Sunday, February 6, 2011

Why Glenn Beck isn’t crazy and millions of Americans believe him

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The following is a guest piece which was submitted unsolicited by William Holden. Holden has a background in political science. He noticed where earlier this Review had asked why millions of his followers are so tuned out of his obvious misunderstanding of Middle East realities and his character flaws. That is more mysterious than Beck himself.“ He has been posting on Media Matters' blog recently and asked himself the same question. Below you find a piece considering that question where he reworked his postings from the liberal media watchdogs, Media Matters for America.  Holden feels it important to debunk Glenn Beck, and from his perspective the media does a bad job of this.

Why Glenn Beck isn’t crazy and millions of Americans believe him

not crazy, but clever

Recently, the idea that Glenn Beck is crazy has made again the news. He must be. Must he not? When Beck brings a rabbit and a chainsaw to the stage it seems he has stepped over once more into territory unknown to the reasonable mind. Beck´s take on the uprising of the people in Egypt just confirms the reputation of Glenn Beck as lunatic. Beck provides indeed a lot of “doubleyou-teeeee-eeeeef-moments” (thanks Sarah Palin) that make him look crazy in the eyes of the broad public. Yet Glenn Beck is anything but crazy. The Mormon and his team run a perfect propaganda operation based on psychological insights that need to be understood.

This is very important to notice, and that is always the one decisive missing point in dealing with the Glenn-Beck-phenomenon. Time magazine for example failed in their story in September 2009 about the “Mad Men” to mention the psychological basis and expertise for the stunning success of Glenn Beck. Sure, there is the common understanding that Beck exploits fears, it is also easy to point out the contradictions or most absurd claims that are only good for a laugh. It simply fails to address the most important question though: How does Glenn Beck achieve that millions of Americans believe him?

The essence of propaganda is a transmitter who wants to bring his message across to the masses to influence the masses. A simple sounding task that is quiet difficult to achieve. Beck has a clear assignment and clear goal: Keeping his audience motivated and mobilized. Beck doesn’t try to convince people who don’t belong to his audience. He refuses to engage in debates. The few times he appeared on shows outside his comfort zone showed a person who was helpless, almost childish in his attempts to dodge questions. It is a strong indicator for the importance and excellence of the team behind Beck with Dr. Ablow as best known face to the public. Dr. Ablow is a psychiatrist and received his degree from the famous Johns Hopkins Medical School.

In addition, from a practical standpoint there is no need for Beck to accept the various invitation he received from several prominent media figures. Why would he waste time on it? The core task is to keep his audience mobilized for political purposes and motivated to buy products. They are the ones who are putting pressure on the decision makers since they are mobilized. They are also the ones who put money in his pocket.
Beck manages to appear as a leader and a peer of this group through several factors. The messengers needs credibility and Beck achieves that mainly in being the voice of his audience and representing their views while he takes advantage of their needs.

The God Factor

God and the Bible are the ultimate source for authorization. Beck refers regularly to God of course. When he tells the audience to listen to God he speaks for his audience. Hearing God or not hearing God is an utterly important criteria for judging a person and his motives. The ones who hear God are good. The ones who don’t are bad and evil. The God factor includes or excludes people. There are many hot issues where that division line is visible like same sex marriage or abortion. Another major impact is the defending and glorification of irrationality as in the irrational believe that the earth is 6000 years old.

The Gut Factor

truthiness is a gut feeling

Beck tells the audience not only listen to God, but also to their guts. It is necessary to keep the trust in irrationality high. Irrationality makes reasonable arguments impossible. Furthermore it validates the irrational fears of people. It is perfectly okay to trust your gut, Beck says. That is the opposite of enlightenment. Fear is better than reason. Furthermore he encourages the audience to trust emotions more than facts. It is necessary for Beck to reassure the importance of feelings. Indirectly he tells his audience to put reason aside and wants them to stay emotional under any circumstances. 

