Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Glenn Beck, Chameleon, And Perhaps A Closet Liberal

Since I don't watch television, I've never really seen Glenn Beck do his thing. Nevertheless, reading this article, I wondered whether Glenn Beck might not, at some level, be something of a liberal. He's a work-in-progress, starting off at the right end of the political spectrum, but in chameleon-like manner, slowly heading left as opportunities present themselves:
Beck is the most gifted demagogue America has produced since Father Coughlin made his populist broadcasts during the Great Depression.

...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. ... 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.

...By the looks of it Beck is trying to sketch out some kind of prophetic vision for his Tea Party followers, linking the libertarian politics they say they want to the individual spiritual transformation he now says they need. ... It may mean that the Tea Party sympathizers who adore him want more than to be left alone, they want someone to lead them out of Egypt.

And here comes Moses.

...Beck echoed many of the ideas found in Willard Cleon Skousen’s Mormon political catechism, The Five Thousand Year Leap, and in the dubious historical research of David Barton, an influential, self-taught evangelical minister who was on stage with Beck during the event. But when Barton, who runs a Christian nationalist organization called WallBuilders, repeated his group’s dogma that “most of our presidents and founding fathers thought of this as a Christian nation,” Beck objected, took the mike, and stated flatly that “one thing that cannot happen: religion and politics must not mix…. That’s what happened in the Weimar Republic.” Barton backed off.

...The next day, as if to remind us of our national wrongs, he surrounded himself on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with an enormous poster of a Native American warrior, another of Frederick Douglass, and one of what seemed to be a Mormon pioneer family heading west in its covered wagon. He also projected a video montage of images from the civil rights movement, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. whenever possible, and stressing, correctly, that King was a minister standing up for divinely bestowed human rights, not a secular activist. It was political theater of the highest order. And it was fresh. It’s impossible to imagine Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or James Dobson sharing the stage with Frederick Douglass.

Beck skipped over the next part of his pitch, which he recounts in hair-raising language on his daily shows, and which his listeners know by heart—how, around the beginning of the twentieth century, power-hungry elites convinced “ordinary” Americans to abandon the Founders’ principles in the name of progressivism, eroding our rights in a steady process that has culminated in Barack Obama’s socialism.

...Abandoning the grab-it-all gospel preached by the Republican Party since the Reagan years, Beck chastises Americans for becoming a people who have forgotten that “capitalism isn’t about money, it’s about freedom.” In his sermon at the Kennedy Center, he proclaimed that America doesn’t need “change we can believe in,” it needs to be restored to its original principles. But that can only happen if individual Americans recover their private virtues and again place God, however they conceive Him, at the center of their lives. His congregation went wild.

There are other ways, too, that Beck has departed from Republican orthodoxies. His libertarian political theology not only takes a dim view of economic self-indulgence and debt, individual and national; it is hostile to expansionist foreign policies, the influence of Wall Street, and what he sees as a growing national security state.

...No one picking up a Glenn Beck thriller will be surprised to find Congress demonized, along with the IRS, the United Nations, and the Council on Foreign Relations. But the libertarian Beck also puts into the mouths of his characters a litany of left-wing complaints and conspiracy theories of a libertarian tinge. Besides the usual government crimes that haunt the right-wing imagination, characters in The Overton Window also denounce presidential national security directives, spying on domestic dissenters, the privatization of the police and military, the preventative detention and torture of potential terrorists, undeclared wars, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the overthrow of Latin American governments, the disproportionate incarceration of young black men, corporate campaign contributions, and the bailout of Wall Street millionaires.

...Far more interesting, and potentially more consequential, was the “plan” Beck presented in his Washington gathering: his call for a “third Great Awakening,” a national conversion back to divine principles. ... “America is great because America is good,” he declared, but we as individuals must be good so America can be great…. God is not on our side; we have to put our lives in shape so we will be on God’s side…. Go to your churches, your synagogues, your mosques, go to those who are teaching the lasting principles.

...Watching a tape of the rally later, I was struck by how artfully he touched on themes dear to the religious right—family, church, honor—without sounding angry or exclusionary. This, too, seems in keeping with the laissez-faire doctrines of the Tea Party movement, which has ruffled the feathers of some old-school evangelical activists. As one of them recently said, “there’s a libertarian streak in the Tea Party movement that concerns me as a cultural conservative. [It] needs to insist that candidates believe in the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.” Beck refuses to do that. He has even gone on record saying he sees no threat to the family in gay marriage.

...Tune in to one of Beck’s shows today and you’ll see that he remains the coincidentia oppositorum he’s always been—angry, thoughtful, ironic, nasty, sentimental, bathetic. His new Moses character is just one more in his dramatic repertoire and who knows how long he will choose to play it. I suppose it all depends on the reviews from the Tea Party faithful. Polls show he is the most popular public figure among movement sympathizers, running just ahead of Sarah Palin, though his message is not the same as hers. He presents himself as a social libertarian, not a social conservative, he is isolationist in foreign policy and skeptical of the national security establishment, and he wants to end Social Security as we know it. On paper, at least, that puts him at odds with a large segment of the Tea Party’s supporters. Yet they revere him and believe he understands them.

...Similar dynamics may help explain why Glenn Beck, sensing an opportunity, has moved into the prophet business, and why his adoring fans on the Washington Mall were so happy to be chastised and told they must transform themselves within if they wanted their country transformed. Beck is often likened to Elmer Gantry or to Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, and he is certainly capable of playing those roles. But coming back from his rally I was reminded of a different movie, Frank Capra’s 1941 classic Meet John Doe.

...It was not just the obvious parallels with the present moment that brought the movie to mind, it was the speech Gary Cooper delivers. What makes it so successful is that it betrays no anger, only hope and love. It doesn’t demand government action to help America’s John Does, nor does it attack government as the source of their problems. Instead, it simply calls America to look within and discover its old, better self.

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