Rodeo Clown Remake

01.12.13

Glenn Beck Attempts a Laughable Makeover as a Libertarian

With a straight face, the king of ranting is cynically trying to recast himself as a sensible libertarian. John Avlon isn’t buying it.

It took me a few days to stop laughing.

Glenn Beck is rebranding himself as–get this–the alternative to “far-right, far-left” polarized debates on cable news, dominated by people “yelling at each other.”

“We're not going to play in that crazy space as a network," he announced earnestly.

The irony meter just died. Hypocrisy and chutzpah had a child.

This is, after all, the man who rode to riches by screaming louder and crazier than anyone else in the collective conservative nervous breakdown known as Obama Derangement Syndrome circa 2009 and 2010. Here are just a few of his unhinged greatest hits, lest we forget:

•    “There is a coup going on. There is a stealing of America … done through the guise of an election.”
•    “They’re marching us to a non-violent fascism. Or to put it another way, they’re marching us to 1984. Big Brother. Like it or not, fascism is on the rise.”
•    “The president is a Marxist ... who is setting up a class system.”
•    “The health care bill is reparations. It’s the beginning of reparations.”
•    “We are a country that is headed towards socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest imagination.”
•     “The government is a heroin pusher using smiley-faced fascism to grow the nanny state.”

Glenn Beck used his 15 minutes of fame to cast himself as King of the Wingnuts, eventually becoming too extreme for even Roger Ailes to put up with on Fox News.

But Glenn Beck can read the tea leaves and the ratings. He can see that Sean Hannity’s viewers are tanking post-election. Rush Limbaugh’s audience is aging out of existence, and advertisers are looking elsewhere. And so the man who once described himself as a “Rodeo Clown” decided it was time for a new disguise. 

So in this announcement, Beck positioned himself beside Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews on side-by-side television monitors, and declared “I consider myself a libertarian ... I'm a lot closer to Penn Jillette than I am to Chuck Hagel."

A telltale sign that this is just the latest con job is using Chuck Hagel as a symbol for the far-right (clearly he’s not, because conservatives are trying to scuttle his nomination to be secretary of defense by President Obama) and Chris Matthews as a symbol for screamers on the left, when he’s at most an enthusiastic Democrat with a sense of reverence for political history. Talk about false equivalency.

At his core Beck is closer to Father Coughlin than Ron Paul, let alone his hero Orson Welles.

But Beck sees a space open as a libertarian in the center of the political spectrum, trying to appeal to the independent voters who make up a plurality of the electorate. That space exists. But Glenn Beck is the wrong messenger. It’s too late. 

Back in 2000, when he first launched his syndicated radio show in Tampa, he described his politics by saying, “I don’t really consider myself a conservative. I know I don’t consider myself a liberal,” he said. “I have a brain and I like to use it sometimes.” It was a smart pitch, one he more or less continued during his brief Bush-era stint at HLN, when he was billed as an independent.

But when he got his big payday and highest perch to date on Fox News, he made a strategic decision to go the full crazy. A talented broadcaster, he decided to use fear and hate to pump up his ratings. It worked for a while. But it’s a civic sin that can’t be undone. Forgiveness is for faith. In political debates there is always the videotape.

In some ways, this new guise is clarifying because it definitively answers a lingering question about Beck: is he sincere in his beliefs, or was his right-wing rhetoric just showmanship, part of a business plan to appeal to an agitated audience?

It was all just an opportunistic con job. And the dupes are the folks who bought into the shtick, carrying signs at Tea Party rallies that read “Glenn Beck is my hero.”

Real libertarians look at Beck’s latest attempted incarnation with a mixture of disgust and annoyance. They don’t want this rodeo clown anywhere near their bandwagon.

“Beck correctly identifies a libertarian moment,” explains Owen Brennan, who is a partner at Madison McQueen LLC, an ad agency that works almost exclusively with free market and libertarian groups. “As the size and scope of government grows, it’s no coincidence the popularity of our lawmakers is below that of root canals, cockroaches, and lice.”

“But the Beck brand is incongruent with many libertarians. Strong brands don’t tell people who they are, they show them through action,” continues Brennan. “And plenty of freedom fighters who went to the Beck Restoring Honor event in Washington, D.C. expected tar and feathering but got a revival meeting instead.”

Beck’s revival meeting on the Washington Mall was one of many attempted reinventions we’ve seen from the onetime Top 40 radio shock jock, putting him on pace to compete with Madonna or Bowie for discarding different phases of his career. And while his entrepreneurial experiment with The Blaze has proven financially successful, thanks in part to talented players like Will Cain, at his core Beck is closer to Father Coughlin than Ron Paul, let alone his hero Orson Welles.

Demagogues always do well in economic downturns, and Beck’s us-against-them exhortations and apocalyptic intimations had their moment. But the man who predicts the end of the world loses credibility, especially among his followers, when the sun rises after the appointed day. 

Maybe Glenn Beck has belatedly discovered that his own brand of bile is the problem in our political discourse—or maybe he’s just realized that unhinged hate doesn’t sell as well as it used to. Either way, his aspiration to be an independent, sane, and substantive voice doesn’t even begin to pass the laugh test. Instead it’s just the latest reminder of what Eric Hoffer once said: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”