Blog  »  Glenn Beck's America: A frightening place

Glenn Beck's America: A frightening place

May 12, 2011
Writing

Originally written December 2010, published May 2011 in Concientización, The University of Wisconsin's journal on Chican@ and Latin@ Studies.

Glenn Back
Glenn Beck

Political pundit Glenn Beck, in many ways, has become the mouthpiece of an emerging rightist movement. As the father of the Tea Party Patriots, he has a unique bit of sway over a relatively powerful segment of American politics. But, just like the Tea Party movement itself, Beck has come under fire for his supposedly bigoted or insensitive commentary. And indeed, almost everything he says, in one way or another, works towards a very orthodox definition of what it is to be “American.” As Leo Chavez points out [1], this sort of rhetoric is not unprecedented—in times of internal instability, the American mass media often ostracizes immigrants (especially Latina/os), promoting images of their stark “otherness.” For Beck, any concept that falls outside of his strict ideological framework is treated as a fundamental threat to the “American Way.” Beck functions on fear. From his television rants to blog postings, almost every bit of content associated with him serves either to reinforce a hyperconservative definition of Americanism, or rally fears that traditional America is under attack. It is through this lens that Beck views Latina/os. Much of his content glorifies a segment of America from which Latina/os are simply absent, but when he does mention them, they are often regarded as a fundamental threat to American identity. By regarding Latina/os in this way, he is able to create an atmosphere of fear, which in turn makes his content more appealing to his top advertisers.

My analysis of Beck’s rhetoric consisted of two phases. First, I conducted intermittent observation of his television program, Glenn Beck, which airs 5 p.m. Eastern Time Monday through Friday on FOX News Channel. From October 25 to November 12, I watched two episodes a week and analyzed the rhetoric for racial content. Second, I conducted a more in-depth analysis of Beck’s website, www.glennbeck.com, and analyzed the site’s officially posted content, user comments as well as advertising.

By far, Beck’s most popular media endeavor has been his television program. During his hour-long lecture-style presentations, his purported objective is fighting against “Big Government,” which typically results in a criticism of all things liberal. Usually, this conversation leaves out any mention of Latina/os or Latina/o culture, but occasionally Beck will sneak in a reference in the margins. For instance, the opening monologue to his show on November 1 [2] (the day before the midterm elections) sent out a battle cry. This election, he declared, was a chance to “prosecute the lawbreakers on Wall Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, and the border.” Aside from that vague allusion, the program went without any mention of Latina/os—which is by and large the norm. Unless a large enough national issue like the Arizona immigration bill hits the stage, any reference to Latina/os usually comes in the form of an offhand knock on illegal immigration. During my span of observation, no such national issue arose.

In contrast to his program’s almost nonexistent discussion of Latina/o America, Beck praises rural white America as a beacon of hope for the rest of the country. During his episode on November 5 [3], Beck featured a segment on a man bringing “traditional” American values to his community by erecting American flags along its country roads. Certainly, there is nothing inherently wrong with the image itself—what’s problematic is the way in which Beck contextualizes the segment. He points to this image of a WASP community as an ideal for the rest of Americans to follow. But even this would not be problematic if not for the fact that Beck only uses examples of rural white communities as exemplary cross-sections of America. His television program seems to propagate a vision of America that is constantly under ideological attack—if you’re not among those defending the nation, then you must be bringing it down. By neglecting to discuss the value of urban or minority communities and instead referencing Latina/os only in the context of illegal immigration, Beck implicitly regards Latina/os as outside of his strict definition of what America should be.

While his nightly television program is his most widely known endeavor, Beck is a man of many media. Perhaps it’s because his entire opus of radio transcripts and exclusive online video clips are fully searchable through his website, but I was able to find much more material discussing Latina/os online than I was while watching his program live. By typing in a few key words like “Latino,” “Mexican,” and “Immigration,” I uncovered a great deal of content. Whereas his television program seems more likely to merely leave Latina/os out of the discussion of what it is to be American, occasionally taking a jab at illegal immigrants, the content I found online was much more blatantly offensive.

