November 18, 2010


The Beck of Revelation (Mark Lilla, 12/09/10, NY Review of Books)

[Glenn] Beck is the most gifted demagogue America has produced since Father Coughlin made his populist broadcasts during the Great Depression. In the course of one radio or television show he can transform himself from conspiracy nut and character assassin into bawling, repentant screw-up, then back to gold-hoarding Jeremiah, and finally to man of God, without ever falling out of character. Which is the real Glenn Beck? His detractors assume that his basest, most despicable moments reflect his core, and that the rest is acting and cynical manipulation.

This is Alexander Zaitchik’s conclusion, in his sharp and informative smackdown, Common Nonsense, and Dana Milbank’s in his rambling, impressionistic Tears of a Clown. Zaitchik documents Beck’s every flip-flop, every swim in the polluted pools of the John Birchers and paranoid Mormon theocrats, every cruel remark (he called Hurricane Katrina victims “scumbags”), and every offensive comparison (he once likened Al Gore’s campaign against global warming to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews). For Zaitchik, Beck is just one more American con artist in the P.T. Barnum tradition, a shameless pseudoconservative bottom-feeder who will say anything to keep the spotlight on himself while the money rolls in.1

But after reading these books and countless articles on the man, I’m coming to the conclusion that searching for the “real” Glenn Beck makes no sense. The truth is, demagogues don’t have cores. They are mediums, channeling currents of public passion and opinion that they anticipate, amplify, and guide, but do not create; the less resistance they offer, the more successful they are. This nonresistance is what distinguishes Beck from his confreres in the conservative media establishment, who have created more sharply etched characters for themselves. Rush Limbaugh plays the loud, steamrolling uncle you avoid at Thanksgiving. Bill O’Reilly is the angry guy haranguing the bartender. Sean Hannity is the football captain in a letter sweater, asking you to repeat everything, slowly. But with Glenn Beck you never know what you’ll get. He is a perpetual work in progress, a billboard offering YOUR MESSAGE HERE.

As anyone who witnessed his performance on the Washington Mall can attest, what makes him particularly appealing to his audience is not his positions, it is that he appears to feel and fear and admire and instinctively believe what his listeners do, even when their feelings, fears, esteem, and beliefs are changing or self-contradictory. This is the gift of the true demagogue, to successfully identify his own self, rather than his opinions, with the selves of his followers—and to equate both with the “true” nation.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 18, 2010 6:14 AM
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