Sans le canard de Vaucanson vous n’auriez rien qui fit ressouvenir de la gloire de la France.
It’s Christmas Eve, 2009, and I’m at the home of some family friends for a party. Sandwiched between three much older men, I’m being lambasted in raised voices about the injustice, the outrage, the flat-out criminality of the “Cornhusker Kickback.” I say something constructive along the lines of, “You lost, deal with it.” I’m a couple of scotch-and-sodas in at this point. On a table beside the couch I see a hardcover copy of Glenn Beck’s Arguing with Idiots winking at me. I don’t feel like an idiot. Still, my response is not well received. Creeping socialism. The beginning of the end of freedom in America. I thought not, but perhaps they were, in a sense, correct.
At the time I was fresh out of college and working for a Democratic senator, writing press releases and holding the door open for Timothy Geithner and Jeffrey Immelt and whoever else came around. I was lowly, but I was there, leaning against the wall of the wood-paneled hearing room, when the Affordable Care Act was passed out of committee; had my own, tiny role in it. Hence the target on my back that Christmas Eve, home being a town in central North Carolina. Glenn Beck was still on television then. I had a little TV in my cubicle on the Hill and every day at five o’clock I’d turn on Fox News and bask in his ravings. That he was on television seemed a kind of delightful curio at first. As when spotting a dreamcatcher or fertility idol in the home of an acquaintance, I interpreted Beck’s presence less as an indication of genuine belief than of eccentricity, or the dabbling of an amateur anthropologist. This was entertainment (and it was entertaining), and had no more to do with the real world than Avatar, which is to say only in the broadest and stupidest of senses.
Beck switched to Fox News from CNN’s HLN at the beginning of 2009, not long before I moved to DC—a match so perfect that it was hard to imagine how he hadn’t landed at Fox in the first place. After an extended run as an AM shock jock, Beck had started in pure talk radio in 1999, at WFLA in Tampa, then was picked up by HLN in 2006, his politics sliding farther and farther to the right as time went on. I’d seen his show only occasionally before his move to Fox, avoiding HLN for fear I might stumble over Nancy Grace. Once I started watching him, though, I was hooked. Beck’s histrionics, his weeping, his bizarre conspiracy theories made for great television and, in a vacuum, great entertainment. But he did not exist in a vacuum. And as the healthcare fight ramped up around me, only a month or two into my flirtation with The Glenn Beck Program, my innocuous conception of the man began to fracture.
There were Tea Party protests in the hallways, hecklers on the steps outside. Death panels, cried the mail pouring in. Tyranny. A congressman from South Carolina yelled at the president, red-faced and finger pointing, that he was a liar, right in the middle of an address to a joint session of Congress. At the Beck co-sponsored Taxpayer March on Washington that September, protesters carried signs accusing President Obama of being a socialist, communist, and fascist, of being Hitler, or the Joker from Batman, or of wanting to murder your grandma. Campaigning on the weekends for a House of Delegates race in Northern Virginia in October, a man asked which party I was with, then, when I told him, said I should go if I knew what was good for me; he was going to get his gun. By the spring I was up to my neck in this bile, soaked to the bone, angry and depressed. When white powder fell from an envelope into a pile on the desk of the mailroom clerk, he yelled Fuck so loud I heard it from across the office, and that was enough for me. I quit politics. I imagined that things couldn’t get much worse. And now, six years later, here we are.
Beck’s TV personality was so over the top, his political footprint so large, it’s hard to believe his run on Fox ended after only two and a half years, in mid-2011 (The O’Reilly Factor, by comparison, has been a constant since the network’s inception in ’96; ditto some variation on Hannity, which remains basically the same thing with or without ex-sidekick Alan Colmes). I had just moved to New York by then, about to start grad school, and so I filtered the news of Beck’s departure through a general feeling of optimism. His capacity as an entertainer had given heft to his ramblings, I figured, and as he passed out of broad circulation, so would a chunk of that particular brand of madness. Beck wasn’t the only conspiracy theorist with ratings; Rush Limbaugh had been an almost Platonic fixture of the type since the late ’80s, Alex Jones since the late ’90s, and there were many more besides. But Beck’s approach involved a certain jouissance, something beyond the simple rage of a Limbaugh or O’Reilly, or the cultishness of Jones.
A very partial, but illustrative, selection of Beck’s big scoops during his brief run at Fox:
- In 2009, Beck pointed to a relief on the façade of a Fifth Ave. entrance to the Rockefeller Center as evidence of a secret American cabal of fascists / communists.
- In 2010, Beck claimed that the Obama administration was planning a “false flag” terrorist attack, so they might blame it on conservative activists for political gain. (Alex Jones’s Infowars claimed responsibility for Beck’s latching on to this idea; you can read their take on it at the time here.)
