One of the grosser narratives of this election season is that it is incumbent upon liberals to reach out to conservatives in search of common ground, to see past the ugliness and divisive rhetoric of the last eighteen months and unite in the building of a better future. The admonition almost invariably goes right to left, as in Nicholas Kristof’s argument that liberal college students ought to be exposed to Republicans, Ross Douthat’s similarly bumbling screed against “social liberalism” in the media, and even Trevor Noah’s appeal to the very centrism that turned the Democratic party into the smoldering ash heap it is today. Those targeted by extremism, the argument goes, must “break bread” with extremists if they hope to get anywhere. Given the particular shade of extremism that won this election, it’s fair to apply a blunter reading: Those disenfranchised by white supremacy must negotiate with white supremacists.
The latest entry in this narrative came last night, when Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee hosted nationalist firebrand Glenn Beck for a Christmas Sweater Summit. Beck, you may recall, has said the Affordable Care Act is “stealth reparations,” described President Obama’s policies “9/11 all over again,” and straight-up wrote a book called It IS About Islam. He has spent his career stoking racism and nativism. He championed the Tea Party and fueled the conspiracy theories at its base, declaring as recently as last year that Obama is “practically a foreigner.” He also, unfortunately, really thought Ted Cruz was gonna win the election. When it became apparent this would not be the case, Beck was forced to pivot to the anti-Trump market, which means trying to appeal to liberals. As he recently told NPR’s Bob Garfield: “I’m retooling for the future, as everybody—every business should be, knowing that if you don’t retool every three, four years you’re going to be out of business. So I’m retooling that. As far as message, I hope I’m different.”
That’s well and good for Glenn Beck, who has every right to respond to market conditions in the pursuit of fame and money. Like Donald Trump, he’s a huckster, and in this country you are free to be a huckster. What’s disappointing is that Samantha Bee, the fieriest voice in late night, would capitulate so easily to Beck’s ruse. In Christmas sweaters and measured tones, the two lament how “catastrophist” our media has become. “I hate to break it to you,” Beck says, leaning forward. “I’ve been watching you. You’ve adopted a lot of my catastrophe, kind of, traits.” His evidence: “Do you believe there’s a chance we fall into a dictatorship under Donald Trump? Do you think there’s a freedom of speech and press under this president?” Bee, inexplicably, rolls with it. “Jesus Christ,” she says. “Glenn Beck is gonna make me cry.”
But this is as false as an equivalence can get. In Beck’s case, “catastrophist” means calling Islam a menace and Obamacare 9/11. Concerns about an authoritarian Trump Administration gain new legitimacy each day. Whether or not you like Bee’s brand of liberal fury, there is no question that Full Frontal is rigorously researched and steers clear of conspiracy theories. Her apparent belief that Beck’s rebrand is genuine—”He seems to be a deeply sincere and decent person,” she says—is naive in the face of his obvious manipulation. Even if his turnaround is sincere, which I very much doubt, he has nothing to offer but half-hearted pleas for forgiveness. And it does not seem coincidental that his media venture, the Blaze, is collapsing.
Bee’s justification for hosting Beck has the veneer of progressive intentions. “I think that our future is going to require a broad coalition of decency,” she says. “It’s not just individual people against Donald Trump, it’s all of us against Trumpism. So I actually think it’s important to reach into places where we wouldn’t normally reach.” Sure. Liberals lost the Presidency and have pitiful representation in state legislatures; clearly it is time for some out-of-the-box thinking. But maybe, just maybe, there are more decent people outside of that box than someone very directly responsible for the Tea Party? When Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair, Bee rightly lambasted him for normalizing a man who peddles violence, ignorance and intolerance. Last night she put a Christmas sweater on Glenn Beck and normalized him too. At least Trevor Noah pushed back against Tami Lahren, for instance, when she said she doesn’t see color; Bee rolls right over. There is nothing productive or entertaining here, and frankly it’s insulting to her viewers—especially those who have been targeted by Beck’s invective—to give him a platform. The left has nothing to gain from this man. “Decency” will not save us from kleptocracy anymore than it saved us from Trump’s election.
I am skeptical too of Bee’s assertion that “it’s not just individual people against Trump, it’s all of us against Trumpism.” Trumpism did not win the election. Trumpism came nearly three million votes short. The volume and tenor of its voice is situated almost entirely in Donald Trump and his strategist Steve Bannon, whose Breitbart just happens to have edged Beck out of the market. Republicans at every level of power were denouncing Trumpism until almost exactly the moment he hit 270 electoral votes. He is the locus of white supremacy in America. Bee’s “broad coalition of decency” already exists; perhaps the priority should not be continued normalization of white supremacists but obstruction of the vicious minority that seeks to undermine our democracy. The belief that we must seek common ground with extremists is a bad one. The belief that we must link arms with those who enabled them is hardly better. If we are to give anyone voice, perhaps it could be the good people who currently have none.