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Glen Beck and ‘Hey Hey’

Glen Beck presents such a freak show that it’s easy to underestimate him. But he’s important not simply because of his huge influence (the cable show and radio appearances attract millions and the book’s an instant bestseller) but because he successfully distills right-wing populism into its basic components, as this clip illustrates.

Most obviously, the whole Beck persona reflects and amplifies the classic ideology of a lower middle class in decline: the world is frightening and hostile and bewildering, and we don’t understand why our lives steadily worsen. The more the situation seems beyond our control, the more there must be someone else pulling the strings. Hence the Beckian obsession with conspiracies, evil plots against stolid, well-meaning citizens directed either from above (corporations, bankers, etc) or, more often, from below (Muslims, communists, ACORN, more or less anyone else that comes to hand).

Yet, because Beck’s fans remain acutely conscious of their social isolation — it’s a movement built up from an aggregation of individuals, each watching in a separate lounge room, rather than from any organisation — the Beckian alternative is necessarily authoritarian, since only a strong and charismatic leader can keep the whole thing together. In one sense, Beck himself is that leader, but a more general craving for authority suffuses the entire performance and, in the clip above, it manifests in the strange metaphor of America as an underage party-goer who needs to submit to a spanking by Daddy (as I said, freak show!). The infantilisation is, of course, a necessary correlative of the elevation of a Great Father.

Likewise, Beck’s notorious teariness represents less an individual quirk and more a necessary response to the impossible demands of his constituency. No simple right-wing nostrum will ease the fears of the impoverished retirees and the small-town shopkeepers and the mad dads and the rest of those who, quite correctly, sense that, as the American century comes to an end, the lives they took for granted are now on the skids. With no program to offer, Beck gives them emotion. At a later stage, the gathering tensions will require venting through action (with the Tea Baggers thus hinting at things to come) but, at the moment, a good cry is usually therapeutic enough.

Right-wing populism always manifests a more-or-less explicit atavism. Since it’s a response to decline, there’s generally a harking back to a golden age, a time when respectable whites received the deference they deserved. What makes this clip so interesting, however, is that Beck explicitly accepts this nostalgia as a fantasy — and yet puts it forward nonetheless. That is, he represents the ‘good old days’ through TV commercials (a Coke ad, for God’s sake!) and then urges his viewers to think back to an era that never actually existed, except in TV commercials. The basic incoherence of the populist program could not be more clear.

It’s interesting, however, to look at the Beck clip in the light of the ‘Hey Hey’ fracas. At the moment, Australia’s one of the few places in the world where a serious right-wing populist (or explicitly fascist) trend hasn’t emerged. Yet the belligerent outpouring of support for ‘Hey Hey’ suggests the obvious potential. And, if you think about the Beck video, it becomes clearer why a crap TV show reunion became such a flashpoint.

Basically, ‘Hey Hey’ ticked the boxes labelled ‘fantasy’ and ‘infantilisation’. ‘Hey Hey’s’ ratings were about nostalgia, with viewers  in their early middle-age turning back to a show they used to watch in their roaring days. Since then, of course, the world seems to have become more complicated, more worrying, more dangerous, and so the reactionary racial politics of ‘Red Faces’ satisfies a more general yearning for the simpler years of youth. In that sense, the show did for viewers what the Coke commercials did for Beck fans: it contrasted messy, scary reality with a reassuring and familiar landscape populated by talking ostriches and tawdry variety acts.

In that respect, the response to ‘Hey Hey’ represented a kind of protopopulism, a manifestation of the sentiment before it moves into the political realm. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. The sentiment clearly exists, and it’s a matter of time before an Australian demagogue begins to tap into it.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. An interesting focus group study of US populists here:
    http://www.democracycorps.com/focus/2009/10/the-very-separate-world-of-conservative-republicans/?section=Analysis

    ‘t was striking how these voters constantly characterized themselves as part of a group of individuals who share a set of beliefs, a unique knowledge, and a commitment of opposition to Obama that sets them apart from the majority of the country. They readily identify themselves as a minority in this country – a minority whose values are mocked and attacked by a liberal media and class of elites. They also believe they possess a level of knowledge and understanding when it comes to politics and current events, one gained from a rejection of the mainstream media and an embrace of conservative media and pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, which sets them apart even more. Further, they believe this position leaves them with a responsibility to spread the word, to educate those who do not share their insights, and to take back the country that they love. Their faith in this country and its ideals leave them confident that their numbers will grow, and that they will ultimately defeat Barack Obama and the shadowy forces driving his hidden agenda.’

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