How Glenn Beck Laid the Tracks for the Trump Train
Not so long ago, a TV talker built a political movement of well-off white supporters prone to conspiracy theories about unaccountable elites draining America’s former greatness.
On August 28, 2010 Glenn Beck staged a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Dubbed the Restoring Honor rally, Beck opened his address by calling for America to restore said honor by “turning our faith back to the values and the principles that made us great.”
Rally attendance estimates ranged anywhere from 80,000 to 500,000 (NBC News reported 300,000), a discrepancy Beck immediately focused on: “I heard the media estimates on the crowd size. The first one was there’s tens of thousands of people here. I think the latest I heard were two. I heard over three hundred thousand and I heard over five hundred thousand. And if that’s coming from the media, God only knows how many.” God only knows.
By the time I attended that rally, I’d logged so many hours watching and writing about Glenn Beck as a staff writer for the media website Mediaite that I had no trouble mingling with the crowds of people that had come to hear him. I recall noting, as I weaved my way through the masses in oppressive August heat, that nearly everyone in attendance was white, largely from the middle of the country, and financially solvent enough to fly to DC for the weekend, often with their entire family. They had not, as some of Beck’s coverage may have suggested, been drawn mostly from the economic and cultural fringes.
Those crowds have been very much on my mind in the weeks after last month’s election. Perhaps the only thing the country can agree on with regards to Trump’s victory is that it was shocking (for him as well, according to many reports). And yet as the reality settled in and the numbers began to emerge certain aspects of it began to take on a sense of déjà vu.
Much has been written about Trump’s success with white working class voters, largely because this is where Hillary, despite winning the majority of voters with incomes less than $30,000, lost ground from 2012. But it’s useful to remember that Trump also won the majority of all white voters making over $50,000. This citizenry may not have been front and center in much of the coverage leading up to, or in the aftermath of the election—indeed few polls or even heated reports from Trump rallies seemed to catch them—but they were very visible on the Mall on that August day IN 2010. And they had a great appetite for Beck’s message: that America’s greatest days were behind it, and the media was not telling us the true story about anything. When Trump threw his hat in the ring with a nearly identical message five years later, it was not falling un untrained ears.
When Beck held his rally, few failed to note that it fell on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream Speech, held in the same location 47 years earlier. Beck himself made a well-publicized point to invite Alveda King, MLK’s niece and former GOP state senator from Georgia, and give her a speaking slot. Less noted was the fact that then-Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama had also held his convention acceptance speech in Denver on the same day two years earlier. Between the staging and the date and the crowd size it seemed very clear that Beck was eager to both place himself in the pantheon of iconic American leaders, as well as the main opposition to then barely two-year-old candidacy of Barack Obama.
Certainly with regards to that latter, he had been doing just that since his FOX News show had launched on Jan 19, 2009, the day before Obama formally took office. That the network run by former Nixon advisor Roger Ailes had set itself up as Obama’s main opposition party was no secret, but for the first few years Beck, with his specific calls to “return” America to its glory days, and his penchant for unpredictability on air (in 2010, he famously turned to the camera during a live interview with Congressman Eric “tickle fight” Massa, who was under fire for sexual misconduct, and apologized to America: “I think I’ve wasted your time.”) was its loudest, most compelling voice.
For a long time, the mainstream media, for lack of a better term, treated him with deep skepticism and barely veiled contempt. Beck is a genius entertainer, there is no question—he was by far the most purely talented entertainer on TV at the time (something both Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow conceded in their otherwise scathing coverage) but to many, his outrageous pronouncements, racially loaded language and complicated chalkboarded conspiracy theories were reflective of the same fringe element firing up the Tea Party, and not to be taken seriously. His mind-boggling numbers should have belied this. In 2010 his ratings regularly beat Sean Hannity’s enviably situated 9PM show, and even rivaled longtime FOX king Bill O’Reilly. When I began as a media reporter in 2009, having rarely spent any time watching cable news, and never having heard of Beck, it was these numbers as much as Beck’s antics that compelled me. Could a person really be that crazily outside the mainstream if this many people were tuning in at 5 p.m.?
The answer, we now know is no. Beck, who in very typical Beck fashion (he has never been a party-line toe-er, nor had much compunction about publicly changing his mind), has recently taken a hard left turn against Trump and for, among other things, groups like Black Lives Matter. He’s been embraced by the mainstream—including the New Yorker, NPR, Charlie Rose and the Atlantic—as a sort of emissary from the other side who, under the cloak of redemption (and America loves nothing more than a redemption story) can both justify half the country’s horror at what has taken place, while at the same time offer some insight into the thinking behind Trump supporters.
The truth is, though, it was Beck before he became tolerable to the NPRs of the world, that may be the best predictor of what Trump voters admire and tolerate: showmanship, explosiveness that can be interpreted as authenticity, paranoia, conspiracy, a deep hatred of “the media,” and a deep-seated fear of the future. None of this is news, but it is a reminder that we’ve seen this show before.
Of course, Beck was not elected leader of the free world (though we may soon wish he had been as he, at the very least, has a deep grasp on the Constitution). Even so, it may be worth considering, even as some of us are laboring under the sensation that we are being plunged uncontrollably into a dark abyss, what happened to Beck.
The phrase “Going Rogue” was one made popular by Sarah Palin, mostly as an attempt to cover up her ineptitude as a candidate. During his time at FOX, however, Beck was doing the real thing. His bonanza ratings, a boon to the network early on, began to make people at FOX News’ tightly run ship very nervous. FOX’s famously vigilant PR team could not exert the control over him they demanded from all employees. In fact, Beck kept a separate team outside the network in the form of Matt Hiltzik, the uber-powerful New York PR person who had worked for Hillary Clinton’s team when she ran for the U.S. Senate (and won) and now calls Ivanka Trump a client.
It was not unusual, particularly in the latter half of 2010, when Beck announced his rally plan, for me to get subtly-phrased PR from FOX undermining Beck. It was fairly clear FOX, despite the numbers Beck was bringing in, was only interested in allowing him so long a leash before they felt it in their interests to cut it entirely. To be sure, nine months later, Beck announced his departure and a few months after that, his plan to start his own online channel, Blaze TV, which while successful by any measure of independent media start-ups, lacks the clout of the FOX establishment.
That Donald Trump is currently running rogue with American democracy is an increasingly terrifying reality. And yet, even as he surrounds himself with a mix of outsiders, and deep establishment characters one wonders how long before the GOP establishment, which currently runs all the houses, cuts the leash—and how much damage will be done in the meantime.
One thing we can be sure of: There’s little chance Trump will ever turn to the camera and apologize to America for wasting our time. In a perfect world, that’s all he’ll end up doing.