nazi party figures and characterized legitimate policy positions as akin to murderous Nazi policies . . . We appeal to you to consider the impact of Mr. Beck’s words; in our community, for the global understanding of the Holocaust, and for the reputation and standing of the business you have built and nurtured. You are providing him with a platform to reach millions. We believe he has been abusing that platform . . . With respect and friendship we request an opportunity to discuss these concerns directly with you. We are confident that you, like us, having fully considered the power of Mr. Beck’s words and the hurt and dam- age they are causing, will wish to work with us to rectify this situation in a responsible and productive manner.”
It was a simple request for reasoned and calm discourse. Nowhere did the rabbis ask Murdoch to alter the political positions or leanings of the network or its hosts. Instead, they merely asked him to respect the historic horror that was the Holocaust. The letter was forwarded to Roger Ailes, who made Fox News’s position clear. “I do not agree with your characterization of Mr. Beck or our program. In the specific language you point out, I’ve reviewed the program and Mr. Beck is talking about dictators who use ‘social justice’ language to accomplish political goals,” Ailes wrote the rabbis. “Of course social justice means different things to different audiences, however it has been used in situations leading to fascism, socialism, and communism as well.”
The letter was an acknowledgement that, while his words were his own, Beck was speaking for the network, or at least its president.