by John Avlon
January 22, 2010 | 4:28pm
Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America. By John Avlon. 304 pages. Beast Books. $15.95.
Before CPAC tapped him for its keynote address, the Fox host’s history was riddled with drugs and mental illness. John Avlon—author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, available now from Beast Books—on how Beck became the Pied Piper of the right for the angry and disenfranchised.
The most anticipated speech at CPAC this year isn’t from a presidential candidate courting the support of the far right—it’s from an ideological entertainer whose emergence from obscurity and subsequent impact on politics rivaled the Tea Parties in 2009: Glenn Beck.
Last year, the Saturday night CPAC keynote speech slot was held by Rush Limbaugh—Beck’s Fox show was only one month old. El Rushbo pronounced the speech his first televised address to the nation, and the Obama resistance caught fire as the Tea Party protests began.
Now the torch has been passed to Beck, a man who a decade ago was just starting his post top-40 DJ career with a talk show broadcast on a single station in Tampa. Today, he is the king of all conservative media, with a hit television show, a nationally syndicated radio program, and five books on the best-seller lists. Now the consummate showman is already promoting a new book, The Plan, which he will debut in August with an open-air rally of followers on the Washington Mall. Will his speech offer a glimpse into his “plan” to take America back from President Obama and what Beck has repeatedly called “the cancer of progressivism”?
One thing is certain: The man is crazy like a fox. The best way to get a sense of where Beck might steer the conservative debate in 2010 is to study his past—it’s a story of ambition and addiction, mixing politics and religion. He recycles old fears with apocalyptic urgency, polarizing for profit, making himself the Pied Piper for a new generation of angry, anxiety-ridden, and alienated Americans.
The most influential Wingnut leader in the first year of the Obama administration wasn’t an elected official. He isn’t even a Republican but an independent conservative—a former Top-40 radio DJ, self-described “borderline schizophrenic”1 and recovering drug addict turned Mormon convert with a taste for confrontation and confession. He presents a manic mix of politics and religion, loftily billed as “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.”2
In the course of a few years, Glenn Beck has transformed himself from a talk-radio curiosity into a multimedia cottage industry, with a nationally syndicated radio show, 5 p.m. Fox News program, a magazine, and five books—both fiction and nonfiction—on the bestseller lists.3 Behind his tearful Mad Hatter act, the man is crazy like a fox—a talented and intelligent radio artist, an entrepreneur of anxiety and redemption. His loyal customers constitute a standing army, and he has already proven they can be deployed at will to the tune of tens of thousands.
“We ♥ Glenn Beck” read a sign at the 9/12 Tea Party rally on the Washington Mall. Each letter was spelled out stadium-style on an individual placard with an American flag filling out the heart. The group holding the placards was clustered under a parchment-colored banner that read “Rainy Day Patriots: We the People Fighting to Restore Our Constitutional Republic.” Other evidence of his influence dotted the crowd in the form of signs and hand-painted T-shirts: “Answer Glenn Beck’s Questions,” “God Bless Glenn Beck” and “Glenn Beck is my Hero.”
This was a something of a hometown crowd for Beck. He had single-handedly proposed the rally on air months before, telling them they were “the only thing standing between slavery and freedom,” and more than 50,000 citizens came from across the country.4 No member of Congress could have compelled the same draw.
Over the week of Thanksgiving 2009, Beck came up with a new cause to coincide with the launch of an upcoming book—The Plan—in August 2010. With his ambition hitting new heights, Beck announced the creation of a new political movement, part Meet John Doe and part Father Coughlin, complete with public education seminars. “Today, I have stopped looking for a leader to show us the way out,” Beck declared, “because I have come to realize that the only one who can truly save our country … is us.”5
Echoes of Obama’s “We are the change we have been waiting for” aside, self-empowerment is the theme that runs throughout Beckology. Like a classic evangelical preacher who connects with his audience by detailing his days of sin and depravity, Beck uses humor and self-deprecation to sell his own story of salvation through a return to personal responsibility. Beck comes armed with the dry drunk’s distrust of the middle ground in life and politics, where everything is good versus evil, conservatives versus “the cancer of progressivism,” George Washington versus Barack Obama. But in the duel of opposites, nothing compares to the struggle between Good Beck and Bad Beck.
The Good Beck genuinely cares about people and this country. It’s one of the things that makes him so emotional on air.
