Something strange has happened to rank-and-file Republicans since President Obama took office. These past few months, standard-issue gray lawmakers have sounded like fire-and-brimstone demagogues. Conspiracy theories and over-the-top legislation to fix imaginary wrongs are flying wildly around formerly mainstream GOP circles.
It turns out that like so much of what ails the world today, this can be traced back to Glenn Beck. Some fifth-term Iowa senator might be railing against death panels, but it's really Beck's voice you're hearing. With his show on Fox News, Beck has successfully positioned himself as the weirdo right's ambassador-at-large to the rest of the world. When the patron saint of the Tea Parties lets his freak flag fly, seemingly normal right-wing functionaries have been known to line up and salute. Republicans parrot Beck's crackpot notions and pet issues routinely -- sometimes running with his manias the morning after he first airs them.
Take Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. In the middle of the Senate Finance Committee's debate over healthcare reform legislation last month, he broke out with an analogy about frogs failing to jump out of boiling water, one that seemed to have little to do with what he was discussing. "Sounds to me like it's the old story about the frog in the pot of water on the stove that pretty soon the heat's turned up so slowly that the frog doesn't know it's cooked," Cornyn said. Where might he have gotten the idea? Perhaps from Beck -- who the night before had pretended to boil a frog on TV. "You know the old saying, if you put a frog into boiling water, he's going to jump right out, because he's scalding hot, but if you place the frog in lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature, it won't realize what's happening and die?" he asked viewers (who, apparently, included the junior senator from Texas). "We have been tossed quickly into boiling water!"
Democrats watch this all with some bemusement. "In the absence of any new leadership and an unwillingness to put forward any new ideas, the Republican Party has become the party of cranks and conspiracy theorists," Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan says. "And that's exactly why their popularity rivals that of swine flu. And they will remain marginalized so long as they continue to talk to the tinfoil hat crowd." But Beck is more than a harmless -- if deranged -- entertainer. His ability to push the GOP from rhetoric to action means he can inject toxic ideas and fears directly into the body politic. It was Beck who raised the most alarm over Obama's czars and his allegedly totalitarian instincts, after all. Here's a guide to some of Beck's greatest hits, and how they wormed their way into the real world.
Overthrowing the czars
Beck's central theme is that our country is being taken away from us by shadowy, menacing figures (though in the end, the most menacing figure of all seems to be tall, skinny and wearing a Nobel peace medallion). He usually focuses his general panic on specific, shifty-seeming characters. Often, because he wants to invoke Russia -- and is apparently ignorant of both the history of Russia and the thoroughly ironic origins of the term's use in the states -- he calls these people czars.
March 17: Talking to guest Kevin Williamson of the National Review, Beck has his first discussion of the supposed proliferation of czars in the administration. But the only explicit complaint comes from Williamson, who says, "We have way too many people named czar in their job title."
May 29: Beck makes his own first comment. "And, I'm so excited. We're getting a new czar, everybody! Yes. Can we stop with the czars, please?" He continues to refer to the phenomenon almost daily over the summer. Obviously influenced by Jonah Goldberg's book "Liberal Fascism," Beck links the czars to early American progressives like Woodrow Wilson, and through him, naturally, to Hitler, Mussolini and Lenin.
July 15: Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., introduces the "Czar Accountability and Reform (CZAR) Act of 2009." By September 16, the bill has 99 co-sponsors, including one Democrat.
July 30: House Minority Whip Eric Cantor writes an op-ed in the Washington Post accusing the Obama administration of making an "end run around the legislative branch of historic proportions." Notes Cantor, sagely, "At last count, there were at least 32 active czars that we knew of, meaning the current administration has more czars than Imperial Russia."
Sept. 12: Conservative protesters inspired by Beck head to Washington, D.C., where the czarist (and also, somehow, communist) power grab is a common theme of signs and chants.
Sept. 13: Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison -- locked in a bitter Republican gubernatorial primary -- writes essentially the same czar-fighting op-ed as Cantor, also in the Washington Post.
Sept. 16: On the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., holds up a chart showing 34 "czars," saying rather darkly, "I don't think you know who these people are." A number of the people on the chart were, in fact, confirmed by the Senate.
Sept. 29: Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., announces plans to hold a hearing of his Judiciary subcommittee on the "czar" issue, which -- by going bipartisan -- officially jumps the shark.
Attacking Cass Sunstein
Though Beck's diatribes against Obama's czars have mainly hinged on the word's association with Russia -- and by tortured implication, communism -- he's also singled out specific enemies for periodic close-ups. A curious favorite this summer was Cass Sunstein, a legendary legal scholar, and Obama's nominee to run a regulatory office in the White House. Before Beck was on the case, it was mainly progressives who disliked Sunstein, a well-known centrist.
July 22: Shortly after one conservative senator lifts his procedural hold on Sunstein, Cornyn, of Texas, places his own hold on the nomination. A spokesperson tells Fox News, "Sen. Cornyn finds numerous aspects of Mr. Sunstein's record troubling, specifically the fact that he wants to establish legal 'rights' for livestock, wildlife and pets, which would enable animals to file lawsuits in American courts." That very day, Beck mentions Sunstein for the first time, saying:
The latest nominee for the regulatory czar, a Harvard law professor, oh, and a guy Barack Obama knew in Chicago, is Cass Sunstein. He's a friend of Obama's. Wait until you meet this guy. He embraces the ever so popular senior death discount. That's the idea that will calculate the lives of younger people as having greater value than those of the elderly. He also believes in giving legal rights to livestock, wildlife and pets. So, your pet can have an attorney file a lawsuit against you.
