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Feb 15th, 2010

Glenn Beck’s Emotional Blackmail

By Tim Mak

February 13, 2010

Glenn Beck has made a routine of crying on his program. He has even been caught using Vicks to bring out tears during a photoshoot. And last week, an article in the New York Times described GOP senatorial candidate J.D. Hayworth tearing up while discussing a movie about football. FF contributors N. Machiavelli and Tim Mak weigh in on the new conservative trend: public weeping.

Click here for N. Machiavelli’s post.

It seems as though you can’t view a Glenn Beck clip without his eventual descent into blubbering something like, “I just love my country … and I fear for it!” And now this, from a New York Times profile of J.D. Hayworth, Sen. John McCain’s primary challenger in Arizona:

Mr. Hayworth’s radio-personality bluster and big emotions — he teared up in an interview when describing the film “The Blind Side” – … may now have a part in the greater populist narrative that threatens many of the nation’s more centrist Republicans.

Why do figures like Beck and Hayworth cry? One explanation is that wailing encourages individuals to empathize with your point of view.

“Crying has a socially manipulative aspect, even when the crier is not completely aware of this motive,” said Jonathan Rottenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida.

Indeed, the sniffles that accompany Beck’s tea party rants and Hayworth’s talk-radio diatribes provide a greater impetus for listeners to act, as their whimpers serve as a sort of emotional blackmail. Ranting mixed with crying equals activism.

“[Crying] can be a guilt-inducing behavior,” said Dr. Judith Kay Nelson, a therapist and author of Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment. “[It’s] an attachment behavior that brings about a care-giving response in other people … designed to get people to take action on your behalf.”

Beck and Hayworth’s style of conservative rhetoric blends well with the emotional response generated by their sobbing. The combination of angry rhetoric and barely-stifled sobs generates a more powerful response than had they not preceded their sob sessions with anger.

“The tears — at least in Beck’s case — serve as a cue for responding emotionally to their rhetoric, human beings having natural empathic abilities,” argues Aubrey Immelman, a psychologist at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

Another possible reason for the sobbing may be that weeping nowadays buys Main Street bona fides. Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at UC Irvine, argues:

Crying probably signals not only passion but authenticity — in contrast with what people see as the well-rehearsed spin of politics as usual — witness Palin’s characterization of Obama as a charismatic guy with a teleprompter.

But that explanation can only be true to the extent that the crying is genuine — Glenn Beck was shown to have used Vicks to fake cry for a photoshoot. Falsifying tears can be seen as an effort to get people to pay attention to a potential loss, rather than one that has already occurred, argued Dr. Judith Kay Nelson:

[Glenn Beck] is crying over a potential loss, a threatened loss, so he is trying to get people to feel as if the loss were to happen … He is playing on a potential loss about the qualities of the country they feel are significant.

Crying is a visceral experience, and seizes upon the brain in an all-consuming way. In a sense, Beck and Hayworth’s weeping illustrate the problems with the tea party movement itself — it’s too much about feeling, and not enough about thinking.

The rhetoric and weeping “of demagogues like Glenn Beck … is powerful because it slips through the cracks in our acculturated human rationality … to hit a nerve in the limbic system: the seat of emotion,” said Immelman.

“[Crying] reaches out to us in a powerful non-verbal way … It cuts through logic by grabbing us physiologically,” added Nelson.

Commentary: George Orwell’s Squealer, 26 Years After

I take issue with the New York Times’ characterization of public figures like Glenn Beck as populist. In my opinion, it’s pure protofascist demagoguery riding a populist wave spawned by a perfect storm in a climate of fear: the trifecta of the attacks of 9/11, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the election of America’s first African-American president.

Fear, one of the strongest emotions to evolve in our Stone-Age brains, speaks directly to the most basic of our survival instincts. In other words, the incendiary rhetoric of demagogues like a Glenn Beck or a Michele Bachmann is powerful because it slips through the cracks in our acculturated human rationality, with its biological substrates in the frontal cortex, to hit a lower nerve in the subcortical brain regions of the limbic system, the seat of emotion.

In the simplest of terms, demagogues like Beck and Bachmann are able to establish a deep connection with human irrationality.

In his FrumForum column, Tim Mak writes: “Indeed, the sniffles that accompany Beck’s tea party rants and Hayworth’s talk-radio diatribes provide a greater impetus for listeners to act, as their whimpers serve as a sort of emotional blackmail.”

Mak’s analysis focuses on conscious, rational persuasive maneuvers on the part of political communicators, whereas my analysis zeroes in on powerful subcortical responses on the part of the target audience that operate below the level of conscious awareness and rational censorship.

In that sense, Glenn Beck may well be the ultimate stealth propagandist of our era.


Related post on this site

Condemning Beck and Bachmann (Nov. 19, 2009)


Related story

Tea Party movement lights fuse for rebellion on right
(David Barstow, New York Times, Feb. 16, 2010)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — February 15, 2009

Dale C. Stoffel, an American contractor in Iraq, described cash delivered in pizza boxes and payoffs dropped in paper sacks. (Photo courtesy of David Stoffel)

Feds Widen Iraq Corruption Probe

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that federal authorities examining the early, chaotic days of the $125 billion American-led effort to rebuild Iraq had significantly broadened their inquiry to include senior American military officers who oversaw the program.

3 Responses to “Glenn Beck’s Fake Crying Routine”
  1. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Condemning Beck and Bachmann Says:

    […] Glenn Beck’s Fake Crying Routine (Feb. 15, 2010) […]

  2. Immelman for Congress » Blog Archive » Iraq WMD Lie Exposed Says:

    […] Glenn Beck’s Fake Crying Routine […]

  3. The Immelman Turn » Blog Archive » “United We Fall”? Republican Establishment Rally Around Cruz Says:

    […] Conservative media star Glenn Beck also announced he is endorsing Ted Cruz, while a number of Republican establishment figures, including former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, have publicly attacked Cruz. […]

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