America has this long tradition of twisted, odd, widely beloved and yet darkly dangerous right-wing cultural impresarios that pop up out of our landscape like cultural tornadoes, leaving huge swaths of derangement and destruction in their wake. Aimee Semple McPherson. Father Coughlin. Joe McCarthy. Once in a while, when the cultural cross-currents intersect just so, they rise on the whirlwind, gather huge followings, and lead their followers on a furious high-velocity turn that blows across the countryside in desperate pursuit of a utopia only they can see. These maunderings are typically mercifully short and usually end in disaster, for both the people who started the storm as well as those who got swept away in it. And all is forgotten—until the next time.
The next time, in this case, arrived on 9/11/01; and the tornado took on the form of Glenn Beck. It only seems like Glenn Beck has been with us forever. It’s hard to remember a time when his endless rants weren’t filling hours of TV time on Headline News, and more recently dominating everything else on FOX. But Beck was basically going nowhere fast before 9/11—the event that saved his failing TV career, turned this know-nothing showman into a leading political theorist, and catapulted him into the very eye of the far-right’s always-churning cultural storm.
Who is this guy? A precocious former Top 40 deejay with a longstanding drug problem, no discernible book learning, and a mean streak a mile deep. A “morning zoo” radio host known for his ruthlessness in ratings wars, yet unable to keep any job for more than a couple of years. A Mormon convert who immediately gravitated to the farthest edges of that faith’s orthodoxy. The hottest host on cable TV. And soon, if all goes according to “The Plan,” America’s next great spiritual leader, stepping boldly forward to guide the Tea Party faithful in a complete re-making of this nation.
It’s high time somebody took a critical look at the full arc of Beck’s character and career. That somebody turned out to be Alex Zaitchik, who had already spent quite a bit of time covering the right wing. Zaitchik’s book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, hits the bookshelves this week. (Some of the chapters originally appeared as articles at Alternet.) Besides being an engaging telling of Beck’s personal tale, “Common Nonsense” examines Beck’s character and motivations in a way that might help progressives get a better handle on who he is, what he means to do to America, and what we’re really up against.
Sara Robinson: I guess the first question is: what possessed you to write this book? Where did your interest in Glenn Beck begin? What did your research process look like?
Alex Zaitchik: It came out of a conversation I was having with an editor at Wiley about a rather different project — about India, of all things. It could not have been more different. And we started talking about Glenn Beck shortly after his “we surround them” episode on Fox in March of last year. We were talking about how bizarre it was, and trying to figure where this guy was coming from — we’d never seen anything like it.
This is, of course, the famous episode where Beck started crying about how much he loved his country and feared for it and the rest of it. And the more I started looking into him after this conversation, the more I realized there was this culture forming around him, this “cult of Beck” with big viewing parties, meetups, this kind thing. And I sort of got fascinated by it, and wrote an article for Alternet, and the response was pretty overwhelming. There seems to be a lot of interest in this guy.
So I when brought the idea back to Wiley, we put the other idea on hold, and decided to do a book-length treatment on this phenomenon — Glenn Beck.
SR: There’s a lot in the book that’s extremely damning. One of the things that struck me was your description of Beck’s antics while working as a morning zoo DJ in Phoenix, which is one of the most over-the-top things I’ve read this year. But it also revealed the extent of Beck’s essential meanness, as well as the extent he’ll go to to win a ratings war. Can you talk about that?
AZ: One of the consistent threads running throughout Beck’s career has been this rather vicious mean streak that has changed over the years. It now sort of masquerades a sort of political argument — but in fact, at its base, it’s the same kind of gut spleen that’s constantly looking for new avenues of expression.
As a young DJ, he used to attack other people in the market for being overweight. Lately, of course, he’s attacking people like Rosie O’Donnell for being overweight — but now he says it’s because she’s a Democrat and a progressive, not just because she’s overweight, which is what he used to do back when he was doing Top 40 radio.
Probably the most famous example of this mean streak that I was able to track down is the time he called up a competing DJ’s wife on the air and proceeded to mock her for having a miscarriage the previous week. She had just come back from the hospital. He did this live on the radio, which is of course illegal — he didn’t notify her that she was on the radio — and then there’s the moral question involved. He was the bad boy of an already bad-boy genre.