Aug. 7: Another senator anonymously places a hold on Sunstein's nomination, slowing down the move toward a vote.
Aug. 31: Beck increases the frequency of his Sunstein attacks all month, eventually asking, "Is he just a control freak? What is this?"
Sept. 3: Beck writes on Twitter, "FIND EVERYTHING YOU CAN ON CASS SUNSTEIN, MARK LLOYD AND CAROL BROWNER".
Sept. 10: By a 57-40 vote, the Senate confirms Sunstein. Several Democrats vote against him.
Van Jones: Beck's great triumph
The anti-czar crusade is also, of course, where Beck met his Nicholas II: so-called "green jobs czar" Van Jones.
July 23: Picking up on commentary at right-wing website WorldNetDaily, Beck mentions Jones for the first time on-air. "This is a guy who is a self-avowed Communist," said Beck. "And he is in the Obama administration -- this guy wasn't a radical, and then was arrested. He spent six months in jail, came out a Communist." It was the first of dozens of instances this summer in which Beck went after Jones.
Aug. 24: Beck suggests that the Apollo Alliance -- an environmental group on whose board Jones sat -- had rigged the stimulus so they could "raid the U.S. Treasury."
Aug. 25: At a town-hall meeting held by Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., a constituent asks, "Who wrote all of these thousand-pages bills? And did the far-left Apollo Alliance have any influence on any of them?" Buyer has no idea what she's talking about, but people in the crowd begin shouting audibly about Jones. It's the first in a series of such confrontations between furious constituents and understandably befuddled representatives. But Beck's show would wind up enlightening them all.
Sept. 4: The day after it emerges that Jones had signed a so-called "9/11 truth" petition, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., calls for his resignation. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., calls for hearings on his fitness for office. Says Pence, "His extremist views and coarse rhetoric have no place in this administration or the public debate."
Sept. 5: Jones resigns.
Obama the totalitarian
Beck's notion that the president is some kind of czarist fits in neatly with a larger effort to brand the decisively elected president as a dictator. Every Democrat gets called a socialist, but Beck has given the charge an especially dark twist, with repeated references to 1984, communism and fascism. His frequent, Goldberg-influenced musings on the Progressive Era give a surreal veneer of historical basis to the incoherent hysteria. Beck got going on this topic early.
Feb. 4: Beck does a segment on the stimulus bill and children's healthcare legislation that he calls a "Comrade Update." Fox News obligingly covers the screen in Soviet symbolism.
April 1: In a now-famous segment, Beck declares with horror, "They're marching us to a non-violent fascism. Or to put it another way, they're marching us to 1984. Big Brother. Like it or not, fascism is on the rise." In the background, Fox plays video of goose-stepping Germans.
June 23: A Republican women's group in Maryland issues a statement saying, "The president and Hitler have a great deal in common."
Sept. 12: The 9/12 protest produces an outpouring of comparisons between the president and the Third Reich. Says one attendee, "I'm afraid he's going to do what Hitler could never do." The event, of course, is heavily promoted by Fox News and addressed by a number of prominent Republican figures.
Sept. 22: Beck's new book, "Arguing With Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government," comes out -- featuring an oh-so-subtle cover image.
Beck was one of the first commentators to attack Obama's plan to give a back-to-school speech to students. The event was almost tailor-made for Beck's road-to-tyranny hysterics.
Sept. 2: Beck gives the story of the president's back-to-school speech some of its first national media attention. Says Beck, "Isn't that great? The teachers have a little plan on what they can talk about. How much do you love the president? How can you help the president accomplish his goals? This is fantastic. It doesn't sound like propaganda to me at all." On the radio, Beck called the speech "indoctrination," and said, "you have a system that is capturing your kids."
Sept. 3: In an opinion piece for Fox News, former Reagan official Peggy Venable writes, "When recruits are children, doesn't that constitute indoctrination, even brainwashing?"
Sept. 4: Just two days after Beck raises it, aspiring Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty says of the president's speech, "I don't think he needs to force it upon the nation's schoolchildren."
Art as propaganda
In Beck's world, Obama isn't content just to use the school system for indoctrination. He's also getting artists -- presumably, decadent and perverted ones -- in on the action.
Sept. 1: On his show, Beck raises the bizarre idea that the National Endowment for the Arts has been instructed to tilt the politics of funded projects leftward. Says Beck, "There is a propaganda arm now, engaging artists and the art community using your tax dollars in propaganda." He would keep at it all month.
Sept. 24: Commenting on a different brainwashing-related story, he throws in this aside: "Maybe we could have had a giant statue of Barack Obama made with your taxpayer dollars from the National Endowment for the Arts. Wouldn't that be grand?"
Sept. 26: Again, just two days after Beck discusses an issue, the GOP responds. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., accuses the administration of trying to turn the NEA into the White House's "strategic communications firm." Says Issa, "Activating artists and art groups reliant on NEA funds under the implied threat of withholding future grants is a Chicago-style tactic that should have been left on the campaign trail."
Money, money, money
March 24: Talking to former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Beck asks, "Ambassador, everybody is calling for global currency. I think part of this is a game, but I think, also, part of it is -- I mean, now the U.N. is saying, you know what? We should have a global currency. It's also a movement to tie the entire globe together into one big government. Am I wrong or right?"
March 25: The very next day, Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., asks Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Fed chief Ben Bernanke, "I'm wondering, would you categorically renounce the United States moving away from the dollar and going to a global currency?"
With additional reporting by Mike Madden.