The despicable rise of conservative pranksters: Race-baiting & conspiracy theories in the age of Obama

How Glenn Beck and James O'Keefe perfected a bizarre — and dangerous — new brand of conservative anger

Published April 1, 2014 3:42PM (EDT)

Glenn Beck, James O'Keefe           (Jeff Malet, Haber)
Glenn Beck, James O'Keefe (Jeff Malet, Haber)

Excerpted from “Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World”

The history of political pranks is littered with lefty characters. Conservatives, on the other hand, do not gravitate toward irreverent hijinks. One exception is James O’Keefe, a right-wing prankster who uses hidden cameras to stage encounters with his ideological enemies. At the same time that progressive organizations such as were hailed for their savvy uses of online media, O’Keefe, Andrew Breitbart, and other conservatives employed similar DIY methods. O’Keefe’s provocations began in 2004 while attending Rutgers University. In a satire of political correctness, what he viewed as a pious sensitivity to ethnicity on college campuses, he launched a campaign to remove Lucky Charms from the dining hall. He secretly videotaped himself complaining to a food-service employee about the leprechaun on the cereal box. While the school official earnestly scribbled notes, O’Keefe deadpanned, “As you can see, we’re not short and green—we have our differences of height—and we think this is stereotypical of all Irish Americans.” While at Rutgers, he gained notoriety by organizing an “affirmative-action bake sale,” in which whites paid exorbitant prices and African Americans got discounts.

In developing his craft, O’Keefe read Saul Alinsky’s "Rules for Radicals," the bible of many liberal activists. Rule Four especially inspired him: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” He applied this directive in 2007 when he punked Planned Parenthood in an attempt to expose white liberal hypocrisies about race, abortion, and eugenics. It is certainly true, for instance, that some early-twentieth-century Progressives could be racist. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger is a women’s right pioneer, but some of her projects ran hand in hand with a desire to reduce the size of “undesirable” populations. Particularly unsettling was Sanger’s “Negro Project,” which was arguably a thinly veiled eugenics scheme. This sordid history has enabled conservative commentators to take the moral high ground by claiming that white liberals are the real racists. To dramatize this claim, O’Keefe secretly taped a phone conversation with a Planned Parenthood staffer, who was asked if his donation could be used to abort black babies (so to prevent his future son from being discriminated against through affirmative action). He was told the organization would accept the money, for whatever reason. Even though Planned Parenthood dismissed the tapes as “heavily edited,” the public-relations damage was done.

An unsettling amount of racial resentment runs through O’Keefe’s stunts, from his Rutgers University “affirmative-action bake sale” to one of the pranks he is most known for: the ACORN pimp tapes. In 2009, he targeted the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which advocated for working-class citizens and minorities. Conservative talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck turned it into a political punching bag during and after the 2008 election campaign, and O’Keefe piled on. Posing as a pimp—and accompanied by his associate Hannah Giles, who played the role of the prostitute—he videotaped low-level employees who appeared to endorse his proposed tax-fraud and child-prostitution schemes. The footage contained misleading cutaway shots of the skinny, white twenty-something in a pimp costume, making it look like he dressed this way in ACORN’s offices. It was one of many manipulations in O’Keefe’s viral videos (which, to be fair, are not unlike some edits found in films by liberal documentarian Michael Moore).

The incendiary footage prompted multiple criminal investigations, though no charges were ultimately filed. A report on ACORN activities produced by the California attorney general found that the organization suffered from mismanagement, but the AG also concluded that the videos were “heavily edited to feature only the worst or most inappropriate statements of various ACORN employees.” The report stated, “the impression of rampant illegal conduct . . . is not supported by the evidence related to the videos.” Additionally, at least one employee who seemed to play along while on camera contacted the police after the “pimp’s” visit. The District Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, where another hidden-camera sting occurred, also reported that “no criminality has been found.” O’Keefe’s tactics did not constitute investigative journalism, but as a prank—a staged provocation designed to persuade—they were very effective. The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to deny federal funding to ACORN, and by 2010 it was on the verge of bankruptcy. “That 20-minute video ruined 40 years of good work,” a former Maryland chapter co-chairwoman lamented. In 2011, O’Keefe pulled a similar prank on National Public Radio, which prompted legislation to defund public broadcasting. This was change the right could believe in.

