At this point, there are two types of people in America: the 10 million people who pay attention to Glenn Beck and the 294 million who try, and fail, to ignore him. Until last week I was one of the latter. I'd never watched his show on Fox News. I'd never listened to him on the radio. I'd certainly never read one of his books. And yet somehow I kept stumbling, via cable news and the blogs, upon footage of Beck calling President Obama a "racist" and/or weeping like a baby. He was like the political version of pollen—in the air, inescapable, irritating. Why, I asked myself, are we giving this guy so much attention? How is he different from other right-wing provocateurs like, say, Michael Savage?
Then I realized: to find out, I would have to experience Beck firsthand. I would have to enter the belly of the beast. So last week I decided to submit. Every day for five straight days I would I tune my television to Fox News at 5 p.m. sharp. I would see what I could see.
What, you ask, does this have to do with Glenn Beck? What indeed. Beck, like Skousen, is a Mormon. And not only that, but he's a Mormon who recently launched a movement meant to "take back our country” before it “dies." Coincidence? Maybe—or maybe not. Beck says he's a humble patriot. But I ask you: isn't it possible that he's actually taking advantage of the tea party to propel himself to power and restore control of America to its "original" Mormon inhabitants once he does? Could it really be a coincidence that this is exactly what his hero Skousen—a man Beck once described as "divinely inspired"—would have wanted? These are the facts, people. Let's at least have the conversation.
So what did I see? Beck's show featured a few quick flashes of fairly quotidian conservative punditry—an antitax riff here, an attack on "Obamacare" there. But the fuel, the thing that really got Beck going, was a good old-fashioned conspiracy theory. Others have already observed that Beck is the consummate contemporary practitioner of what the historian Richard Hofstadter identified in 1964 as "The Paranoid Style in American Politics"—that is, the belief that "the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power." Still, it's a bit of a shock to actually see a television personality in the year 2010 lumbering around a silent, empty set, mugging for the camera, and scrawling on a chalkboard in full-on "paranoid style" mode.
Last week Beck focused on two conspiracy theories in particular. The first one was about how Obama can't be "anything but a Marxist," given that he's spent his entire life surrounded by Marxists—his mother, his father, his grandparents, his neighbor (Frank Marshall Davis), his pastor, his new spiritual adviser (Jim Wallis). The second was about how the ongoing boycotts of Beck's show by various Democratic groups—labor unions, progressive evangelicals, Color of Change—are actually evidence of an unprecedented campaign by the "president and [his] administration [to] tr[y] to destroy the livelihood of a private citizen with whom they disagree."
At first I wondered why Beck's shtik—looking at a group of reasonably factual "dots," then creating completely implausible fantasies in order to "connect" them—could garner so much mainstream attention. But after a few days the answer was pretty clear.
The reason we pay attention to Beck is that he both comforts and flatters his audience; he makes them feel good, and good about themselves. And by "them" I mean the two groups that obsess over Beck the most: tea partiers and liberals. Tea partiers are driven by the belief that the America that elected Barack Obama isn't their America, and Beck comforts them by telling them they're right: that the America they love, the America they now feel so distant from, the America of faith and the Founders and some sort of idyllic Leave It to Beaver past, is still there, waiting to be awakened from Obama's evil spell. And he flatters them by saying that the coastal elites are too stupid or too lazy to figure out what's really going on; only his loyal viewers are perceptive enough to see the truth and, ultimately, to save the nation. In other words, Beck makes the tea partiers feel, as Hofstadter put it, as if they are "the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph," which is better than feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, and looked down upon.
For liberals, Beck serves a similar purpose. In an era of massive problems and extreme change—the Great Recession, the health-care overhaul, etc.—liberals can avoid the difficult question of whether Obama is leading America in the right direction by simply telling themselves that the only alternative would be someone like Glenn Beck: hyperbolic, demagogic, irrational, and slightly unhinged—"just like all conservatives." This is comforting. And by choosing to argue against Beck's patently absurd insinuations instead of, say, the legitimate policy proposals of someone like Rep. Paul Ryan—the progressive fact-checking site Media Matters posts about 15 anti-Beck items a day—liberals can flatter themselves into believing they're smarter and better informed than anyone who happens to disagree with them.
That's why the mainstream media pay so much attention to Beck as well. It's not just that he generates drama and conflict. It's that the current narrative—reasonable Democrats vs. unreasonable conservatives—requires exactly the sort of drama and conflict he generates. There's a reason that Obama highlighted Beck's "troublesome" "vitriol" in a recent interview, and there's a reason that every media outlet in the country reported on it.
Oh, and then there's the man himself. According to Forbes, Beck made $32 million last year, so he's probably feeling pretty good about himself too—even if his success relies almost entirely on his willingness to twist reality into the most paranoid knots he can imagine.
Which, as it turns out, isn't all that hard to do.