This alleged plot would likely surprise Biden, whose support for unions, increased corporation taxes and a higher minimum wage are widely opposed by the same bankers and big business that Beck and Haskins claim supports the fascist plan.
But while Beck’s claims do not make sense, his reach is expansive. The former Fox News host has the sixth most popular talk radio program in the country with more than 8 million weekly listeners, and 13 of his books have reached No. 1 on the bestseller lists.
Equally important is that Beck intervenes in a deep historical spirit of conservative thinking. Right-wing media used remarkably similar – and sometimes even harsher – rhetoric against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Conservative commentators often compared Roosevelt to the tyrannical Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin, who terrorized their countries and threatened the world during his presidency. Since then, conservative media have repeated the same refrain against other Democratic presidents, and sometimes Republicans as well, to argue against government involvement in the economy. But these accusations of fascism wildly exaggerate the actual policies that are being pushed and can do more to promote fascism than the presidents they condemn.
When Roosevelt took office in 1933 during the Great Depression, he and Congress quickly embarked on his ambitious New Deal program to combat rising unemployment, bank closures, and widespread hunger. The federal government expanded in ways never seen before with the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, and dozens of other initiatives.
Roosevelt enjoyed friendly relations with many journalists, which shaped the coverage of his policies. But these journalists did not always control how their businesses portrayed Roosevelt’s programs. Instead, some publishers – who detested Roosevelt for supporting higher taxes, organized labor and stricter business rules – led coverage that portrayed the government as becoming too powerful. For example, media titan William Randolph Hearst, owner of 30 newspapers, seven magazines, eight radio stations, two film companies and a telecommunications service, ordered his editors in 1935 to refer to the New Deal as “Raw Deal”.
Other influential media critics of Roosevelt went further. Westbrook Pegler, who wrote a daily column running in 117 newspapers, often targeted Roosevelt, whom he accused of leading America toward fascism. In 1939, Pegler warned his readers: “We have not gone all the way to fascism in our hostility to business, but the new dealerships are not finished yet.”
The conservative Chicago Tribune was particularly pleased to compare Roosevelt with Hitler and Mussolini. “Fears that we’re heading into a dictatorship like Mussolini’s and Hitler’s, that the independent authority of Congress is doomed to be annihilated just like the Italian parliament and the German Reichstag are beginning to resonate in the national capital,” a front page Tribune article claimed just two months after Roosevelt became president.
Soon, the Tribune suggested that Roosevelt was both a communist and a fascist. It insisted in 1934 that Roosevelt’s policy was derived from “Marx and Engels, Mussolini or Hitler.” A 1935 cartoon showed Roosevelt riding a horse next to Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, labeling them “the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The following year, a Tribune leader compared a Roosevelt meeting to “an experience with Hitler’s and Mussolini’s methods,” insisting without evidence that “secret police were there.”
Perhaps Roosevelt’s most rabid media critic was Charles Coughlin, a populist priest who was a furious anti-Semite. Like Beck, Coughlin was a radio star. His show reached an audience of millions. Coughlin initially supported Roosevelt, but turned against him when the president did not embrace his ideas. Coughlin began by claiming Roosevelt, claiming that he preferred the type of government “formed by Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.”
But these scare tactics did not work. Most Americans did not buy the argument that liberalism equated with fascism. A majority supported some government involvement in the economy to reduce unemployment, reduce forced auctions of agriculture and alleviate poverty. They embraced groundbreaking Roosevelt policies such as social security and a national minimum wage, though Roosevelt’s media critics condemned them as ominous government transgressions. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt remained popular, winning re-election three times.
The popularity of these policies did not prevent conservative commentators from continuing to accuse Democratic presidents of being fascists for supporting an activist government. When John F. Kennedy pressured steel companies to cut back on price increases, the New York Herald Tribune columnist David Lawrence asked, “Is this democracy, or is it the forerunner of a quasi-fascist system?” Right-wing radio preacher Billy James Hargis, whose show aired on 200 radio and 20 television stations, called Lyndon B. Johnson “America’s first dictator.”
But no media figure has used Nazi analogies to describe presidents as often as Beck. Over an 18-month stretch in 2009 and 2010, Beck referred to Hitler 147 times, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels 24 times, Nazis in general another 202 times, and fascists 193 times on his Fox News show. When Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress drafted the Affordable Care Act, Beck compared it to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” After Obama proposed expanding the peacekeeping force, Beck declared, “This is what Hitler did with the SS.”
Nor did Beck spare Republican George W. Bush from his fascist analogies. “The people who said fascism comes under Bush, and the people who say fascism comes under Obama: You’re both right!” Beck said in 2009. He even went back in time to accuse Republican Theodore Roosevelt of fascism for supporting the creation of national parks and security inspections of meat and medicine.
Now he has written an entire book about the charge against Biden.
But these criticisms confuse an active federal government with fascism. In fact, none of these presidents have come close to being fascists – including Biden. All supported a form of social safety net and the regulation of capitalism to protect vulnerable people. But they never tried to pressure U.S. military leaders to use troops to suppress popular protests, nor did they try to overthrow elections, disrupt Congress, ignore court decisions, or incite violent crowds.
Only Donald Trump – who Beck supported when he became president – did. Ironically, given his warnings about fascism, Beck told his radio listeners just before the January 6, 2021 uprising to “rip and scratch and tear” and “go to war” in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election result and hold Trump in check. power.
Ultimately, this rhetoric – and that of other right-wing media commentators who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the 2020 election – is more likely to lead to fascism than anything Biden has done or said. It was wealthy right-wing business leaders who brought the United States dangerously close to a coup in 1933 when they tried to lure the popular retired Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler to overthrow Roosevelt. The coup plot failed because Butler refused to cooperate.
Now, intense party-political media, personified by Beck, allow potential threats against the government to metastasize, as they did on January 6th. Right-wing commentators routinely engage in false conspiracy theories and demonization of political opponents – tactics similar to those used by Hitler and Hitler. Mussolini when they came to power. And their words have an impact. More than a year after the election, 4 out of 5 Republicans doubted that Biden had really won despite ample evidence to the contrary. This kind of doubt erodes confidence in democracy and makes the political ground more fertile for a true dictator to come to power.
In contrast, Biden’s brand of liberalism is well within the bounds of American political tradition. Calling it fascist may be an old, worn-out tactic, but it has never been correct. Fascism is about eroding democracy and freedom, not expanding the social safety net, trying to protect public health or regulating business.