10.11.09

Glenn Beck Goes Global

The Fox News host has arrived in Britain, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch—and has already lost a sponsor. Alex Massie on how Beck’s outrageous brand of conservatism is playing across the pond.

Glenn Beck has busted out of the United States. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television, which carries the Fox News Channel in the United Kingdom, political junkies in Britain are able to tune in to the Great Entertainer’s latest plans to awaken the United States from sleepwalking toward disaster.

Watching Beck, who sometimes resembles a snake-oil salesman’s dim-witted assistant accidentally promoted to the top job, makes a foreigner wonder just what’s happening to American conservatism. I confess that I find it impossible to determine whether Beck’s show is serious or, as seems more probable, an elaborate practical joke played on his unwitting audience. I don’t want to seem forward or rude, but one can’t help but ask:  Have you people lost your minds?

Beck’s show is more than a mere entertainment; it also demonstrates how far American popular conservatism has diverged from its counterparts in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Beck’s show is more than a mere entertainment; it also demonstrates how far American popular conservatism has diverged from its counterparts in Britain and the rest of Europe. There have always been differences, some of them major, between the GOP and Britain’s Tories, but until recently they were recognizably members of the same family, sharing common ancestors and a particular worldview. The relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was based on their shared philosophical understanding of conservative values as much as it was on their personal affinity.

Benjamin Sarlin: Ad Exodus Won’t Slow BeckBut while British Tories share elements of the U.S. conservatives’ analysis of foreign-policy threats, domestically their paths have diverged. David Cameron’s “progressive Tories” bear little resemblance to the Republican Party of Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Increasingly, British Tories wonder what has happened to their American relatives. It’s as if your favorite cousin had a nervous breakdown, found religion, and became an evangelist for an apocalyptic cult prophesying the imminent end of the world as we know and love it.

The scale of this trans-Atlantic distancing was revealed by a survey last year that found that 48 percent of prospective Tory MPs supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Tellingly, the Republicans invited to speak at Conservative Party conferences in recent years—Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain—are the kind most despised by many grassroots conservatives in the United States. Beck’s brand of conservatism could scarcely be more alien to a Brit. Its startling popularity in the United States would once have been an underground phenomenon; now, thanks to satellite television, the issues and attitudes that animate the conservative base can be seen, in all their gruesome glory, across the world.

Of course, not all American conservatives worship at the shrine of Brother Glenn, but voices like his carry loudest. If a mere foreigner may say so, it is striking how little faith Beck and his followers have in the country they profess to love so much. Beck may shed patriotic tears on a near-nightly basis, but he treats the American people as though they are a peculiarly wretched breed of lemming, hell-bent on their own destruction and powerless to resist the evil machinations of a far-left international revolutionary brotherhood. On Planet Beck, the map is littered with dark places warning Americans that Here Be Monsters.

Europe, it seems, is one such place. President Obama, we are told, wants to destroy America and remake it as a European-style socialist quasi-democracy. Yet socialism, as its founders would have understood it, has been dead in Europe for at least 20 years. As for Obama’s creeping totalitarianism, it’s painful to imagine what a Czech or a Pole or a Romanian might have to say about that.

In the end, I wonder if Beck even wants to win. Like most cult leaders, he is happiest playing the role of the Great Misunderstood Prophet, whose people are forever consigned to roam the wilderness. Occasionally, they may glimpse the Promised Land, but they can never make it their home—for if they did, they might realize that they need a new leader. In a curious way, then, Beck’s status depends on Obama’s success. Nothing else can advance his agenda as effectively as the president achieving his goals. Whether Beck’s audience appreciates this apparent paradox is a different matter. But viewed from Britain, it’s dispiriting to see quite so many decent Americans in thrall to such charlatanry, no matter how entertaining or comical its salesman might be.

Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.