Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” mirrors Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin’s appeal

This link takes you to a live Facebook feed of Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

Few of us are old enough to remember hearing Detroit’s Father Charles Coughlin. He was the Nazi apologist who drew as many as 30 million followers to his radio show prior to World War II. (Click here for MP3s of many of his broadcasts.)

As I watch Glenn Beck striding around the stage at the Lincoln Memorial, it seemed important to learn more about Coughlin. So I pulled up the famous radio address he gave after Kristallnacht in 1938, the anti-Jewish pogrom called the Night of Broken Glass.

Coughlin was insidiously quick to denounce the violence against the Jews, though he seemed to focus even more on the resulting fine levied against them. But his argument quickly devolved into an explanation that the real problem was the persecution of Christians. Yes, Jews have always been persecuted – “from Nineveh to Berlin.” But that’s not the real problem:

I will satisfy myself simply by drawing your attention that since the time of Christ, Jewish persecution only followed, only followed after Christians were persecuted, persecuted either by exploiters within their own ranks as in the Middle Ages, or by the enemies from without as in our own day.”

Beck is equally adept at rewriting history to ensure that it is always his people, the righteous Christian Americans, who are the real victims. This tortured logic even allows him to claim the mantel of the civil rights movement. Beck’s appropriation of Dr. Martin Luther King may well rank as the most shameless hijacking ever.

Doing so allows him to persuade his followers that they are the successors to the suffering and nobility of MLK”s followers, who faced real oppression at the hands of people who claimed to be patriots. Like Father Coughlin, Beck portrays his people, the “regular people,” as victimized by those who would call them bigots when they are instead the true patriots, fighting back against the real racists, those who perpetrate reverse racism. Yet the only black and brown faces are on the podium, “for show” – none in the crowd.

It is hard not to think of the brown-shirt rallies of the Thirties when looking out at the slogans and symbols that feed into Beck’s rhetoric of righteousness. As I hear him and Sarah Palin promote the “values” of unrestrained militarism and hyper-religiosity, it is clear that “Restoring Honor” is code for going back to a mythical era when right-wing, Christian Americans ran the country unchallenged. Through an appeal to honor and larger-than-life heroes drawn from the ranks of the common man, Beck appeals to that small but fervid slice of the American electorate that loves simple, sentimental, saccharin stories that paint them as special and heroic.

And just as it was in Coughlin’s day, any attempt to call them out plays into their strategy of portraying themselves as persecuted and misunderstood.

Beck uses the blackboard on his TV show to lay out a phony history where Stalin and Hitler both lead in a straight line to the election of Barack Obama, the “racist” president who hates white people and wants to take their guns away. The rally today, while it seems boring to anyone but a true believer, reinforces his followers’ belief that they are the chosen.

How many steps from there to Michelle Bachman and Sharron Angle’s armed insurrection in the name of a second American Revolution?

I hope Beck is more interested in hawking Goldline than in running the country. But my biggest fear today is that this was simply the kickoff to a 2012 Beck-Palin presidential run. If the economy tanks this fall, as many fear it will, the stage will be set by the rally today. If so, even though I am an atheist, all I can say is lord help us.

Bonnie Bucqueroux teaches at Michigan State University's School of Journalism and experiments with citizen journalism, including co-publishing Lansing Online News with Bill Castanier. They also co-host a radio show Mondays at 7 p.m. on LCC Radio - WLNZ - 89.7.