Tea Parties and Mad Hatters

As a former community organizer with ties to ACORN, Barack Obama was the perfect foil that helped unify a conservative movement that was in disarray. His rise to power unleashed a torrent of repressed political energy: the formation of Tea Parties, the instant stardom of talk-show host Glenn Beck, the growing popularity of libertarian politicians Ron and Rand Paul, and the return of Illuminatiphobia. Demographic and economic shifts were transforming America, whose shrinking white majority was less prosperous than ever before. This created the impression that educated elites and racial minorities were closing down opportunities for Tea Partiers. Their ideas and slogans seemed to come from out of left field—or, more accurately, right field—but they had been lurking just below the surface for decades. In 1964, the John Birch Society lost its influence within top Republican Party circles after playing a key role in getting Barry Goldwater nominated as the party’s presidential candidate. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” the candidate famously said, in a nod to the Birchers. “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His campaign slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right,” was easily lampooned by Democrats: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.” Goldwater was too out there for most voters and was trounced in the general election.

After years in the political woods, the John Birch Society made a comeback in the Age of Obama. The month after his inauguration, it cosponsored that year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which featured a wild keynote speech by Glenn Beck. On his radio and television programs, Beck helped reintroduce the organization to America. “When I was growing up, the John Birch Society, I thought they were a bunch of nuts,” he told spokesman Sam Antonio during an on-air interview, but now “you guys are starting to make a lot more sense to me.” Antonio earnestly confirmed, “Yes, we at the John Birch Society are not nuts.” Echoing "The X-Files’" famous tagline, he added, “We are just exposing the truth that’s been out there for many, many years.” The society’s website proudly ran "Glenn Beck" program clips that highlighted the similarities between the host’s views and its own, and it lauded him for “presenting American history in the way that The John Birch Society has been doing it for over 50 years.” That story goes: Woodrow Wilson socially engineered America’s downfall; Dwight Eisenhower was a communist dupe, or worse; Richard Nixon was more treacherous; and his secretary of state was most certainly an Illuminati agent. In "Kissinger: The Secret Side of the Secretary of State," a 1976 book published by the John Birch Society, Gary Allen concludes, “It is not too late to tell Henry Kissinger and his masters and mentors in the Shadow government that we want no part of their New World Order.” You can only imagine what the Birchers think of (the foreign-born?) Barack Hussein Obama.

Liberals smugly portray Glenn Beck as a crackpot who makes up crazy stuff off the top of his head, but a consistent logic and a large body of literature structure his worldview. When he devotes an entire program to exposing the evil forces behind the Federal Reserve or Rockefeller Plaza, he is mining the same paranoid load as the Birchers. Beck also draws heavily from a former Brigham Young University professor named W. Cleon Skousen, who never saw a progressive social cause, such as the civil rights movement, that didn’t have a conspiracy stamped on it. When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was being pressured to allow African Americans to be ordained to the priesthood—it took until 1978 to do so—Skousen insisted that communist agitators were behind the movement. Finally, after accusing President Carter of being a puppet of an international conspiracy, the Mormon Church issued a national order to “avoid any implication that the Church endorses” his views.

Skousen had been famous in far-right circles ever since he wrote 1972’s "The Naked Capitalist: A Review and Commentary on Dr. Carroll Quigley’s Book 'Tragedy and Hope.'" It presented itself as an exposé of a relatively obscure academic book by Quigley, a Georgetown University history professor who was Bill Clinton’s college mentor (a bright red flag raised by many a conspiracy theorist). Since then, the 1,348-page "Tragedy and Hope" has been held up as a smoking gun. Skousen called it “a bold and boastful admission by Dr. Quigley that there actually exists a relatively small but powerful group which has succeeded in acquiring a choke-hold on the affairs of practically the entire human race.” By the early 1970s, "The Naked Capitalist’s" print run topped fifty-five thousand copies—far more copies than Quigley’s book ever sold—and in 1972 the Washington office of the Liberty Lobby reported that it was selling twenty-five copies a day. As a result of this attention, "Tragedy and Hope" was checked out of libraries and never returned. This made the out-of-print book even harder to find, provoking conjecture that lefty librarians were pulling it from the shelves to suppress its revelations.