In a video from July 29 [4], praising the Arizona immigration bill, Beck exclaimed, “It was already working... already people are self-deporting.... They go away!” For a man who sees Nazism in any possible representation of “big government,” he seems to have a rather easy time endorsing a law that actually encourages police officers to utilize racial profiling. Why is it that Beck condones this? He calls it a legitimate effort by the government to stop people who are breaking the law. If a few people who “look illegal” get stopped in the process, what’s so bad about that? They’ve got nothing to hide, right? I checked Glenn’s opinion on the TSA’s controversial new screening processes [5], and it would appear that his stance changes when invasion of privacy affects all Americans. He used his wife’s experience at an airport to illustrate how “our freedom doesn’t belong to us” anymore. When the government invades the privacy of everyone, Beck says, it’s a big problem—if it’s only Latina/os, he seems say, they just need to suck it up. His stance on the Arizona immigration law in contrast to his opinion on the TSA procedures reinforces the notion that he views Latina/os as outsiders, apparently unworthy of the rights to which he personally feels entitled.

In other segments, he more directly uses Mexicans as an outsider group in order to stir up fear. The most shockingly racist and generally calloused material I found on the site was in a video clip entitled “Cinco de mayo! Viva La Mexico!” [6] The introduction features Beck on a mocking rant about how much fun he had on Cinco de Mayo while drinking Corona, watching soccer, and waving the Mexican flag around. At first, it actually had the potential to be a legitimate criticism of Americans’ views of Mexico. “I Love it there,” he said ironically, “Other than the out of control drug violence, kidnappings, failing economy... who would want to leave a place like that?” He then acknowledged that, in fact, there were legitimate reasons for a rational person to want to leave Mexico and make a new life in the United States—the situation is bad. Then he changed gears. “But Mexico isn’t the only country struggling,” he said, referring to the United States. “That’s why I buy gold.” Yes, that’s right. Beck used Mexico’s struggling economy and very real social problems to plug Goldline, one of his top sponsors. He then compares the United States to a liferaft. And what happens when too many people try to cram into a liferaft, he asks? It sinks. His closing remarks on the subject: “Gosh, I wish we had a fence!” In this segment he recognized that Mexico is struggling, then in the same breath advocated that we should turn our backs to their plight. If anything, this hints at an underlying conception that Mexicans are fundamentally inferior to American Anglos, and thus unworthy of America’s consideration.

In fact, in my scouring of the Glenn Beck website, I only found one article that portrayed any Latina/o in a positive light. The headline reads, “Violent Mexican town has 20 year old female police chief” [7].The story is about a brave young girl who decides to take on the entrenched powers of drug cartels in a dangerous town known for its violence. According to Beck, both the mayor and previous police chief had been murdered. He uses this young woman as a beacon of hope, and a standard that we as Americans should strive for. Is this a positive representation of a Latina? Without a doubt. But taken within the larger context of Beck’s opinions, it’s still incredibly problematic; the only Latina to which Beck pays any respect just happens to still be in Mexico, not in the United States. Implicitly, this says that Mexicans are totally fine, upstanding people—as long as they’re not in America. Once they cross the border, they’re menaces.

If Beck’s goal is to create a culture of fear, then he seems to have done an excellent job. Viewing the online discussion (which has since been removed) under a segment on the Arizona law [8], the boards are flooded with comments like, “It is clear that Obama is putting the interests of the minorities in front of those of the majority and creating another race war.” Or another, claiming that “The [federal] government won’t do it’s job because ... it’s part of the plan to destroy America, the great Republic we knew it to be.” At one point in November, the number-one most popular item on his website was “Be Prepared: An Introduction to Food Storage,” [9] which outlines how Americans should ready themselves for a potential societal collapse.