The Bad Beck is such a talented broadcaster that he knows how to manipulate an audience’s emotions. He uses fear, anger and resentment to keep their attention day after day, buying his books, attending his rallies.
The two coexist uneasily under the justification that the Bad Beck promotes the Good Beck. He is advancing himself in order to advance a greater cause.
To understand Beck’s political appeal, you need a window into his personal life, a story of small-town values remembered from broadcast studios in the skyscrapers of Manhattan. He grew up in Mount Vernon, Washington, a town of 15,000 in those days, perhaps best known as the tulip-bulb capital of America. His dad, William, ran a bakery called the Sweet Tooth and the family attended the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. The town was populated by descendents of Scandinavian immigrants and provided a vision of small-town “real America” that Beck would riff off for decades to come and provide the title for his first book.
But bucolic visions always obscure a more complicated reality. In addition to tulips, Mount Vernon was earning a reputation as the leading marijuana producer in the Pacific Northwest. Nor were things as they seemed on the surface in Beck’s family. His mom, Mary, wrestled with addiction and manic depression, leading to a marital split and her death by drowning, which police called an accident but Beck believes was a suicide.
Before she died, Mary gave Glenn a present that would illuminate his life’s path: a record collection of classic radio broadcasts called The Golden Age of Radio. “I was mesmerized by the magic radio was,” Beck remembers, “how it could create pictures in my head.”6 He became a student of the art form, idolizing pioneers like Orson Welles and practicing his radio voice into a tape recorder in his bedroom.
By the time he was a junior in high school, Beck was commuting to Seattle by bus every weekend to broadcast on a local FM rock station. He was also on the road to smoking pot every day for the next 15 years (by his own estimation) and spinning records by the late ’70s white-bread rock troika of Cheap Trick, Supertramp and Electric Light Orchestra.
Rock ’n’ roll radio would be Glenn Beck’s university. By 1983, at the age of 19, Beck was the youngest morning radio-show host in the nation, broadcasting from the military enclave of Corpus Christie, Texas. He was a one-man Morning Zoo, with on-air skits and imaginary guests like a clueless Muppet-voiced foil Beck named “Clydie Clyde,” which still appears in his act.
Beck’s mentor and manager at the station was a former Marine and surfing Mormon named Jim Sumpter. “I never had a doubt that Glenn was headed for huge things,” Sumpter told me on the phone from his radio studio in Florida, “but I didn’t see any indication of an interest in politics. I never for a moment dreamt that Glenn was, based on his lifestyle choices, a political conservative. If you asked me if Glenn would have ever been on the cover of Time magazine I would have asked you what you were smoking.”
Beck was channeling the decade of excess, doing cocaine, driving a DeLorean, and cultivating a collection of thin ties. He played the fool but did not suffer fools. “When we were in Texas, Glenn hated Texans, hated ’em,” Sumpter said. “Now he talks about how he just loves the people in Texas. He used to make fun of them—their belt buckles, the chunky jewelry, I mean the whole deal. And he just hated Mormons.”
It wasn’t just Mormons. Beck’s self-described mantra at the time was “I hate people.” Despite occasionally sharing the mic with a chimp named Zippy, despair was seeping in and Beck’s mood swings were alienating colleagues; one remembered him as “a sadist, the kind of guy who rips the wings off flies.” His competitive edge could certainly contain a cruel streak. When he faced off against a former friend in the Phoenix market, Beck called up the man’s wife on air after she had a miscarriage and mocked his friend-turned-rival, saying it was evidence that he couldn’t do anything right—he couldn’t even have a baby.7
Beck’s own personal life was suffering. His first marriage was crumbling and a daughter was born with cerebral palsy. Amid drug use and manic behavior, Beck wrestled with suicidal fantasies, writing later, “There was a bridge abutment in Louisville, Kentucky, that had my name on it. … Every day I prayed for the strength to be able to drive my car at 70 mph into that bridge abutment. I’m only alive today because (a) I’m too cowardly to kill myself … and (b) I’m too stupid.”8
By his late twenties, the onetime radio wunderkind had burned most professional bridges and found himself working at a radio station in New Haven, Connecticut, a comparative Siberia from previous postings. Divorced and with drug use and alcoholism spiraling out of control, Beck hit bottom. He went to his first AA meeting in 1994 and began a skeptic’s search for faith, starting with a self-taught great books seminar that included tomes from Hitler, Carl Sagan, and Pope John Paul II and culminating with his baptism into the Mormon Church.