SR: Did the local media cover any of this when it was going down? Was it widely known, or just known within radio circles around Phoenix?
AZ: It made him infamous in radio circles. He had quite a reputation nationally for being talented, but also a bit of a prick. So yeah, people were definitely aware of it.
He never lasted very long in any one market. I think his record was close to two years. He bounced around quite a bit; I think he had over seven jobs in the space of 20 years.
SR: One of the things that struck me about that whole description of his early career, Phoenix, Tampa, and elsewhere, is how vicious he gets when he’s backed into a ratings war. I’m looking at that in the context of his newest schtick, “The Plan,” which he announced last Thanksgiving and is planning to roll out this August on the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech on the mall — having his King moment.
What can you tell us about “The Plan”? Is this just another ratings stunt, or does Beck really have the wherewithal to pull off a Tea Party 2.0 kind of movement?
AZ: That seems to be what he’s going for. It seems to be something quite on a different level than creating controversy for ratings. He sees himself now as not just a movement leader, but actually (if his words are to be believed) a conduit for the Word of God itself. The idea that God is giving him this plan for the saving of the Republic is, of course, a very Mormon idea — the Constitution hanging by a thread, and Mormons will come to its rescue, possibly led by Beck. That seems to be where he’s headed — the idea that he’s a sort of world historical religious figure who’s actually going to be saving the country.
His plan is actually a little bit less exalted than that — it’s basically just your usual list of right-wing think tank talking points. If you had the Heritage Foundation and Cato come together and put their best minds together, it would look something like The Plan. He wants an 11% flat tax, abolishing most federal departments, cutting social services, that kind of thing.
He originally advertised the date to coincide with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, but he’s since pulled back from that and now he claims that he picked that date just because it’s near Labor Day, and he wanted people to be able to bring their children and make it a family vacation. But clearly what happened is that somebody informed him that Martin Luther King was a famous progressive “cockroach” (in Beckian language), and of course he must have felt pretty embarrassed. He stopped talking about the King connection pretty quick.
SR: You also got several people on the record about Beck’s struggle with mental illness. In one of his books, he’s admitted to being a borderline schizophrenic; another is premised on his confession of multiple personality disorder. He’s also copped to having ADHD, and taking medication for it. And of course there’s this very long history of addiction. What did these folks tell you, and why do you think they were so forthcoming with this information? And what part does all of this play in his history?
AZ: One of the first things people used to say when Beck first arrived on the national radar is over the last few years is: This guy is obviously crazy. And, in fact, a number of his former colleagues said that they believed that Glenn was under treatment for some form of psychiatric problem. They didn’t know exactly, but many believed that it was bipolar disorder, and he used to take medication that one person believed was lithium, and all the behavior traits seemed to be lining up in that direction. That was in the early 90s in Baltimore. And then from New Haven in the mid-90s, I heard another colleague say that that sounded about right. One of his old bosses in Baltimore said he always used to remind Beck, “Don’t forget to take your pill.”
So clearly, he’s now or was at some point under treatment for something. But what that is is less important than the fact that he’s able to command such influence over so many people while putting forward a sort of political version of his personal mental illness.
SR: Another thing that struck me is the crass way he manipulates his own family stories to elicit sympathy. He uses his daughter, who has cerebral palsy, as one of his props; and he tells people that his mother committed suicide when all the evidence points to a very straightforward boating accident. Even for someone like me, who’s intimately familiar with the testimonial culture of the religious right, lying that your mom committed suicide for the sake of ratings is just beyond comprehension. You actually went out and tracked down the documents on that.
AZ: The police records record a drowning accident in 1979. His mother and a friend of hers were found dead in the water after they apparently went swimming. There was an empty bottle of vodka found in the boat; there was no sign of foul play; and there was no suicide note left that was left or referenced in the local papers or police records.
Family friends also seemed to think that it was just a tragedy. I tracked down one of Beck’s closest childhood friends who was actually a pallbearer at the funeral, and he said that there was never any sign or discussion of a suicide at the time. So while I don’t know for certain why the death occurred, it appears to be the case that Beck sort of embellished this tragedy to make a more compelling life story.