The Psychological Factor

Abraham Maslow

Fear is one of these emotions. All or almost all humans fear what is unknown to them. The need for self preservation and security as Bernays pointed out are strong motivators. Another model is the hierarchy of needs by Abraham Maslow. Maslow equated human needs to levels of a pyramid, basically saying after the needs of one level are fulfilled humans move on the next level and develop new needs. While the model was criticized for the ranking of needs, the described needs offer an excellent guideline for Beck´s modus operandi. The precision in applying the insights of Maslow by Glenn Beck and his co-workers is amazing. Without saying or claiming that Maslow is the only source Beck and his team are relying on almost any of Beck´s statements fits amazingly well into the hierarchy of needs. Longer statements as well as some of Beck´s most famous slogans are in tune with it.

This year Beck launched something called “E4”. The E´s stand for Enlightenment, Education, Empowerment and Entrepreneurship. The promise behind it is that anyone who masters it gains a better life. Or in other word self-actualization as Maslow called the top level of the pyramid in his model.

If you have wondered why Beck likes to mention food a lot, it belongs to the botton level of the pyramid where Maslow put the most basic physiological needs like food. Beck often targets the physiological needs with images and language in his shows. Another physiological need is movement and every time Beck speaks about camps or the cattle he wants to evoke the physiological need for movement and suggest it is threatened. The cattle or the camp prisoners are not free to move.

Probably the most important need level for the propaganda is the need for security. Security is provided through the rule of law and a order that guarantees security. Not so long ago Beck brought up the number of murdered police men attempting to represent himself as defender of law and order and let the audience know that law and order are endangered today. Painting the picture of the collapse of the rule of of law and destruction of the secure order Americans live in is indispensable imagery for the Glenn Beck Show.

Francis Fox Piven, the people of Egypt, the footage of riots and anything else what comes to minds serve as threat to the security of the viewer. Beck can´t stop to talk about the collapse of the system, the riots, the revolutions, the end of the American way of life. Now, Beck even talks about the end of the Western Civilization. But playing only on fear and horror scenarios, the two lowest levels of Maslow`s pyramid, wouldn’t and couldn’t work as efficiently if Beck would fail to give the audience something for their other needs: love and belonging as well as esteem.

Hello America”, as Beck welcomes his viewers, love and belonging comes next. Beck creates a sense of belonging for the audience. He likes to mention friends and family; he likes to give the audience the feeling to belong to a big social group called American Nation, an honorable group of people who are working to “restore honor.”

Placing Beck in front of the Lincoln Memorial last summer and attaching Beck to that national symbol was a very clever move by Beck and his team. The rally was a perfect project for the need of love and belonging. Beck´s speech was full of fitting metaphors in that regard and he included a lot of elements to pay respect to the attendants. In other words, he was very well aware that esteem, another need recognized by Maslow, was important for the crowd. Beck routinely says on his show that his audience isn’t stupid. He seemingly shows respect when the exact opposite must be the case. Yet it works because of the need for esteem.

Pretty much any of Beck comments can be attributed to one of the layers in Maslow`s model. He exploits the so-called deficiency needs on the one hand, and on the other hand offers with his respectful and friendly remarks towards the audience the sense of belonging to a well informed community of honorable people. The love and esteem Maslow included in his hierarchy of needs and on top of it Beck has also the solution to reach self-actualization. On a psychological level working with Maslow is the main guiding line for Becks propaganda it appears.

The Propaganda Factor

Joseph Goebbels

Manipulating and stroking the psychological needs is a mean to end. Once manipulation is achieved the acceptance for political propaganda is established. Political propaganda doesn’t stick to facts. Facts are unimportant. As Goebbels said: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

The goal of propaganda is to make viewers believe something what isn’t true and direct viewers to conclusions they wouldn’t reach otherwise. The manipulated people aren’t reachable with rational arguments. Facts don’t matter to them. What matters are their needs that have been set in motion and their emotional needs remain unimpressed by facts. Practically, they live in a bubble and it is breathtaking that they would use phrases and arguments that Beck told them often word by word in a debate. Despite a very long list of lies Beck told over the years the trust and faith of Beck remains in place. Beck is perceived as voice of the truth while critics are perceived as enemies who can’t be trusted at all. One of many evidences for the success of the propaganda.

