How Glenn Beck Gave Us Donald Trump
The guy who introduced conspiracy theories to cable news has some regrets, for what they’re worth.
“I think we may have found our Antichrist, and our next president.”
This was the closing line of a segment on a relatively new program on CNN’s Headline News spin-off network (now HLN) in 2006. The show was called the Glenn Beck Program, and the eponymous host was referring to New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
He was, for reasons unspecified, irritated by a book that argued there was a correlation between a gradual deepening of the female voice that allegedly took place in the 20th century and the increasing equality of women in the workforce; and that this trend is most conspicuous in occupations that demand a public presence, like holding political office. Beck juxtaposed a clip of First Lady Hillary Clinton speaking normally in 1993 against a contemporary recording of Clinton with the pitch dramatically shifted to a low drone resembling a cartoon Satan. Cue line.
It was the sort of hackneyed schoolteacher humor typical of Beck. While navigating his program’s dominant themes of radical jihadists and Sharia courts, the excitable pundit was known to animate his commentary with peppy, if cringingly square, jocularity. But by 2008, Barack Obama would be elected 44th President of the United States (not Senator Clinton as predicted) and the conservative entertainer would migrate from CNN to Fox News, where the tone of his afflicted energy would rise from a deflated whoopee cushion pitch to sky-is-falling alarm bells. “Antichrist” is a designation that would brand varying abstract threats to the republic. The president, Beck would regularly argue, works alongside an entourage of communist czars and empathizes with enemies of the United States.
Which makes Beck’s perception of Hillary Clinton today compared to the days of his cable news stint a juxtaposition far more bewildering than the descending range of Senator Clinton’s tenor.
In an October 8th Facebook post, Mr. Beck implored his readers against voting for Republican nominee Donald Trump, further suggesting that directly voting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (or indirectly, via third party vote) was a “moral, ethical choice.” He was more blunt Monday in an interview with Vice News correspondent Michael Moynihan.
“It has crossed my mind,” the conservative celebrity confessed on the nightly news program, “to vote for Hillary.”
And when Moynihan raised the possibility that Beck’s rhetorical bombast greased the rails for the Trump Train, The Blaze founder protested, indicting the “political parties lying to the people on both sides.”
It’s true that the prevarication of politicians is a longstanding and bipartisan tradition in American politics. What’s untrue, however, is Mr. Beck’s idea that the rabid sensationalism and conspiratorial conjecture of the Conservative Entertainment Complex is blameless in exciting the muddled populist reflexes, untamed cultural umbrages, and vague “anti-elitism” vengeances that constitute an unignorable share of today’s Republican voting base. The charge of the political system’s scandalous inadequacy is a fair one, but it shouldn’t be confused with the very different charge of exploiting certain frustrations that may have been provoked by the system.
The ex-Fox star fancies himself as a “libertarian,” but it could hardly be said that Beck is recognized by the public eye for extravagant homages to Robert Nozick, preaching the “non-aggression principle,” or delivering withering deconstructions of The Zinn Reader. True, at times Beck devoted corners of his cluttered blackboard to obscure economic concepts, but how is one expected to retain such monotonous information when the United Nations wants to shave off clumps of the population and the District of Columbia has been infiltrated by Luciferian crypto-Alinskyites.
Conspiracy theorizing of this ideological persuasion, like the others, existed long before the advent of terrestrial television. But with Glenn Beck’s entrance to cable news, what was once relegated to pamphlets and shortwave radio was granted a prime time slot for millions of nightly viewers for the first time. Now, the whole family could gather ‘round and learn about One World Government, the erosion of state sovereignty, and how the US intervention in Syria will be precisely the pretext for global governance.
With Donald Trump’s rise as the Republican nominee, disreputable conspiracy theories have been given yet a bigger stage. And after a decade of much of his party’s base being encouraged to credulously adopt them with minimal standards for factual accuracy, conspiracy theories have unprecedented purchase in 2016. Many of us witnessed this Thursday, when Trump spoke in West Palm Beach, accusing Hillary Clinton of conniving with “international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty.”
But such a neurotic worldview has little use if it doesn’t reinforce the urgency of one’s pet causes. Beck, in the protectionist spirit of Pat Buchanan, wishes to reverse any free-trade deal he can name and believes immigration reform to be “the death knell of the country.” If I’m not mistaken, there’s a candidate whose entire campaign was based almost exclusively around these two issues, but his name escapes me.
A voting bloc convinced they’re perennially held back by foreign capitalists and immigrants is a historically unhealthy mood for a democracy. Even more dangerous is said bloc believing wholesale that simplistic (never mind highly debatable) panaceas like “tearing up NAFTA” and sealing up the border will elevate them to their deserved standing.
There were efforts, it should be reiterated, to redirect the right onto a path not so blatantly destructive and predictably self-defeating as the one Fox News partisans and talk radio firebreathers had steered it towards. In 2009, for example, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and National Review editor Reihan Salam co-authored the optimistically titled Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. Atlantic editor David Frum offered his like-minded treatise, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, two years earlier. Reflecting on the stewing blue collar disaffection that failed to translate into McCain votes in 2008, Grand New Party aimed to start a discussion about how to manage these sentiments responsibly and channel them into meaningful political reform. The following year, Glenn Beck rebutted by organizing his “Restoring Honor rally” to reassert Sarah Palin as the answer to conservative disillusion. Palin announced her endorsement of Donald Trump on January 19, 2016.
To be fair, Glenn Beck has used his platform to admonish against Donald Trump for the better part of the election cycle, calling the nominee “a very dangerous man” as early as January. He deserves credit for this. But on the other hand, he’s also christened him with the inapt and intensely Beckian indignity, “the new Saul Alinsky.”
If Glenn Beck’s understanding of how the GOP arrived at Trump is as tenuous as his apprehension of Rules for Radicals, the party he once knew and loved might be further gone than he thinks.