According to right-wing commentator Glenn Beck, President Biden is a fascist.
This alleged plot would probably surprise Biden, whose support for labor unions, increased corporate taxes and a higher minimum wage are widely opposed by the very same bankers and big businesses that Beck and Haskins assert are backing the fascist scheme.
But even if Beck’s claims don’t make sense, his reach is expansive. The former Fox News host has the sixth-most-popular talk radio show in the country, with more than 8 million weekly listeners, and 13 of his books have reached No. 1 on bestseller lists.
Equally important, Beck is tapping into a deep historical vein of conservative thinking. Right-wing media used remarkably similar — and sometimes even harsher — rhetoric against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. Conservative commentators frequently compared Roosevelt to the tyrannical Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin, who were terrorizing their countries and menacing the world during his presidency. Since then, conservative media has repeated the same refrain against other Democratic presidents, and sometimes Republicans, too, to argue against government involvement in the economy. But these accusations of fascism wildly exaggerate the actual policies getting pushed and may do more to promote fascism than the presidents they decry.
When Roosevelt took office in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression, he and Congress quickly got to work passing his ambitious New Deal program to combat soaring 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 scores of other initiatives.
Roosevelt enjoyed friendly relationships with many reporters, which shaped coverage of his policies. But these reporters didn’t always control how their outlets portrayed Roosevelt’s programs. Instead, some publishers — who loathed Roosevelt for supporting higher taxes, organized labor and more-stringent business regulations — directed 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 movie companies and a wire service, ordered his editors in 1935 to refer to the New Deal as the “Raw Deal.”
Other influential media critics of Roosevelt went further. Westbrook Pegler, who wrote a daily column that ran in 117 newspapers, often targeted Roosevelt, whom he accused of leading America toward fascism. In 1939 Pegler warned his readers, “We haven't gone all the way to fascism in our hostility to business, but the New Dealers aren't through yet.”
The conservative Chicago Tribune was especially fond of comparing Roosevelt to Hitler and Mussolini. “Apprehensions that we are drifting into a dictatorship like that of Mussolini and of Hitler, that the independent authority of congress is doomed to be snuffed out like that of the Italian parliament and the German reichstag are beginning to reverberate in the national capital,” a front-page Tribune article claimed a mere two months after Roosevelt became president.
Soon the Tribune was implying that Roosevelt was both a communist and a fascist. It insisted in 1934 that Roosevelt’s policies were 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 editorial compared a Roosevelt rally to “an experience with the methods of Hitler and Mussolini,” insisting without evidence that “secret police were there.”
Perhaps Roosevelt’s most rabid media critic was Charles Coughlin, a populist priest who was a raging antisemite. Like Beck, Coughlin was a radio star. His show reached an audience of millions. Coughlin initially backed Roosevelt but turned against him when the president didn’t embrace his ideas. Coughlin began railing against Roosevelt, claiming he favored the type of government “formed by Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.”
But these scare tactics didn’t work. Most Americans didn’t buy the argument that liberalism equaled fascism. A majority supported some government involvement in the economy to reduce unemployment, decrease farm foreclosures and alleviate poverty. They embraced pathbreaking Roosevelt policies like Social Security and a national minimum wage, even as Roosevelt’s media critics denounced them as ominous government overreach. Not surprisingly, then, Roosevelt remained popular, winning reelection a record three times.
The popularity of these policies didn’t stop 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 price increases, 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 stations 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. During one 18-month stretch in 2009 and 2010, Beck referred to Hitler 147 times, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels 24 times, Nazis in general an additional 202 times and fascists 193 times on his Fox News show. When Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress were crafting the Affordable Care Act, Beck compared it to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” After Obama proposed expanding the Peace Corps, Beck declared, “This is what Hitler did with the SS.”
Beck didn’t spare Republican George W. Bush from his fascist analogies, either. “The people who said fascism is coming under Bush and the people who are saying fascism is coming under Obama: You’re both right!” Beck said in 2009. He even reached back in time to accuse Republican Theodore Roosevelt of fascism for supporting the creation of national parks and safety inspections of meat and medicine.
Now he's written an entire book levying the charge against Biden.
But these critiques mistake an active federal government for fascism. In reality, none of these presidents have come close to being fascists — including Biden. All supported some sort of social safety net and regulating 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 attempt to overturn elections, disrupt Congress, ignore court rulings or incite violent mobs.
Only Donald Trump — who Beck supported once he became president — did that. Ironically, given his warnings about fascism, Beck told his radio listeners just before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to “rip and claw and rake” and “go to war” in an effort to overturn the 2020 election results and keep Trump in power.
In the end, this rhetoric — and that of other right-wing media commentators who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the 2020 election — is likelier to lead to fascism than anything Biden has done or said. It was wealthy right-wing business executives who brought the United States dangerously close to a coup in 1933 when they tried to entice popular retired Marine Corps Gen. Smedley D. Butler to overthrow Roosevelt. The coup plot failed because Butler refused to cooperate.
Now, intensely partisan media, personified by Beck, allow potential threats against the government to metastasize as they did on Jan. 6. Right-wing commentators routinely engage in false conspiracy theories and demonization of political opponents — tactics similar to those used by Hitler and Mussolini as they rose to power. And their words have impact. More than a year after the election, 4 out of 5 Republicans doubted that Biden had really won despite abundant evidence to the contrary. These kinds of doubts erode trust in democracy and make the political ground more fertile for a true dictator to rise to power.
By contrast, Biden’s brand of liberalism is well within the bounds of U.S. political tradition. Calling it fascist might be an old, well-worn tactic, but it has never been correct. Fascism is about eroding democracy and freedom, not enlarging the social safety net, trying to protect public health or regulating business.