“Skousen’s book is full of misrepresentations and factual errors,” an exasperated Quigley insisted at the time. “He claims that I have written of a conspiracy of the super-rich who are pro-Communist and wish to take over the world and that I’m a member of this group. But I never called it a conspiracy and don’t regard it as such.” He was actually describing a web of corporate and nongovernmental bodies, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and J. P. Morgan, which sought to “coordinate the international activities” of commerce and governance. Unfortunately, the professor made the mistake of calling this network an “elaborate, semi-secret organization.” Skousen believed that the Ivy League establishment—with its penchant for internationalism—was carrying out its wicked goals using the tentacles of the Rockefeller and Rothschild dynasties, the Federal Reserve, the Bilderberg Group, and the Council on Foreign Relations. None Dare Call It a Conspiracy, a book by Birchers Gary Allen and Larry Abraham, echoed Skousen’s assertions. Four decades later, Glenn Beck was telling radio listeners, “I know it’s not popular to quote Carroll Quigley but if you’ve ever read Tragedy and Hope from the 1960s, you see this being played out.”

In addition to reviving sales of "The Naked Capitalist," the conservative talk-show host made Skousen’s "The Five Thousand Year Leap" a best-seller. It was premised on the notion that the U.S. Constitution was based solely on biblical law, not Enlightenment principles. America was so remarkably different from any previous governmental system, Skousen argued, that it represented a five-thousand-year leap forward for civilization. Beck’s foreword to the book begins, ironically enough, “This is a story you won’t believe.” Skousen’s history was misleading, to say the least (the Mormon journal Dialogue condemned him for “inventing fantastic ideas and making inferences that go far beyond the bounds of honest commentary”). For instance, "The Five Thousand Year Leap" selectively quotes a letter written by Benjamin Franklin to make it appear that he was a champion of marriage and fidelity. Beck’s intellectual hero neglects to quote the rest of the letter, in which the Founder says married men should seek out older mistresses (“the pleasure of corporal enjoyment with an old woman is at least equal, and frequently superior”). Hundreds of study groups throughout America now teach Skousen’s unique “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution.

Beck, Skousen, and the Birchers all believe that their beloved Constitution suffered a deathblow after the election of President Wilson. “As I study history,” Beck told his audience, “I see that a lot of the problems—most of the problems, in fact—stem from Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive movement.” John Birch Society founder Robert Welch similarly claimed, “By 1920 the Insiders attained such Communist goals for the United States as a graduated income tax, the Federal Reserve System, and”—the horror!—“the Seventeenth Amendment for the direct election of Senators.” One of the most pronounced aspects of modern conservative thought is a deep-seated distrust of elites: international bankers, well-connected Ivy Leaguers, unelected technocrats, atheistic social scientists, and the like. In the book "Liberal Fascism," Jonah Goldberg argues that early-twentieth-century Progressives were far greater warmongers, crueler jingoists, worse racists, and more fascist than the right ever was. The National Review contributing editor conveniently ignores a few elephants in the Conservative Hall of Shame, but he makes some valid points. Some Progressives were racist eugenicists, and a few even supported Hitler and Mussolini (though so did plenty of right-wing capitalists).

New Republic founding editor Herbert Croly, an archetypical Woodrow Wilson Progressive, was an early backer of the Italian fascist. He was also a big booster of social science, another longtime conservative foil. In 1925, Croly asked, “Who will be the prophets and pilots of the Good Society?” He concluded that a “better future would derive from the beneficent activities of expert social engineers.” The New Republic editor’s father, David Goodman Croly, also promoted positivism (the application of the scientific method to explain and regulate human events). Five years after his hoax, the elder Croly founded an American branch of the Church of Humanity, which was dedicated to ideas espoused by sociologist Auguste Comte. Given that most antiabolitionists used biblical arguments to justify slavery, the fact that Croly embraced secularist rationalism is unusual. But history is littered with odd ideological bedfellows (sometimes quite literal bedfellows—his wife, Jane Croly, was one of the first syndicated feminist columnists in America).

