Glenn Beck, at his successful “Restoring America” rally in Washington, wrapped himself in the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. He fits much better with another religious-political figure, the late Charles E. Coughlin, the Catholic priest who led a populist-right crusade against President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.
Beck and King, the erudite civil-rights legend, share little in common. Beck and Coughlin share a great deal: as mesmerizing broadcasters able to articulate the anger and frustration of a flock frightened by economic hard times.
“There are a lot of parallels between Coughlin and Beck,” says Michael Kazin, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who wrote a book about American populism of the left and right, including a section on the Catholic priest. “They both speak the language of rebellion against the establishment and to bring America back to God, citing a golden era of the past.”
Beck, 46, dismisses these comparisons, citing their differences. Yet substitute Coughlin’s animus for Jews, communists and Franklin Roosevelt for Beck’s toward Muslims, socialists and Barack Obama and the similarities seem greater.
He can’t be written off merely as a Fox News bloviator. With his Aug. 28 rally, which attracted more than 100,000 people to celebrate faith and patriotism, Beck showed he has Coughlin-like drawing power. He has surpassed Rush Limbaugh and among the movement right in America is rivaled only by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. (The Beck-Palin duo, the dream presidential ticket for some right-wing blogs, reappears next week at a Sept. 11 commemoration in Alaska.)
Still, like Coughlin, who was ultimately silenced by public opinion and the Catholic Church, Beck brings so much baggage that he ultimately may hurt political causes or parties associated with him.
With Beck, conspiracies abound. The Democratic Party is “slowly but surely,” he charges, moving the U.S. “into a system of fascism.”
He touts obscure books, which then often soar to the top of Amazon.com’s bestseller lists, like Cleon Skousen’s “The 5,000 Year Leap,” centered on conspiracy theories or unusual religious claims.
Warning to Muslims
He has been consistently anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. Several years ago, he warned Muslims that if they wanted to end racial profiling, they should “stop murdering innocent people.” He once asked Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who is Muslim, “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”
On immigration, Beck has said, “Every undocumented worker is an illegal immigrant, a criminal and a drain on our dwindling resources.” One of the reasons there are illegal immigrants from Mexico is because they “can’t make a living in their own dirtbag country.”
Race is an omnipresent subject for Beck. He called Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic on the court, “a racist” who’s “not that bright.” Earlier this year, he said Obama hated white people.
He later withdrew that charge though he often alludes to race and the president. Of Obama’s support for embryonic stem-cell research -- backed by most of the leading scientific researchers in America -- Beck sees a Nazi connection, calling it “Eugenics. In case you don’t know what Eugenics led us to: the Final Solution. A master race.”
Nazis are another Beck obsession, often comparing the political figures or ideas he doesn’t like to elements of Hitlerism. This was hilariously captured by comedian Lewis Black in a “Daily Show” segment accessible on YouTube.com.
Beck smartly rejects the birthers movement, which claims Obama really isn’t a U.S. citizen and is embraced by some on the right.
These assertions are loony, reminiscent of the John Birchers, a half century ago, suggesting General Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist. Hawaii has documentation of Obama’s birth. The birthers’ conspiracy assumes that’s a fraud, as were the 1961 birth announcements in two Hawaii newspapers, somehow planted by nefarious forces to be used to undermine the U.S. decades later.
Beck is less careful in questioning Obama’s Christian credentials, charging, on Fox News after his Washington rally, that Obama’s brand of faith is one that most Christians wouldn’t recognize. This is dangerous territory for Beck, who is a Mormon convert.
Arizona Immigration Law
The rally, for its success and calm outward appearances, bared the strains and excesses of the Beck Nation. A highlighted speaker was the St. Louis Cardinal baseball great Albert Pujols, a native of the Dominican Republic, and a critic of Arizona’s restrictive immigration law. There are few more passionate champions of that law than Beck.
Also prominently displayed was Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, Alveda King, lending credence to the host’s claim to honor King’s legacy. Except she’s a different sort of family member, one who recently charged that gay marriage is “genocide.”
The closing prayer at a Beck-sponsored kick-off event at the Kennedy Center the night before the Washington rally was offered by the Reverend John Hagee. This evangelical pastor, who also attended the Saturday gathering on the National Mall, has been so outspoken in his opposition to Catholicism -- calling the religion the “great whore,” and suggesting Adolf Hitler practiced that faith -- that the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, had to renounce his endorsement.
This is a coalition that looked fabulous on a sunny August morning, basking in the beauty of the reflecting pool and the majesty of the Lincoln Memorial.
Beck has brilliantly parlayed his pitch to fame and fortune. More than the other right-wing talk show provocateurs, Beck’s devotees see him as a teacher. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican congressman from Utah, calls him a “great educator.” He’s likely to energize some of his following to help Republicans in the November congressional elections.
Yet the Coughlin parallel remains instructive. The priest was brought down when it became apparent his gospel was based less on faith and hope than on fear and prejudice. This also is why the Glenn Beck gospel won’t appeal to most Americans or endure politically.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)