It turns out that the beach-read potboiler just might be the perfect medium for Glenn Beck’s patented mix of paranoia, patriotism, conspiracy theories, and self-help philosophy. Liberated from the obligations of literal truth, Beck is free to mix fact and faction into a genre he calls “faction”—appropriate because it is designed to divide the country into “us” against “them,” pitting heroic Beck-ian true believers in a life-or-death struggle against evil elitists and the sheeple who follow them.
The newly released The Overton Window is not just a bad book; it is an instructively bad book because it offers a complete color-by-numbers picture of the contemporary Wingnut psyche. It also answers the question of whether Beck fully appreciates the forces he’s playing with and the audiences he is catering to—the book is essentially a love letter to any group that might have seen themselves as implicated in the Department of Homeland Security’s report about the rise of extremism from the far-right in the age of Obama.
“The public has lost their courage to believe. They have given up on their ability to think. They can no longer even form opinions.”
In fact, a recasting of that document is a featured irritant in the introduction, portraying the government as targeting otherwise peaceful citizens who they characterize as ‘‘militant anti-abortion or pro-life organizers,” “home schoolers,” “Minutemen,” “Tea Partiers,” “militia organizations,” “tax resisters,” “patriot movement” members, “gun rights activists,” and “9/11 Truthers”—to name just a few of the groups unjustly clustered under the term “Constitutionalists.” The specter of FEMA concentration camps, martial law, gun seizures, and even vaccination conspiracies make unapologetic appearances as well.
The heroic resistance group in the book is called “the Founders’ Keepers,” an echo of the Hatriot group “the Oath Keepers.” But in a Beckian bob and weave, the first time the reader meets them is amid a diverse crowd in a Tribeca bar containing every creed and color, complete with pot smoking and echoes of 60s rebellion rekindled in a new direction. Their communal bookshelf combines the John Birch Society with Saul Alinsky, but their rhetoric is pure militia: “We’ve done everything that could be done to avoid the storm that’s coming. Our voices have not been heard. Time for simply hoping for change and praying for peace is gone. If our government won’t answer our appeals and do what’s right, if they’ve forsaken their oath to defend the constitution then an appeal to arms and the grace to God almighty is all they’ve left us…If not now, when!...Will we be stronger when they’ve taken our guns away when a cop or a paid government thug is standing on every corner enforcing the curfew? No! I say if war is inevitable then let it come on our terms.” And that’s a hero’s battle cry.
• Michael Korda: The Perfect Spy ThrillerThe title of the book— The Overton Window—is itself a metaphor for the “slippery slope”, the animating idea behind much of the paranoid style in American politics—namely that any ground given from the far-right to the center represents a subtle but intentional subversion of our constitutional republic. This is the logic Beck uses to preach about the “cancer of progressivism” beginning with Woodrow Wilson and the pointy-headed elites who advised him—a rant which is woven throughout the narrative, complete with quotes from the semi-obscure books which currently interest him. But now in fictional form, he gets to illustrate the ultimate danger of elitist progressive plans for America—in this case, false flag operations and nuclear weapons designed to destroy individual liberty from within and replace it with tyranny.
The book is an earnest call to arms for what is portrayed as the heroic resistance to a corrupt American government. Beck is careful to avoid any direct mention of Obama, making his case that our country is suffering from bi-partisan rot, but its hard not to miss ripped-from-the-headlines references, from bailouts and bankruptcy to head nods toward Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and adulterous Senator John Ensign—even a sleazy cameo by former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. One of the recurring riffs is an implicit dig at the Obama campaign comment about “transforming the United States”—as one character notes, “transformation is simply a nice way of saying that you don’t like something,” i.e., the President is hostile to the founding principles of the United States. Nonetheless, the fundamentally transformative idea advocated by Tom Paine—“we have it in our power to begin the world over again”—is the book’s mantra, along with the benign Ben Franklin litany of “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” which is somehow transformed into an underground partisan appeal. The book’s online advertising uses the same bait, promising a life of purpose for the self-selecting (and paying) few: “Click here to change the world.”
The book is either an irony free zone or deeply self-revealing, with digs at unlawful interrogations and media manipulation (“Politics and war, it’s all social psychology and maybe it always has been. Look at the PR push that got the American people behind going back to war with Iraq in 2003”). Beck acknowledges the source of his political influence when he has one character say, “Fear has been a swing factor in party politics for as long as I can remember.”
But perhaps the most revealing rant comes from the mouth of the book’s arch villain, a nightmarish PR guru who might as well be speaking on Beck’s behalf: “The public has lost their courage to believe. They have given up on their ability to think. They can no longer even form opinions. They absorb opinions sitting slack jawed in front of their televisions. Their thoughts are manufactured by people like me…We leverage their hopes and feed their fears. Once they believe, they are ours forever.”
Glenn Beck has transformed himself into a multi-media empire, and—like it or not—he is a real thought leader among conservative populists in the United States today. The apex of his influence might be over—his ratings slipped almost 30% from January to April 2010 alone—but he is betting that his hardcore of support will not desert him. The book is left primed for future installments that the faithful will no doubt buy in bulk. Beck has created an army of true-believers and dwindling but dedicated consumers, but even he may be coming concerned with the ambitions of the crazies among them. Before an alter-ego guru goes up in smoke, he frightfully faces the lunatic fringe he has inspired, marveling at “the seamless transition each managed to place between the sane and the insane thing that they have said.” With a deep breath, he reflects with more than a hint of regret, “If guys like these can agree with anything I say, then I’ve been saying something wrong.” Exactly.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.