article

10.03.10

Is Glenn Beck a Fake?

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, Tears of a Clown, Dana Milbank explains why Beck is so irresistible--and questions whether his paranoid persona is a put-on.

“Well, hello America!”

That greeting, at the start of most every Glenn Beck television broadcast, precedes the Fox News host’s reading of the news of the day. To Beck, this news generally takes the form of a warning, such as this one broadcast during the health-care debate: “America is burning down to the ground, and if somebody doesn’t ask these questions, well, we’re all just going to watch it burn down together.”

Having imparted this information to his viewers, Beck transitions to movement leader, proposing a way to help his viewers avoid the doomsday scenario he has just outlined. “Come on, America—let’s go!” he says, waving the viewers, Fred Rogers-style, over to his set. “Follow me.”

People don’t follow Glenn Beck because he is right. They follow him out of fright.

Those who have heeded the “follow me” cry have been taken by Beck to some unusual places: They’ve heard him talk about Barack Obama’s “deep-seated hatred for white people,” about the fact that he “can’t debunk” the allegation that the U.S. government has set up concentration camps in Wyoming, about his wish to kill Michael Moore, and about his fantasy of poisoning Nancy Pelosi. They’ve followed along as he’s described his mortal enemies, “progressives,” as both communists and Nazis bent on one world government—planning a “Reichstag moment” for the U.S. and using “the same tactic” Hitler did in “rounding up Jews and exterminating them.”

But tonight America, or some portion of it, has followed Beck to Norfolk, Virginia, where he’s putting on a live performance in front of 8,000 paying customers along with fellow Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who is a flamethrower in his own right but who, next to Beck, seems as mild as Jim Lehrer.

tears-of-a-clown
Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America By Dana Milbank 272 pages. Doubleday. $24.95. ()

The SUVs parked in the garage next to the arena are plastered with magnetic yellow ribbons for the troops and decals of Christian fish symbols. They have bumper stickers promoting Sarah Palin and messages such as “Except for ending slavery, fascism, Nazism, and communism, war has never solved anything.”

The audience members, some in camo, some with “Fight Socialism” T-shirts, and a few in the tricorn hats of the Tea Party, line up outside the arena, where local Tea Party activists pass out leaflets announcing future events. “Make your voice heard today before we lose our freedom to speak out,” the Tea Party notice pleads. Tea Party candidates seeking the Republican nomination for the local congressional seat work the crowd.

Inside the arena, an exhaustive search of the thousands in the crowd finds three black people, other than those working the concession stands. The white faces mostly have gray hair, or none at all; the age of the audience is reflected in the kiosk inside the entrance promoting an assisted living facility and one of the sponsors of the event, a home health-care and hospice service. Surrounding the stage are some of the bodyguards in dark suits who follow Beck wherever he goes.

Beck begins his performance. In the second minute, he makes a mocking Hispanic accent while he talks about immigration. In the third minute, he advises the visiting Mexican president to “get your ass on your plane” and go home.

Just nine minutes after he has taken the stage, Beck is calling President Obama “the Antichrist,” using a deep, demonic voice to represent the president. “They’re getting so tired of me saying there’s a Marxist in the White House, I gotta take it up a notch,” he explains.

Taking it up a notch seems always to be Beck’s goal, and his recipe for success. Problem is, there aren’t many notches left for him. After entertaining the crowd with a couple of penis jokes (about the name of Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner), he warns of an imminent takeover of the country by a global government: “Maybe it’s better, then, that we just don’t make it” as a civilization, “because they are building a global cage. They’re building a machine to redistribute the wealth all over the globe.”

O’Reilly joins Beck on the stage and teases his colleague about his apocalyptic forecasts. “I think we are so close to a perfect storm collapse, that if everything doesn’t play out exactly right, you ain’t going to make it,” Beck informs O’Reilly. He agrees to a wager with O’Reilly, betting that within 10 years, “the globe collapses.”

The end is near! Beck’s End Times prediction—grounded in a controversial prophecy of the Mormon faith he adopted a decade ago—is the sort of thing that has led Beck to replace O’Reilly as the most outrageous personality at Fox News. “He’s worse than me!” O’Reilly tells the crowd, which applauds. When Beck arrived at Fox in 2009, “All of the heat went right over to you,” he says to Beck. “It’s great.”