- In 2011, Beck claimed that, in response to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Democratic politicians would push for a “ban on certain symbols and words, a ban on guns, a ban on talk radio.”
- Also in 2011, Beck claimed that the leaders of American unions were, and always had been, seeking the “destruction of capitalism and the Western way.”
- For essentially the duration of his Fox show, Beck described Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar and professor at the Chicago and Harvard schools of law who ran the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the first Obama administration, as the “most dangerous man in America,” accusing him of trying to indoctrinate American schoolchildren, wanting to ban hunting, and using government spies to infiltrate the Tea Party movement.
Beck famously argued that FEMA trailers were to be used for concentration camps and that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” And yet, for the last year, he’s fought tooth and nail against the eventual GOP nominee. This change of heart has culminated, in recent months, with something of an apology tour through the mainstream media. “The only way for our society to work is for each of us to respect the views of others,” he wrote in September in the New York Times, “and even try to understand and empathize with one another.” And on that, at least, we can agree. To a point.
Beck didn’t invent it, but he was for a time the purest practitioner of the thing that’s wrought such havoc on us all: the rejection of objective reality, rational thought, human empathy, and, ultimately, deference to and respect for fundamental principles of American governance, in favor of the pure pursuit of power. It’s the thing that led to vociferous outrage at a Christmas party over some unremarkable legislative horse-trading, and that had made a pretty innocuous healthcare overhaul seem a threat to life, liberty, and property in the first place. It’s the thing that has allowed xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy-peddling to collectively take a central role in a twenty-first-century American presidential election. It is the thing that has become, in its grand and miserable apotheosis, the campaign of Donald Trump.
It’s March 3, 2016, at the Crown Center Coliseum in Fayetteville, North Carolina, two months to the day before Ted Cruz will drop out of the Republican primary. “You all can either get behind Donald J. Trump or get the hell out of the way,” a woman on the stage is saying, “because he is going to be the next president of the United States.” Another woman, in a royal blue shirt, which clashes a bit with her colleague’s peach, stands next to her, adding the occasional, “Yes!” and “Uh huh!” “They will not decide another election,” the first woman says. “We don’t need the media feeding us a narrative, okay?” “Okay!” says the other. This is the warm-up act, a pair of African-American women, Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, who’ve been prominent Trump supporters since posting a video criticizing Megyn Kelly for questioning Trump’s commitment to female empowerment during a primary debate last August went viral in Trump circles online. The blatant tokenism of the scene is overwhelming. Three weeks later they’ll appear on the online radio program of Richard Friend, a neo-Nazi, anti-Semite, and Holocaust denier, in support of the Trump campaign. “Trump, Trump, Trump,” goes the crowd. They walk off the stage; another twenty minutes pass.
The man himself comes out. “There are thousands of people outside,” he says. “Should I wait, or should we start nooooooow?” Everybody, Trump included, says that he should start. “Anybody want to give up your spot?” asks Trump. Nobody does. He turns to the previous night’s voting, wins in Mississippi, Michigan, and Hawaii, which leads him to a riff on the dishonest media, then to “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” whose name elicits jeers from the crowd, and those, in turn, a “He doesn’t know how to win” from Trump. Then a protester. “Hello. Uh-oh. Ooooh. Uh-oh. So early. So early. Alright, get him out. Thank you. We’re going to have such fun tonight.” And they are.
About a minute goes by; another protest. “Get out of here. Go home to mom,” Trump says. “Nasty.” He starts listing the states he’s won. By the time he gets through those there’s another protester. Trump turns around to look behind him. “Is there somebody bothering us up here?” He moves on to his lead in the polls, then to a businessman who asked him how he gives such great speeches without a teleprompter. This shy, unnamed guy, Trump says, is one of the people he’d use to negotiate with China, Japan, Mexico. Thence to the wall, which leads to Trump asking who will pay for the wall and the crowd answering with a resounding “Mexico!” Back to the friend: “When I’m making speeches, there’s so much love in the room it’s easy.” Another protester. “Isn’t this exciting? I love it.”
This goes on for eighty more minutes. Trump reiterates his support for waterboarding and the expansion of laws to permit it, says he can be the most presidential person we’ve ever seen, says we need smart people and not people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing, does a not wholly accurate impression of Jeb Bush, touts his lead over Lyin’ Ted with evangelicals, reminds everyone that Little Marco is a choke artist, calls the staff of the National Review fools, bemoans the trade deficit, has a staffer bring him a painting of a wall someone was waving and signs it for the guy, says we can’t allow Syrian immigrants into the country, says that we don’t win these days, and concludes by promising that we’re not going to be the stupid country that doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore, but the brilliant country. In this time there are another sixteen protests.
