Glenn Beck, the Tea Party, and What's Behind Government Backlash

Author Will Bunch looks at the Tea Party movement and “high-def hucksters” bent on exploiting fear.

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Since Barack Obama's election, critics have challenged not just his politics and policies but his very American-ness, spreading rumors questioning his birthplace and saying he wants to send opponents to internment camps. Surprised by this angry backlash, Will Bunch, a progressive blogger and senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, embarked on an odyssey into the heartlands of America. "It seemed like a large minority in this country was willing to suspend rationality on a number of key issues," says Bunch. "I just wanted to get in the middle of it and understand it." What Bunch found resulted in his controversial new book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama. Bunch recently talked with U.S. News about his claim that Fox television personality Glenn Beck and people like him are taking advantage of Americans' anger and fear. Excerpts:

Where is this backlash coming from?

The formula is the general fear and anxiety among the middle classes of America. Then you have this class of people I define as "high-def hucksters," the people who are looking to take advantage of the fear and anger out there. On that list, I would include ratings- and money-driven media personalities, with Glenn Beck, who made $32 million last year, at the top of that list. These people are interested in entertainment and fame and riches; the politics is really just a vehicle to get those things.

[See photos of Glenn Beck's D.C. rally.]

How are they taking advantage?

A famous example is Glenn Beck's relationship with the company Goldline, which sells gold coins—to people who are fearful about a global monetary collapse—that Beck peddles as a way to protect yourself against a possible government confiscation of gold. What they're selling, basically, is highly marked-up, overpriced gold coins, and there are a couple investigations of Goldline right now for high-pressure business tactics.

What was the most surprising thing you heard on your journey?

One very destructive rumor that was being spread like hotcakes back in the early months of the Obama administration was that there was the existence of FEMA camps. According to the conspiracy theory, these were camps that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been setting up across the country, getting ready for the mass arrests and internment of American citizens. What's tragic is an unemployed, drifting, aimless young man in Pittsburgh named Richard Poplawski became obsessed with FEMA camps and also with the notion that the Obama administration was going to take people's guns away. Ultimately, during a domestic incident at his house, when three police officers showed up, he killed them in cold blood.

Where is the backlash the strongest?

The backlash is everywhere. I think there's no part of the country right now where there's not some kind of active Tea Party movement. I don't know, maybe Berkeley.

Where is the backlash directed?

I think increasingly the backlash is directed at what I would call "the other." The angry part of the populace is looking for scapegoats, generally people they see as a threat to the established "white culture," a term Glenn Beck famously used when he said that President Obama had a hostility toward "white culture." The two obvious places you've seen this over the course of 2010 is in the immigration debate and in sentiment toward Muslims in America.

What is the message of the backlash?

In terms of policy, the one thing you really see that's consistent out of the Tea Party is a sudden resistance to government spending or a role for government of any kind. People are going to the polls in November, but I'm not sure what specific policies they're getting when they vote Republican, and I don't think a lot of the voters really know or care at this point.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.]

What do you think will happen to the Tea Party?

In the short run, I think the Tea Party is having a huge effect. In the case of John McCain, it used the threat of his primary challenge from J. D. Hayworth to move his positions on issues like immigration reform and climate change. In the long run, I think this is a group that demographically is challenged. The Tea Party and 9/12 Project people I met tended to be over the age of 45, and many of them were in their 60s and 70s.