My theory is as follows. Glenn Beck is engaged in a carefully orchestrated performance that, if taken to its logical end, can only end up in tragedy -- a tragedy, not in the name of some great political or social or religious cause, as too many of his viewers might believe, but rather in the name of pure careerism and greed. A tragedy in the name of Glenn Beck's personal drive for fame and fortune, not to mention the similar motivations of Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch.
Right. I get it. I should probably ignore him. Why should I waste time writing about Glenn Beck again? As hard as it is to believe, most days I intentionally ignore Glenn Beck posts and videos on the blogs. My recurring reaction is generally twofold. One: he's exhausting to watch because just as I'm wrapping my head around one line of googly-eyed horseshit, he belts out another ridiculous, melodramatic or dangerous line, and before I know it, I'm faced with a log-jam of crazy, forcing me to scramble for either an oxygen mask or a stiff drink. And, two: why pay attention to the television equivalent of an escaped mental patient screaming gibberish on the median strip at a busy intersection?
But to underestimate Glenn Beck as just some sort of random extra from Cuckoo's Nest, as I admittedly have done, is a mistake as it barely scratches the surface of what his scam is all about. A schizoid raving street loon tends to command attention purely for the freak show curiosity of passers by, yet the nonsense is rarely taken seriously.
This isn't the case with Glenn Beck. Several million people every day take his word for it. They're suckered into buying the ruse. And it's bad for America.
What his regular viewers haven't grasped yet is that he's putting on a show. He's playing a role. He's tricking his audience. Unlike a left-leaning audience, Beck's audience is mostly composed of white conservative Christians who pride themselves on taking certain things on faith, and who often act against their own financial interests for the sake of patriotic cheerleading. It's an audience that embraces gun ownership and tends to be more reactionary and militaristic. (Incidentally, there's no equivalent to this on the "other side" simply because it's not in the nature of liberals to be, you know, conservative.)
But it's hard to blame Beck's audience for being fished in. There's no wink and nod, so he's clearly not attempting some sort of obviously satirical character like Stephen Colbert or even a more bizarre character like Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton. He performs this role as seamlessly as any decent character actor, but he never tips his hand (we're generally told when an actor is acting). Just an occasional mention of himself as a "rodeo clown." There's no crawl at the end listing "Glenn Beck as 'Glenn Beck.'" It's not a fiction program.
Glenn Beck is playing a character with a personality and a style that is laser focused at the souls of an intended audience. It doesn't take many minutes of viewing his television show to see that he's mashing up the most effective and successful aspects of Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and '60s Bircher author Cleon Skousen, and filtering it all through the performance techniques of a televangelist. Listen to any random monologue by Glenn Beck and then watch some clips of televangelist Jack Van Impe. Both are master manipulators and (crazy aside) riveting speakers. They each nail their audiences with rapid-fire barrages of nonsense presented as dramatic fact -- so twisted and obscured that it begins to seem real and anything that might not seem entirely plausible, just have faith. After all, there are complicated drawings on a blackboard! Oh, and he cries. So he must be serious. (We learned last year that the crying is fake.)
This is all stuff that's been proven to resonate with (and utterly manipulate) certain American audiences who also willingly hand over their cash to obvious flimflam artists claiming to provide salvation. Glenn Beck is just pooling these techniques and applying them to American politics.
Instead of asking for donations, by the way, Beck just markets all varieties of crap-on-a-stick to his people. Beck has released seven books since 2007. Seven books in three years! Add to the mix three DVD releases and 26 compact disc releases. There's his subscription-only "Insider Extreme" website which charges $75 per year. There's a print magazine called "Fusion" (20 issues for $66). There are the obligatory t-shirts, mugs and other forms of cheap swag. All of this is heaped on top of a multimillion dollar Fox News contract and a syndicated radio deal worth $50 million over five years. Capitalism is one thing, but Beck is manipulating his audience to hand over their cash in exchange for swag that can't possibly be worth the price, considering the volume of his output (seven books in three years!). As the saying goes: how hard he prays depends on how much you pay.
One of the reasons why the network news media was generally, in decades past, kept separate from the ratings and profit-motive of entertainment divisions was that to cross these streams, so to speak, would lead to the corruption of the news, forcing it to be driven by what sells, not necessarily by what's true. And, it goes without saying that such a corruption of the news is inherently damaging to democracy.
To that point, Glenn Beck likes to say that he's the new Howard Beale, the tragic and suicidal anchor from the movie Network. He's not. In fact, Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay was a prescient warning about the rise of charlatans like Glenn Beck infiltrating the news media -- regardless of whether or not they're presented as "opinion journalists." Actually, Beck goes far beyond the scope of opinion journalism as well, and has settled in a danger zone where he incites easily-manipulated, often militaristic audiences based on theories and claims that don't hold up to even the most cursory fact-checking, say nothing of empirical reality.
In terms of his impact, Beck isn't Howard Beale at all. He's closer to Lee Atwater.
In the riveting, must-see documentary, Boogie Man, about the rise and fall of the infamous Republican political operative, it's revealed that Atwater once considered politics to be nothing more than a game. Professional wrestling. Atwater, we learn, would have been perfectly happy doing what he did for either political party. Republican or Democrat. It didn't matter to him. After all, it was just a game. A show. And he was really good at producing a hell of a show -- no matter how many lives he left in his wake.
Yet at the end of his life, Atwater realized that treating politics like a wrestling match was a mistake. In politics, unlike wrestling, the societal damage is real. The lives are real.
Bloated and crippled from his cancer treatment, Atwater regretted using the Southern Strategy -- exploiting race as a wedge. He regretted making so many enemies, one of which being Ed Rollins who he had double-crossed during the waning years of the Reagan administration. He regretted the creation of his own reality at the expense of empirical reality.
While he was very successful in treating national affairs like a cornball burlesque show and throwing all professional ethics aside in the name of winning, the lesson of Lee Atwater is that such behavior is ultimately destructive.