But why would Beck (or anyone) want to create an atmosphere of fear? Because it sells. Just like Goldline had an underwriting spot in the “Cinco De Mayo” piece, almost every bit of online content is underwritten. On the Glenn Beck homepage, before the reader can reach any content, they have to wade through advertisements for Goldline, Carbonite, Lifelock, and Beck’s own book, “Broke.” One thing each of these has in common: they thrive on fear. Goldline markets itself as the last resort for solid currency if you’re afraid the economy is tanking. Lifelock is a company that supposedly protects against identity theft (although in 2009 a federal judge ruled that the company had been scamming its clients) [10]. Carbonite is a company that protects important computer files should something catastrophic happen. “Broke” is about the supposed sorry state of our country, and what we can do to fix it. The bottom line: the more insecure a consumer is, and the more they believe that America is going down the wrong path, the more likely they will be to buy these products and services. Even the message boards have been taken over by fear-mongering corporate interests. The discussion underneath the food storage article is hopelessly spammed with links to “eFoods Global,” a site that claims the only way to survive the global recession is, essentially, to buy and store large quantities of their food.

Rhetorically, Beck uses Mexicans as a tool to further enforce an atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity. Ideologically, Beck claims to be against only illegal immigrants. Legal ones, he says, are part of what makes America great. It seems nearly impossible, though, that Beck’s views can be at all reconciled with cultural tolerance. It’s entirely unrealistic to expect to have minority support of any kind if every reference to a culture outside of rural WASP America is negative. While the numbers show that FOX News’ audience is predominantly white, this divide is most strikingly apparent on Beck’s online message boards. Anglos account for the astoundingly vast majority of these comments (each tied to a Facebook profile). Of those few comments posted by minorities, they are, almost without fail, arguing against a point made by Glenn or another Glenn-supporting reader.

Ultimately, Beck seems to use Latina/os as a foil against which he can define the “real” America. In his exaltation of American greatness and exceptionalism, he lauds the patriotism and work ethic of rural whites, but has little to say in praise of urban or minority cultures. On the contrary, Beck uses Latina/os to stoke the populist fears of instability and (most frighteningly, of course) a changing nation. With seemingly no attempt to capture the Latina/o viewership, Beck uses the tragic experiences of many Mexicans as opportunities to gain advertising dollars. Take a quick glance at Beck’s website and you will have no doubt: fear sells, and he’s selling a lot of it.


[1] Chavez, Leo R. Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation. Berkeley: University of California, 2001. Print.

[2] Beck, Glenn. "Season 5, Episode 217." Glenn Beck. FOX News Channel. 1 Nov. 2010. Television.

[3] Beck, Glenn. "Season 5, Episode 221." Glenn Beck. FOX News Channel. 5 Nov. 2010. Television.

[4] Beck, Glenn, and Pat Gray. Glenn Beck: Arizona Law Was Already Working. Glenn Beck. 29 July 2010. Web. <http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/43617/>. Transcript.

[5] Beck, Glenn, and Pat Gray. "TSA Controversy a Union Ploy? – Glenn Beck." Glenn Beck. 24 Nov. 2010. Web. <http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/48558/>.

[6] Beck, Glenn. Cinco De Mayo! Glenn Beck. 27 Aug. 2009. Web. <http://www.glennbeck.com/content/videos/?uri=channels/338017/544097>.

[7] Beck, Glenn, and Pat Gray. "Violent Mexican Town Has 20 Year Old Female Police Chief." Glenn Beck. 25 Oct. 2010. Web. <http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/47109/>.

[8] Ankarlo, Darrel. "The Unacceptable Cost of America’s Failure to Control Its Borders – Glenn Beck." Glenn Beck. 13 Oct. 2010. Web. <http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/46617/>.

[9] "Be Prepared: An Introduction to Food Storage." Glenn Beck. 21 Nov. 2010. Web. <http://www.glennbeck.com/content/articles/article/198/48306/>.

[10] Zetter, Kim. "Judge Rules LifeLock’s Fraud Alert Service Illegal." Wired.com. 27 May 2009. Web. <http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/05/lifelock/>.

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