Great for O’Reilly, maybe—but what about the rest of us?

Beck declined to be interviewed for this book. He said on air before a single word had been written that it was a “smear.” But as Beck himself said of Van Jones, one of the Obama administration officials he forced from office: “How is it that a smear campaign is conducted when you’re only using the person’s words?... Am I smearing him by using his own words?”

This book uses what Beck says is his own technique: quoting him in his own words. In Beck’s case, these are some very special words.

At this writing, in the early summer of 2010, Beck has in the last few weeks: mocked the president’s 11-year-old daughter; praised Joseph McCarthy; recommended the work of an anti-Semitic author; released a “rooted in fact” thriller about the United States succumbing to a world government; marveled that a Sarah Palin biographer has not been punched in the face; and given his considered opinion that the private sector “could probably take care of things in Afghanistan better” than U.S. troops. Beck has been in what might be called an Ann Coulter spiral: Each outrage must pack more shock value than the previous. The difference is that Beck, unlike Coulter, has millions of passionate followers.

Around Memorial Day, Beck questioned the intelligence of Malia Obama, the president’s 11-year-old, after her father said at a press conference that she asked if he had yet been able to “plug the hole” leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico. “That’s the level of their education, that they’re coming to Daddy and saying, ‘Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?’ ” Beck said in his radio show. With his sidekick imitating the president, Beck played young Malia in a radio skit and asked: “Why do you hate black people so much?”

“I’m part white, honey,” said the sidekick, playing President Obama.

“Why, why, why, why do you still let the polar bears die?” Beck asked, in Malia’s voice. “Daddy, why do you still let Sarah Palin destroy the environment? Why are—Daddy, why don’t you just put her in some sort of a camp?”

Just days before his attack on the president’s daughter, Beck had said on his radio show that the children of politicians should be off-limits: “We’ve never done anything but protect the families.” Beck, recognizing the inconsistency, issued a rare apology. “I broke my own rule,” he said. This rule had been broken many times before, as when he appeared on set with a walking cane to mock the limp of Obama’s aunt. He called her “Tiny Tim” and pretended to beg for food like the Dickensian character.

There was no apology to the aunt. Then again, if Beck were to start apologizing to everybody he has offended, he’d have no time left for anything else. There was, for example, Beck’s promotion on air of Nazi sympathizer Elizabeth Dilling’s The Red Network from the 1930s. “McCarthy was absolutely right,” he told radio listeners as he recommended Dilling’s book in June. “He may have used bad tactics or whatever, but he was absolutely right.” Dilling’s book, he continued, was “doing what we’re doing now”—documenting communists in America.

What Beck did not tell listeners is that Dilling referred to President Dwight Eisenhower as “Ike the kike” and President John Kennedy’s New Frontier as the “Jew Frontier.” Dilling made common cause with Adolf Hitler and blamed communism and the Second World War on the Jews. She considered interracial mixing to be a communist plot.

Strangely, at the same time Beck was peddling the work of this anti-Semite on the radio, he was attempting to convince his viewers on Fox News that the rest of the American media was part of an anti-Israel plot.

Beck, defending the Israeli government’s deadly raid on a flotilla of peace activists, showed a video of Israeli commandos being beaten by the activists. “Turn on any media outlet—other than this one—they’re not going to show you this,” Beck told his viewers.

Had his viewers in fact turned on other media outlets, they would have discovered that the exact same footage had already aired, on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, Headline News, CNBC, and even, to the delight of Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, Univision. No matter: Beck’s monologue with the false allegation wound up embedded in the Israeli foreign ministry’s website. It takes a certain intellectual gift to be able to recommend an anti-Semitic tract at the same time you are using a phony allegation to accuse others of being anti-Israel. Beck can do this because he is not constrained by the fact/fiction divide that governs the rest of the news business. Beck calls his unique hybrid of fact and fiction “faction.”

“Faction,” Beck explained, is a “completely fictional” account that somehow still has a plot “rooted in fact.” That is what Beck wrote in the foreword to his thriller, The Overton Window, which came out in mid-June. After providing a “fictional” account of world government taking over America, he offered a 30-page afterword full of citations of “factual” events that supposedly support the fictional story.

