During the Cold War, J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation is said to have subsidized the Communist Party so that agents could keep track of its activities. Without a centralized organization luring Marxist sympathizers like moths to a flame, they might have scattered in all directions, making it more difficult for G-men to monitor their subversive plans.
That's why I was so chagrined to learn the other day that Glenn Beck and Fox News are essentially parting ways. Beck's show and his audience constitute a virtual window into the collective mind of some of the craziest people in America. When, at some as-yet-unspecified date, the show goes off the air, it will be far more difficult to know what twisted preoccupations are raging inside the collective right-wing mind. Fulfilling my new assignment at The Root is going to be a lot more challenging.
That assignment is to write a weekly commentary on the antics of the motley collection of Birthers, know-nothing populists, neo-racists, Tea Party fanatics, paleo-constitutionalists, gun nuts, nativists, moral vigilantes, Aryan revivalists, NPR haters and other assorted mental cases that make up the conservative lunatic fringe — which is, in some ways, indistinguishable from elements of the Republican Party. It's a task I take on knowing that it involves considerable risk to my mental health. Just 15 minutes of exposure to, say, Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul can land you in the booby hatch.
Beck, of course, is already crazy — like a fox. (As is Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol, who has found new ways to profit from teenaged unwed motherhood. A nonprofit group called the Candie's Foundation acknowledges that during the past two years, it has paid the 20-year-old Dancing With the Stars also-ran $332,500 to advocate, of all things, sexual abstinence.)
Beck can cry on cue, with or without the help of a strategic dab of Vicks VapoRub. His delusions of grandeur know no bounds — witness the rally he threw last year on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Nor did his theorizing about the threats conjured up by his turgid mind.
Connecting the dots between all sorts of unrelated facts on a white board, Beck whipped up an orgy of scapegoating and race-baiting reminiscent of the wild-eyed fearmongering of Father Charles Coughlin during the Great Depression. Beck accused Barack Obama of harboring a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."
He preached that America stood on the brink of an apocalypse orchestrated by a shadowy alliance of liberals, an emerging new Islamic caliphate that seeks to control the Middle East and, of course, the Jews. He falsely described financier George Soros as a "bloodsucker" who, as a teenager during World War II, had helped Nazis "send the Jews to the death camps" in his native Germany. He likened Reformed Judaism to Islamic extremism.
"This vile turn for Beck reached its logical extreme two weeks ago, when he devoted his entire show to a conspiracy theory about various bankers, including the Rothschilds, to create the Federal Reserve. To make this case, Beck hosted the conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin, who has publicly argued that the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion 'accurately describes much of what is happening in our world today.' "
Such rhetoric — and a growing backlash from corporate advertisers who withdrew as much as $40 million in commercials — seems to have finally gotten to be too much even for Fox News, which decided to pull the plug on Beck's program months before his contract expires in December.
The press release announcing the decision says that Fox News and Beck will continue to work together on unspecified television projects, but that, as Milbank points out, may just be window dressing. Though it is reported that Beck dreams about following in the footsteps of Oprah Winfrey by starting his own network, there's a chance that his days as a regular corrupting presence on the airways are over.
But is that a good thing? Media Matters, the left-leaning watchdog group that takes credit for sparking the corporate boycott of Beck's show, seems to think so. So does Milbank, who wrote that "the influences that undermined Beck are doing the same to other purveyors of fear," such as Bristol Palin's mom. But I'm not persuaded.
Beck's demise not only will make it harder to know what his crazy fans are thinking but will also open up a vacancy that Fox News can fill with equally vile right-wing propaganda wrapped in more respectable packaging. That's not exactly progress. So, like Beck, I'm going to shed a Vicks-assisted tear for his departure from the airwaves. I'm going to miss him.
Jack White is a frequent contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.