While Washington policy makers coped with 21st century political problems this week, some conservative talkers were dredging up 20th-century "-isms."
Glenn Beck, who graced the cover of The New York Times on Monday, teased Friday’s episode of his increasingly popular new Fox News show with images of Stalin, Lenin and Hitler, while telling audiences on Wednesday’s show that he was wrong to have said the Obama administration is leading America to socialism — it’s actually fascism.
“They’re marching us towards 1984,” Beck said. "Big Brother, he’s watching.”
Although Beck’s brand of libertarian conservatism has generated a strong following, some members of the right-leaning commentariat openly doubt whether such heated rhetoric is helpful to the Republican Party or the conservative movement at large.
Conservative author David Horowitz, himself no stranger to controversy or heated accusations, warns that the criticism of Obama among some conservatives has approached “over-the-top hysteria." It’s not just Stalin comparisons, Horowitz wrote this past week on FrontPageMag.com — one contributor likened the president to David Koresh, Charles Manson and Saddam Hussein.
Borrowing from conservative writer Charles Krauthammer — who in 2003 coined the term “Bush derangement syndrome” to describe some Bush haters — Horowitz dubbed the piece, “Obama Derangement Syndrome.”
“Conservatives, please,” Horowtiz said. “Let's not duplicate the manias of the left as we figure out how to deal with Mr. Obama. He is not exactly the anti-Christ, although a disturbing number of people on the right are convinced he is.”
David Frum, a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, has been the most vocal critic, recently taking aim at Rush Limbaugh in a Newsweek cover story, “Why Rush Is Wrong,” and Beck on his site, NewMajority.com: “What the hell is going on at Fox News?”
“You never get very far in American politics with extreme talk,” Frum said. “When you use extreme language, you’re much more likely to push away the audience.”
But ratings seem to tell another story, with viewers tuning in for daily rage against the Obama regime.
Since launching in January, Beck’s been a breakout hit at 5 p.m. for the Rupert Murdoch-owned network, with an average of more than 2.2 million viewers daily — a 90 percent increase from that slot a year back.
With a Democrat in the White House, Fox has remained strong across the board. In first quarter Nielsen numbers released this week, the cable news network had more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined, and nine of the top ten cable news programs. Bill O’Reilly went on a mini-media tour to celebrate 100 consecutive months at number one, while Sean Hannity — now on solo, without former liberal counterpart Alan Colmes — saw his ratings shoot up 36 percent from the same period time in 2008.
Limbaugh, citing Arbitron PPM ratings for several metered markets, said this past week that his “audience growth rates are phenomenal” and only increased around his blistering CPAC speech, in which he said he wants Obama "to fail." While preliminary numbers seem to back the boast, it’s too early to quantify the number of listeners since Obama took office. In two weeks, conservative radio host Mark Levin's book, “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto,” has sold more than 730,000 copies and gone through twelve printings.
Republican strategist Mary Matalin, head of Threshold Editions, which published Levin’s book, said the reason top conservative hosts “have the audience they do is not because they shout, it’s because they’re better communicators” than those on the right who criticize those hosts.
Krauthammer said there doesn’t need to be an either-or scenario when it comes to criticizing the administration — both scholarly journals and popular talk radio serve a purpose.
“The Republican Party has no face,” Krauthammer said. “Why should it? Did the Democratic Party have a face between January 2001 and June 2008? The idea that 72 days into the new regime, the opposition in a non-parliamentary system would have a face, or some unity, or even some overall philosophical consistency is merely silly. We do not have a shadow Cabinet. Let a thousand flowers bloom."
That said, Krauthammer acknowledged that some criticism might be more effective than accurate.
“Words like "socialism," "fascism" are pretty wild and don’t really have much of place in discourse unless you’re bringing up those words in order to dismiss them,” said Krauthammer, adding that in his view Obama is “making the case for an American-style social democracy, not socialism.”
Conservative commentator and former Newt Gingrich press secretary Tony Blankley, who’s fought ideological battles for decades, noted that this historical moment is one when “chin-pulling moderates on both sides are not getting as much of an audience.”
“As the economy has gotten more scary and raised fear and anger in the public,” Blankley said, “the two bases of the parties are sort of racing to their ideological corners.”
Blankley said it’s during such polarizing periods that die-hards will surely ask, “Whose side are you on?”
That’s been the case for Frum, who’s taken plenty of heat from talk radio hosts and right-wing bloggers — not unlike the reaction that Frum and a few others conservatives got for casting doubt on vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin last year.
But even if the Limbaughs and Becks are in the limelight now, Frum believes that the center will not be moved by “angry arguments” but, instead, by “facts and reason and knowledge.”
Frum praised the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board for their writing on economic issues — “they’ve had a real burst of energy" — but said that, going forward, “we have to upgrade the quality of debate on the right-hand spectrum."
Not everyone’s following Frum’s lead.
Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, said that Frum has “no legions,” “no audience” and “no following.”
“You want to get coverage in this town — be a conservative criticizing conservatives,” Bozell said. “This is very interesting cocktail party chit chat in Washington, D.C. American doesn’t give a damn what David Frum thinks about Rush Limbaugh.”
As for media strategy, Bozell doesn’t see a need to tone down the rhetoric.
“When Republicans distinguish themselves from Democrats, they do well,” Bozell said. “When they try to do Democrat-lite, they do poorly. That’s true in electoral politics, and it’s true in radio ratings.”
Bozell’s liberal watchdog counterpart would probably agree that radio’s top conservative talkers aren’t pushing anything resembling “Democrat-lite.”
Media Matters president Eric Burns pointed out that in recent weeks, Limbaugh made a number of ominous claims about the country’s fate, including saying that the White House is "[p]erfectly timed, perfectly programmed, perfectly educated to destroy capitalism ... and they're in the process of doing it."
Burns, who like Media Matters founder David Brock was once a Republican operative, said they expected criticism of Obama out of the gate, but remain “stunned at just how vicious the attacks have been.”
The Obama team has seemed to play up some of the contrasts, seeing the hostility of the professional talkers as alienating to moderate voters.
But are the over-the-top critiques on the airwaves symptoms of a new affliction, assured to keep Republicans trapped in their own heads and alienated from the American mainstream?
“Obama derangement syndrome?” asked Krauthammer. “I think not.”
“It's much too early — I say this as the coiner of 'Bush derangement syndrome' and de facto resident psychiatrist of the commentariat — to discern anything of the sort,” he continued. “It may come, but it's way too early.”