“What makes this thing a thriller and terrifying is the fact that it is, a lot of it, happening,” Beck explained on the radio. “Now it is a fictional story, but it really—who knows who the players are, but the words that the villain uses are right out of progressive speeches. The things that happen could happen in America.”

And what is this that “could happen in America”? From Beck’s book, pages 210 to 211: “What we’ve finally come to understand, Noah, is that the people can’t be trusted to control themselves. Even the brightest of them are still barbarians at heart... The American experiment has failed, and now it’s time for the next one to begin. One world, one government—not of the people this time, but the right people: the competent, the wise, and the strong.”

Faction is a dangerous thing—presenting readers, viewers, and listeners with a fictitious account and making them think that it is true. But for millions of Beck radio listeners, Fox viewers, and book buyers, it is a compelling form.

His average of 2.8 million nightly viewers for his Fox show in early 2010 put him second only to O’Reilly in all of cable news; if Beck had a prime-time slot like O’Reilly, he would almost certainly be No. 1. His weekly average of 9 million radio listeners puts him behind only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. His books have sold more than 3 million copies—and other books he touts on air become overnight bestsellers. Forbes magazine put his earnings at an annual $32 million.

In the 2010 Time 100, Beck’s entry was written by a starstruck Palin—perhaps the only figure in America who equals Beck in stature among the Tea Party crowd. “Who’d have thought a history buff with a quirky sense of humor and a chalkboard could make for such riveting television?” she gushed. “Though he sometimes dismisses himself as an aw-shucks guy or just a ‘rodeo clown,’ he’s really an inspiring patriot who was once at the bottom but now makes a much needed difference from the very, very top.”

His typical viewers, judging from his advertisers, are old, conservative, and in financial and medical distress. In addition to the ads for patriotic and family-values groups, there are solicitations for the indebted (Credit Answers, IRSTaxAgreements.com, Mortgage Relief Hotline), for the ailing (Arriva Medical diabetic supplies, the Scooter Store, PremierCare walk-in tubs), and for those who fear economic collapse (gold dealers Goldline, Lear Capital, Rosland Capital).

Some Beck critics think Beck has gone about as far as he can with the distressed-and-angry demographic. The liberal group Media Matters has seen a “summer swoon” in Beck’s TV audience, to under 2 million for some shows from a peak of over 3 million earlier in the year.

But forecasts of a more lasting swoon may be too hopeful. Beck has transcended the role of entertainer and talk-show host and now finds himself at the front of an antigovernment movement. The de facto leader of the Tea Party activists, he has fueled tax-day protests across the land and organized mass protests in Washington on September 12, 2009, and August 28, 2010.

At the end of 2009, Gallup asked Americans which living man anywhere in the world they admire most. More volunteered Beck than offered the pope, Bill Gates, Billy Graham, Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush. The only man to be mentioned more often than Beck was South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

These Beck admirers do more than worship the man; they obey his every pronouncement. Beck, in an interview with The New York Times in early 2009, said, “I say on the air all the time, ‘If you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.’ ” In fact, Beck often does the opposite, demanding “Where am I wrong?” and pointing out that the red phone, supposedly a hotline for which only the White House has the number, never rings to correct him.

And there are, evidently, a lot of what Beck would describe as “idiots” accepting his broadcasts as gospel. A Harris poll in March 2010 found that a majority of Republicans consider Obama to be a “socialist” who “has done many things that are unconstitutional” and “wants to turn over the sovereignty of the U.S. to a one-world government”—the very themes that Beck has championed above all others.

When Utah Republicans in May 2010 kicked out longtime Republican Senator Robert Bennett (who took the conservative position 84 percent of the time over his career) in favor of a Tea Party candidate to serve as their nominee, Beck gave his viewers credit for “what happened to Bob Bennett in Utah.” He issued a warning: “People in Washington, you should be terrified.”

The very same day Utah conservatives were purging themselves of Bennett, the Republican Party of Maine abandoned its old platform—a typical New England mix of free-market economics and conservation—and adopted a manifesto demanding abolition of the Federal Reserve, labeling global warming a “myth,” insisting that the border be sealed, and, as a final plank, calling for a fight against “efforts to create a one-world government.”

One world government? That idea could only have come from one place in the mass media. And, indeed, Beck was back on the air days later with more warnings about how “they”—Obama and friends—“are creating a global governance structure.”