As for New Republic coeditor Walter Lippmann, there were times when he could sound downright conspiratorial when expressing his love of social engineering. Likewise, his colleague Edward Bernays enthusiastically noted, “It is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” A century later, these Progressive dreams of a social-scientific utopia still strike fear in the hearts of conservatives. In 2010, Tea Party–backed candidates took control of North Carolina’s Wake County school board, sweeping into power with the campaign slogan “Say No to the Social Engineers!” The majority Republican board promptly dismantled one of the America’s most successful and celebrated integration efforts as a rebuke to pointy-headed bureaucrats. Two years after Obama was elected, Tea Party candidates in Republican primaries began unseating incumbents such as South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis. During the 2010 primaries, angry voters confronted the representative about how the existence of Social Security numbers was proof they had been sold into slavery by a secret bank. “And then, of course,” Inglis adds, “it turned into something about the Federal Reserve and the Bilderbergers and all that stuff.”

Throughout the twentieth century, the political and religious right quietly disseminated these ideas through underground media channels. But by the new millennium, conservatives had Fox News, America’s number-one cable news network. It helped popularize views that were previously relegated to small-print-run newsletters and AM talk radio. Fox News gave Glenn Beck a platform to broadcast numerous conspiracy theories, such as “FEMA camps” that were secretly being constructed in Montana. Just like "Iron Mountain," it was a project so clandestine that no one could find evidence of its existence. When rumors about those detention centers first circulated in 2009, Beck interviewed Texas congressman Ron Paul, a longtime champion of the John Birch Society. In an awkward balancing act, they both implied that the FEMA camps might exist while also doing their best to sound sane. “So in some ways,” the U.S. representative told Beck, “they can accomplish what you might be thinking about, about setting up camps, and they don’t necessarily have to have legislation, you know, to do the things that we dread. But it is something that deserves a lot of attention.”

Paul has also sounded alarms about a “NAFTA Superhighway” that will supposedly bisect the United States. “Proponents envision a ten-lane colossus with the width of several football fields,” Paul writes, “with freight and rail lines, fiber-optic cable lines, and oil and natural gas pipelines running alongside.” Ron’s son, Senator Rand Paul, said much the same thing while campaigning in Montana for his father’s presidential bid in 2008. “So, it’s a real thing,” he said, “and when you talk about it, the thing you just have to be aware of is that, if you talk about it like it’s a conspiracy, they’ll paint you as a nut.” Both father and son take care to present themselves as reasonable people, but they don’t always succeed. The "Ron Paul Survival Report," which the elder Paul published in the 1990s, contained the usual warnings about the Rockefellers, black helicopters, America’s “disappearing white majority,” and other far-right talking points. The senior Paul has also been a frequent guest on Alex Jones’s bat-crap-crazy radio show, where the congressman railed against a “cataclysmic shift toward a new world order,” made possible by “a new monetary order. . . . A world central bank, worldwide regulation and world control of the whole system, of all the commodities and all the natural resources, what else can you call it other than world government?”

Paul’s endorsement of G. Edward Griffin’s "The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve"—along with several other positions he holds—has made him an icon for New World Order conspiracy theorists. Griffin’s book is laced with standard-issue references to the Council on Foreign Relations, W. Cleon Skousen, Carroll Quigley, the Rothschild family, and the Bavarian Illuminati (a branch of which, the author suggests, played a role in assassinating Abraham Lincoln). Griffin was also a longtime affiliate of the John Birch Society, which published several of his nutty books. In Paul’s blurb for "The Creature from Jekyll Island," he calls it “a superb analysis deserving serious attention by all Americans. Be prepared for one heck of a journey through time and mind.” It sure is. The congressman is a principled libertarian conservative whose positions on civil liberties, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the legalization of drugs overlap with those of many people on the left. He is a learned man and not a nut. However, when this congressman appears on Alex Jones’s show, endorses Bircher books about a Federal Reserve conspiracy, and warns of nonexistent plans for a NAFTA Superhighway, it shows how the fringe ideas discussed throughout this book have infiltrated substantial parts of the political mainstream.

Excerpted from “Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World” by Kembrew McLeod. Copyright © 2014 by Kembrew McLeod. Reprinted by arrangement with NYU Press. All rights reserved.

By Kembrew McLeod

MORE FROM Kembrew McLeod

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Conspiracy Theories Glenn Beck James O'keefe Pranksters Racism