What is Beck’s appeal?

Clive Crook at the Atlantic, evidently a Brit from his name, has some observations about Glenn Beck (and Sarah Palin) that echo my own thoughts exactly:

Doubtless it marks me out as a member of the uncomprehending godless elite, but I find the popularity of Glenn Beck very hard to understand. Sarah Palin’s popularity, I think I do understand. However much of an illusion it may be—all politicians deal in illusions—she projects an appealing, proud, self-sufficient ordinariness that makes her a credible spokesman for many Americans. Beck sets himself up not as a spokesman so much as an inspirational teacher and guide, blackboard and all. There he stands, with the answer to everything, gravely propounding his theories of life, the universe and everything that surrounds it. Wrapped up in his own psychodrama, his self-regard seems limitless.

He strikes me as a huckster drunk on his own pitch, a true believer in his own cult, ready to hurtle off the rails at any moment…

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Sage McLaughlin writes:

This remark by Clive Crook caught my eye: “He strikes me as a huckster drunk on his own pitch, a true believer in his own cult, ready to hurtle off the rails at any moment … “

Yes, this is exactly my impression of the man. I told a friend this weekend that I expect him, sooner or later, to have a major meltdown of some kind—he’s going to say or do something really crazy and discredit himself for good. He’s had a few moments already that portend some sort of flaming-out. I almost suspect that, like Geraldo, Fox News only employs the man so that they can be sure to have the cameras rolling when it happens.

Beck’s problem is that he’s so intellectually unmoored, so enamored of whatever insight he last encountered in print. He seems bent on dragging his audience around every twist and turn in his mental development. Today he’s having a love affair with libertarian thought, which is often the case with a right-leaning person who is doing some serious reading for the first time in his life—it’s an adolescent fever that many of us go through, but one that most really reflective people grow out of. He has no idea where he’ll end up next, and the main thing he is absolutely certain of is his determination to lead the way, he knows not where. In this he is very like the radical visionaries he so fears and despises, and I think one day, he may even join them (without ever admitting it).

LA replies:

I agree with everything you said. And I refer again to the 1957 Elia Kazan / Budd Schulberg movie A Face in the Crowd, about a demogogic radio performer played by Andy Griffith. The movie as a whole gets too overwrought and loses direction, but there is a brilliant scene early in the movie where the Griffith character, Lonesome Rhodes, has his first chance on a live TV program, and he wings it every step of the way, responding spontaneously to things in an unscripted, “improper” manner, not calculating the effect of his actions, not knowing if it’s going to succeed or get him thrown off the program, and it reminds me of Beck in the sense that Beck literally does not know what his own next thought will be, he’s working his ideas out as he’s on the air, or in any case he’s reciting what he’s learned from the last book he’s read, and his thoughts will change after the next book he reads. Now this may make riveting theater, but to imagine that it amounts to some kind of political or intellectual leadership that we should take seriously is the height of silliness. But it seems that Americans are still an unformed, frontier people, ready to be taken in by the latest huckster or salvation artist who comes along.

N. writes:

Glenn Beck’s show in a strange way reminds me of Limbaugh’s TV show back in the 1990s. On the one hand, Beck has a rather old-fashioned presence, with the chalkboard and quotations from books that most people nowadays have not read or even heard of. He’s saying things, such as the facts about Woodrow Wilson’s near-dictatorial Presidency, that are conspicuously absent from political discourse. This makes him seem kind of radical, even a little bit edgy.

On the other hand, he doesn’t really go after the fundamental premises of modern liberalism, in fact as we saw at the big rally in Washington, DC over the weekend he reaffirms many of them. Plus he genuinely seems to love the country, unlike so many prominent modern liberals who can’t restrain themselves from oozing contempt of the rubes in flyover country, bitterly clinging to their Bibles and guns.

So Glenn Beck on the one hand challenges the status quo in some areas, while relying on it and even supporting it in others. This makes him, like Limbaugh, a kind of Rorschach blot, enabling different people to see different things. right-liberals can take heart in a TV host who “tells it like it is” about the Progressive era and thus by extension modern Progressives. Moderates can see an “arch-conservative” who nevertheless does not challenge the entire post-1965 manufactured consensus regarding “discrimination.”

And that reminds me of something you wrote a while back, about nations restating or reliving their founding myths. If the 1965 legislation of various sorts is the founding event of modern America, then by having his “Restoration” rally on the day of Martin Luther King’s rally, Glenn Beck is clearly trying to re-establish modern America by accepting and possibly even co-opting that “I Have A Dream” notion in his own way. This is a most interesting development, it will be interesting to see if he can direct that energy or if it was just a one-time event.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 30, 2010 08:14 AM | Send

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