Among that very first group of protesters, who had elicited the “We’re going to have such fun tonight” from Trump, was 26-year-old Rakeem Jones. As he was escorted out by sheriff’s deputies, Jones looked to his right and flipped the bird to the crowd. Turning around, he was met by an elbow to his face. Jones, furious, was wrestled to the ground by deputies at the top of the stairs and handcuffed. The guy who hit him, John McGraw, went back to his seat. The couple he sat next to, almost certainly members of a country club, by the look of them, smiled and laughed, and the wife tapped McGraw on the arm in a proud parent kind of way. In an interview right after the rally with Inside Edition, McGraw said that Jones had it coming, that he “wasn’t acting like an American,” and that “next time we might have to kill him.” McGraw was worried that Jones might have been with ISIS. Jones, who works with rap artists in Fayetteville, is definitely not with ISIS.
McGraw seemed from the first glance tailor-made for the narrative about the stereotypical Trump voter—he was white, of course, on the older side, a little grizzled, and he’d dropped out of high school, was an Air Force veteran, a boxer, and a cowboy. This was the image conjured by most of the many, many essays and reports attempting to define the type (the absence, as has been pointed out by others, of such contemplation in reverse is telling—where’s Breitbart’s exegesis on the motivations of the Clinton voter?). But McGraw is not, of course, a walking stereotype. There’s no way to know what exactly drove him to hit Jones, however much we might speculate about racism or an anger problem or the adrenal rush you find sometimes in hockey dads, brawling in the stands. That there is a measure of savagery beneath the suburban overlay is not a new idea, but until recently it had always struck me as being more metaphorical than literal. How times change. McGraw is not really the key figure here. I’d point you, instead, to the couple he was sitting by. Good job, they seemed to say.
In October of 2010, the then Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, made his infamous remark to the National Journal that “the single most important thing [Senate Republicans] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” It was a shrewd plan. Denying the president legislative victories would rob him of accomplishments and of the veneer of bipartisanship. And it would, at the same time, appeal to a GOP base that had been instilled, over the decades, since the flourishing of conservative talk radio, with a sincere belief that the opposing party was not only wrong or misguided but actively malicious. This kind of paranoia, once the province of the literally insane, was a central argument of Marco Rubio’s campaign—President Obama is not only bad for America, he is deliberately so—and Rubio is ostensibly one of the moderates.
The natural result of such thinking is an inability on all levels, or at least an unwillingness, to accept the legitimacy of a Democratic president, and a persistent high anxiety that the end is near. It’s why, every four years, there’s so much talk of last chances to save the Second Amendment, or to avert a communist takeover, or any of the other doomsday propositions conjured by these lunatic blatherers out of either idiocy or guile and dumped at various wavelengths into the humming air. The violence that’s accompanied this electoral cycle is notable for its persistence. Some basic Social Contract stuff: the nature of government is to monopolize the legitimate use of force; to delegitimize the government is to imply also the delegitimization of that monopoly. That, as you might imagine, is dangerous, and while it is an old problem in this country, its traditional form manifest recently in the Bundy clan’s pair of armed standoffs with federal agents, it is rarely so pronounced, and rarely so baldly supported by a major-party presidential candidate.
The embrace of this burn-it-all-down approach to American government and media has rightly set off alarms. It’s de rigueur at this point to remind that its origins go farther back than Donald Trump himself, and that it will not end tonight if, as the polls would indicate, Hillary Clinton wins. The institutions of American government are not, in the scheme of things, particularly old. Nor are they inflexible. But the idea that we might bend them to the point of breaking seems absurd, so directly counter to our national mythology as it is. And yet we cannot say, at the end of the most recent stage of whatever the hell this is, that the possibility doesn’t exist. The Supreme Court sits unfilled, the Senate refusing to fill it. One of our two major political parties seeks victory by discouraging, and sometimes barring, voters from the polls. The media is excoriated as biased, or, worse, complicit in a grand world-spanning scheme to do… something. The politics of hate and exclusion remain as potent as they ever were.
In 1793, the French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson built a mechanical duck that, when fed a pellet, would “digest” it and crap it back out. The duck became a massive attraction in Paris. Voltaire commented that, without it, “there would be nothing to remind you of the glory of France.” Of course the duck was not actually digesting anything; the food pellets went in, the shit was dispensed from a separate container, the whole process an illusion. Point being that there has never been a shortage of hucksters—ingenious people, really—dealing in shit. We err toward believing what we want to and eat it up. The important thing is to avoid that temptation. The country doesn’t run on rails toward some more idyllic future, true, but neither is it beyond us to nudge the steering back the other way. Perhaps this is a breaking point. Perhaps we went, so quickly that nobody even had much time to notice, beyond the reach of nudging. So we ought to get to work tomorrow. We are, at the moment, up to our necks in this shit, however it gets made.