Which, of course, is one of his stock-in-trades. He’s constantly talking about his personal redemption narrative, which begins with the tragedy of his mother, and continues through this sort of 700 Club arc to his brother’s death, after passing through a valley of depression and despair.
SR: Which is, of course, the classic redemption narrative. There’s a lot of incentive on the right to make those stories as dramatic as possible. That’s how you get your cred in that highly emotional culture. You need that drama.
Tell me about Glenn Beck’s America, the one that he wants to take us to. Is this really about a return to some mid-century Golden Age, and is that even possible?
AZ: He does sentimentalize the middle of the 20th century, and even the America of his youth. Which is an odd thing to sentimentalize, because that’s the mid- to late 1970s, which most conservatives usually don’t remember as the halcyon days.
But what I think is most interesting about his reveries about mid-20th century America is that this was the social democratic peak of the country’s history. I mean, this was when the New Deal and the post-New Deal programs gave the country its most egalitarian tax structure. There were more dollars flowing down the income pyramid than ever before.
This was the nation that FDR built — and of course, the America that [Beck] would like to build looks nothing like the America that was built by New Deal policies. So he seems to want to have the benefits — the sense of social purpose, the middle-class fantasy — without having the economic policies that really are alone capable of leading to this kind of society that he remembers as a kid.
The policies he advocates result in Detroit today, not Mt. Vernon in 1955.
SR: What influence do you think his conversion to Mormonism had on Beck? And how do Mormons view him?
AZ: Mormonism has, I think, had a pretty big impact on Beck in a couple of ways. First, he didn’t have much of a political education before he went to talk radio. There was a big void that needed to be filled. He sort of poured the liquid from right-wing Mormonism, in the form of this guy Cleon Skousen, into this empty vessel. That’s what formed the bedrock of his political education.
Cleon Skousen’s this very right-wing Mormon involved with the [John] Birch Society and later got more and more into conspiracy culture. In the 50s, 60s, 70s and into the 80s, he was a very influential guy in Mormon circles.
SR: Although he was also something of an embarrassment to the Mormon elders as well, wasn’t he?
AZ: He became so, yes. He became too extreme, and he was causing problems for the church. But he did manage to drag the church fairly forcefully to the right, and now you have this orthodox Mormon culture that is in many ways the product of Cleon Skousen. And it’s the same Mormon culture that embraces Beck. So that’s one way that the conversion deeply influences his development.
Another thing: I have a chapter in the book where I talk about this very Mormon ritual known as “bearing testimony,” which involves members of the ward house getting up and telling what amount to radio monologues. They talk for a couple of minutes about some sort of gut knowledge that they have, and very often they get emotional and tear up. It’s very stylized. If you look at video of church leaders doing it off the LDS website, often they look like they’re imitating Glenn Beck. It’s a very Mormon thing.
So it seemed that he sort of embraced that aspect of Mormonism, and it’s informed his persona, which is very much tearful, and has this sense of having direct access to spiritual truths.
SR: Why does Glenn Beck cry?
AZ: I think that, at bottom, there’s a really fundamental emotional neediness in Beck that’s come out over the course of his career in different ways. To some extent, you see it in a lot of entertainers — people who’ve always had audiences and always sought them out. Even as a young kid, Beck was on stages performing magic; and then he was on the radio from age 13. He loves to be heard, to be the center of attention.
And crying is a way to not just be the center of attention, but to hush the audience and draw them in emotionally and connect with them in a way that is unique. That’s something he’s really trained himself to do well. That’s one of the reasons why his success has been as striking at it is: he does manage to connect with his radio and television audiences and his live audiences and his readers in ways that most people doing conservative commentary cannot or dare not.
Beck’s willingness to go there is one of the keys to his success. And it’s not just a media strategy; it also dovetails with his personality and his deepest needs.
SR: OK, this is a long question, so bear with me. One of the things that’s got progressive right-wing watchers most concerned is Beck’s real skill in co-opting the language and symbols of American patriotism. The right has done this systematically for 40 years — but Beck is a genius at it.