“Social and ecological justice and all of this bullcrap,” Beck told his viewers, “is man’s work for a global government.” Beck tossed out phrases such as “global standards” and “global bank tax”—all part of a conspiracy by the “global government people.” He further provided the revelation that “Jesus doesn’t want a cap-and-trade system.”

Beck has, in his nightly Fox broadcasts, all but abandoned the day’s headlines in favor of historical rewrites and conspiracies mapped out on his chalkboard. When breaking news intervenes, Fox is forced to preempt Beck’s lectures and bring in a Fox newsreader—often prompting howls of protest from Beck loyalists.

Beck has essentially created a parallel universe for his viewers. On the day Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, Beck omitted that news in favor of a fanciful report about the administration’s attempt to drive conservatives off the airwaves. On the day USA Today had the headline “Tax Bills in 2009 at Lowest Level Since 1950,” Beck skipped that, instead saying he doesn’t want the government getting involved in the Internet “at least until people aren’t worshiping Satan, you know, in office.” (Beck maintained later that he really wasn’t, contrary to appearances, “saying that Obama was a Satan worshiper.”)

The Anti-Defamation League identified the secret to Beck’s success when it noted that he, unlike other prominent right-wing talkers, was willing “to give a platform to the conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists.” But he does it in the most disarming way—with props, costumes, gags, imitations, and on-air crying jags. Watching the shtick of the 46-year-old recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict, typical Beck viewers probably have no idea he is introducing them to some of the most controversial fields of Mormon theology, such as the White Horse Prophecy, which envisions the Latter-day Saints rescuing the U.S. Constitution.

Ultimately, only Beck knows if he actually believes the things he says on air. Given his background as a pro-choice, ponytail-wearing, drug-using DJ on morning radio, it’s tempting to think he invented the conservative persona, and found the ideology, to exploit a market opportunity. Anger and fear always grow in times of economic trouble—and Beck’s arrival at Fox News in early 2009 just after the American economy collapsed could not have been better timed. Yet even if Beck embraced the ideology for entirely commercial reasons, it’s entirely possible that, after playing the role for so long on radio and TV, he has internalized it.

Whatever is going on inside the head of Beck, he is, on the outside, a singular performer. “Enjoy the performance,” says the ticket taker at the Constant Convocation Center at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University before Beck and O’Reilly take the stage for their “Bold & Fresh Tour.”

Giant screens inside advertise a coming appearance by Michael Bublé in his “Crazy Love Tour”—but tonight the crazy love is mostly for Beck. Beck takes the stage in blue jeans, sneakers, and a loosened tie adorning his dress shirt. He shifts seamlessly from phallic jokes to End Times theology. “I’ve been talking about a perfect storm coming for five years,” he says. “I’ve been talking about exactly what’s happening now, coming for five years.”

He marvels that his followers are not more violent. “Think how we’ve been pushed to the wall. You’ve been called a racist, you’ve been called a hater, you’ve been called a terrorist—and yet, God bless America, nobody has done anything stupid.”

Phrases of paranoia and desperation tumble forth: “I don’t want to live like this... Republic’s at stake! ... They’re telling you lies... Don’t you want to live in the country that we thought we lived in?” Beck starts to cry. He gives a version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. “I have been a lonely voice for a very long time, and no longer!” he says. “You can do whatever the hell you want with me. You will replace me.”

O’Reilly has his own routine, including a fake Chinese accent and a brief acting-out of the late Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. But in comparison with Beck, he is downright sunny. “I obviously have a different take on the world than Beck does,” O’Reilly says. Beck “just runs all the way down the field,” while O’Reilly goes “step by step.”

But here in Norfolk, Beck’s view has prevailed. Beck polls the audience about whether they believe, as he does, that the modern world will collapse within a decade. Most in the hall applaud. He asks whether they agree with O’Reilly that a 10-year forecast for the world’s demise is “unreasonable.” There is relative silence.

Beck shoots an apologetic glance at O’Reilly. “Look,” he says. “I don’t want to be right. I don’t.”

“You’re not going to be right,” O’Reilly fires back sharply.

But O’Reilly misses the point. People don’t follow Glenn Beck because he is right. They follow him out of fright.

Dana Milbank is a political reporter and columnist for The Washington Post. His most recent book is Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America.