Effective propaganda takes away the status of political rivals as respectable competitors and turns them into enemies. They are no longer part of a fair political process who you might disagree with. They are enemies with the goal of destruction the country and they are perceived as threats to the individual needs on a personal level and as threats to the Nation on a collective level. Who isn’t on the same side is an enemy. Alas, the point is illustrated by the experience of Francids Fox Piven and the hateful comments on several right-wing websites. 

Liberals, Socialists, Commies, Progressives, Nazis, Marxists and now the Muslim Brotherhood endanger the Nation and the world. The exploration of the worst historical stereotypes can´t be overlooked and culminated on one occasion in the revelation that George Soros is the “puppet master” to name one obvious example for one classic anti-Semitic stereotype.

Essentially, propaganda translates deficiency needs and being needs into political terms. While different views are perceived out of fear for the deficiency needs as evil, the flip-side of belonging to the self-proclaimed true America is the reward and healing of the being needs for love and esteem.

The Visual Factor 

The presentation in the studio is the visualization of the psychological manipulation and political propaganda. The setting as friendly teacher with the chalkboards resounds the image of childhood. It is a fair assumption that most of the viewership have an idealized picture of their childhood when everything was safe. The world has gotten so damn complicated today. Back then, everything was so much easier. Beck takes the audience back to this place and teaches how the world works. He also likes to come on stage in a childlike fashion with the sneakers, or ice cream or sitting on the desk like a kid emphasizing how great it was to be a kid.

The imagery of the studio contrasts the chaos in the world. It is safe, cosy, warm and everything is in place. The picture of the old-fashioned gas pump reflects the good old times. A brilliant choice for promoting the “E4”-merchandise. Not surprisingly, Beck was quick with chalkboards that offered the answers to all the questions about Egypt though he clearly he is no expert of the Middle East, Egypt or world politics.

For the above reasons describing Beck as crazy is a wrong characterization. On the contrary, he shows a very rational and very sophisticated propaganda show. In the high level of sophistication lies the main distinction to public figures in the same or opposing political camp that could be compared to Beck. No one else comes even close to the expertise in psychological manipulation and propaganda. That makes Glenn Beck an outstanding and unique figure in the contemporary media.

Finally, if you wondered about the chainsaw and the rabbit, it was sound to assume it was a display of the confusion technique, one technique for manipulation. The image was confusing, created a sense of uneasiness and the desire for an explanation to get rid of the confusion. And the man who created the confusion made sure he was also the one to release the viewers from their confusion and uneasiness. 

Beck is repeating lie after lie and the lies are believed by so many because Beck plays with their needs as Maslow has described them.

UPDATE, 2/25/11: Holden has published two more pieces here that apply his analysis to Beck's performances. See:

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CONvincing propaganda, 

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Unknown said...

This is actually qute true. I am now 43, and I have been interested in manipulation and seduction of individuals and masses from the time I was a teenager (It all started when my girlfriend dumped me in an event that motivated me to begin a quest for 'under the belt' seduction techniques-but it dodnt end there.) I have read countless books on psychology, meta progframs, seduction, etc etc and am quite a good manipulator myself. As such, I did see through 80% of the techniques described here in the Glenn Beck show, but I still watch his show, as it entertains me and amuses me and yes, I admit, my admiration at his skill at seduction and manipulation warrants my admiration, too.

Unknown said...

I believe this article has many excellent arguments and important information that should be shared with the world, the glaring grammatical and spelling errors throughout are incredibly distracting and open you up to attack for frivolous reasons. Please run this through a spellcheck of some type.

acb said...

I don't entirely agree with your arguments, but I find them thought provoking nonetheless.
However, I agree with The Possum. This piece is badly in need of copy editing.

Pariah's Log said...

This was spell checked, but wrong word errors pass right through. I agree that the Republicans and Conservatives have taken Goebbels' "lie loud/lie long" techniques to the bank and that they work very well on dullards. But they don't work on bright people at all. What are they going to do about them? Ah yes--breadlines, shopping carts, culverts, and underpasses. The new American Dream...