I’m thinking specifically of the way he’s hijacked Tom Paine, who was easily the most progressive of the Founders. Paine was the first one to propose social security and welfare. The 19th century elites found him so threatening that they wrote him right out of history. Most Americans didn’t even know who Tom Paine was until FDR and Eleanor put him back in the pantheon, for reasons of their own.
Another example is how he’s publicized Jonah Goldberg’s revisionist idea that the Nazis were somehow left-wing welfare statists. Can you speak to this?
AZ: What makes that that founder appropriation possible is relative ignorance on the part of his fan base. Also: Beck himself has only recently started to learn about this stuff, and he’s really not a scholar on early American history. So it’s an easy sort of touchstone for him to seem like he’s representing the deepest and most consistent traditions in American history.
Of course, if you went back to exactly what the founders believed — Paine being perhaps the most glaring — it’s just absurd that he would claim that mantle. Another one is Ben Franklin. [Beck] has a picture of Ben Franklin on his TV set a lot, and also in his radio studio. Of course, Ben Franklin was a giant of the Enlightenment: this is not a guy who’d have had very much patience for Glenn Beck had they been contemporaries. And Beck himself would probably not have idealized Ben Franklin.
And you can just go down the line. Thomas Jefferson, of course, believed in a pretty radical egalitarian view of society. He belief in limited government isn’t limited government for its own sake, but limited government for the sake of a society of equal citizens, in which there weren’t massive concentrations of economic wealth like the kind we see today — which Beck not only glorifies, but openly worships. There’s few things that’ll quiet Glenn Beck faster than a kind word or the presence of a multi-billionaire industrialist.
SR: Beck has set himself up as this sort of revisionist history and civics teacher. What do you think it means for the country that we’ve got two million people watching his fractured-fairy-tale versions of history every day?
AZ: It doesn’t speak very well for the state of conservatism, that’s for sure. It wasn’t that long ago that those people representing conservatism in high-profile positions were people like Bill Buckley, who — disagree with him as you might have on the issues — was fairly educated, and didn’t make statements that were so wildly at odds with reality. So I think first and foremost, it’s a statement on conservatism more than it’s a statement on the country.
You also need to keep it in perspective that it’s only a very small percentage of the country at large that’s watching this guy, and those people tend to be the more hardcore conservatives.
And to the extent that it is a reflection on the country, it’s a sign of the fracturing of media into these niche communities where people get their politics — and in this case, their ignorance — reinforced. The old gatekeeper system is, of course, done. You no longer have people producing what used to be called “quality television.” You don’t have three networks and PBS deciding what goes on television. Now you have FOX producers, and people like Glenn Beck, who are able to draw audiences — who formerly were forced to go on community television or become street corner preachers and stuff — are now on FOX News.
SR: Having written this book, do you think Glenn Beck really deserves the attention the left wing lavishes on him? And knowing everything you’ve told us about him, what’s the best way for progressives to deal with this huge Glenn Beck phenomenon going forward?
AZ: It’s certainly important that his statements — and those of his peers, like Rush Limbaugh — are taken seriously and debunked. To some extent, I’m glad there are organizations like Media Matters out there doing fact-checks on these guys.
At the same time — and I may be a weird messenger for this, having just spent the better part of a year thinking and writing about Glenn Beck — I do think that at some point you have to start asking yourself what the opportunity costs are of fixating on every absurd statement coming out of the mouths of Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Limbaugh, and the rest. I mean, it takes a lot of time to mock and/or fact-check every idiocy that is said these days. Sometimes, when you tune into radio or blogs, it seems there’s a real lot of time spent talking about this stuff.
And while it’s important to know, and counter, I think we need to ask ourselves sometimes how much is enough, and realize that it’s much more important to come up with a positive agenda that is educative and based in reality to counter the profusion of lies. Ultimately, what this amounts to is diversionary programming coming from the right wing message machine, of which Beck has emerged as a central component.
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Sara Robinson is a Fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, and a consulting partner with the Cognitive Policy Works in Seattle. One of the few trained social futurists in North America, she has blogged on authoritarian and extremist movements at Orcinus since 2006, and is a founding member of Group News Blog. © 2010 Blog for Our Future All rights reserved.