Personal rebirth was followed by professional rebirth. Clean, sober and remarried, Beck was tiring of the bubble-gum Top-40 morning-zoo format. Talk-radio icons like Rush Limbaugh and WABC’s race-baiting Bob Grant were his on-air idols now. Beck began peppering his banter with political references and pushing executives for a talk show to call his own. In January 2000, the Glenn Beck show debuted in Tampa Bay. “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.”9
In 2006, CNN’s Headline News brought him to cable television to host a political talk show from an independent perspective. But Beck chafed against the billing and enjoyed only middling ratings. He was liberated by an offer from Fox News and the election of Barack Obama.
He debuted on Fox News the night before Obama’s inauguration, and he came out swinging. Sarah Palin was among the first night’s guests and within weeks Beck was pumping up “the Road to Communism” and offering “Comrade Updates,” declaring “the destruction of the West is happening”10 and that “the president is a Marxist … who is setting up a class system.”11
Sometimes he pivoted his imagery to the right, saying “the government is a heroin pusher using smiley-faced fascism to grow the nanny state”12 and claiming that “the federal government is slowly drifting into fascism.” Other times he indulged both sides of the spectrum, as on April 2, when Beck asked, “Is this where we’re headed?” and showed images of Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin.13
Beck’s opposition to the health-care bill in the summer of ’09 hit all the bases. First there was fascism, as in the “[health-care] system is going to come out the other side dictatorial—it’s going to come out a fascist state.”14 Then there was health care as “good old socialism … raping the pocketbooks of the rich to give to the poor.”15 And finally, race: “The health-care bill is reparations. It’s the beginning of reparations.”16
Beck’s ratings soared, and his credibility was bolstered by on-air investigations into Obama personnel like “green jobs czar” Van Jones, who had in fact once described himself as a communist and signed a 9/11 Truther petition calling for an investigation into whether President Bush had known in advance about the attacks of September 11th. Beck hammered home the story while other news outlets resisted it. Jones ultimately resigned. Beck had both a scoop and a scalp.
Beck’s newfound firebrand politics and effectiveness in driving the news cycle had some old friends scratching their heads. “I never got the impression that Glenn is as naturally curious as he appears to be to be bringing the information forward that he is,” said Jim Sumpter. “I don’t know if Glenn’s being fed or if Glenn’s really the driving force. I have no idea. If he’s the driving force, that’s a Glenn Beck I never saw. If he’s being fed, then the showmanship that goes into all of this is classic Beck. Now if Glenn is the showman and the driving force behind bringing the information to the forefront, then, then I think we’re probably looking at near genius in terms of what he’s doing … [but] I don’t think this is Glenn. The catalyst in this thing is not Glenn. Glenn’s the vehicle, not the catalyst.”
Catalyst or not, Beck was hitting all the Wingnut themes with perfect pitch. When Iowa’s court legalized gay marriage, Beck declared, “I believe this case is actually about going into churches, and going in and attacking churches and saying, ‘You can’t teach anything else.’”17 To nervous gun-rights advocates, he asserted that Obama “will slowly but surely take away your gun or take away your ability to shoot a gun, carry a gun.”18
He brought avowed secessionists on his show and gave them an interested hearing. Beck drew the widest denunciations when he called President Obama “a racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people.”19
An advertiser boycott began, but the zealotry of his advocates more than compensated as yet another Beck book went up the charts in 2009. First there was Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government and then Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big
Government, featuring Beck leering on the cover in a Soviet-style commissar’s uniform.
In the books, as on air, it’s always a wrestling match between the Good Beck—humorous, self-effacing and calling on a higher power for a sense of purpose—and the Bad Beck, peddling political apocalypse, the opinion equivalent of a horror film: “We are a country that is headed towards socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest imagination.”20 “There is a coup going on. There is a stealing of America … done through the guise of an election.”21
Beck’s message resonates beyond Main Street and the Tea Party protests. Down in the white-supremacy cesspool of Stormfront.org, some contributors thought they recognized a fellow traveler. “Glen [sic] Beck can be useful,” wrote SS_marching. “When Glen beck said ‘Obama Has A Deep-Seated Hatred For White People’ he is able to reach a much wider audience than we can. They will [be] predisposed to the idea and the next time Obama pushes an anti-white policy they will see it as such.”22
Frequent Stormfront poster Thor357 sees Beck as a recruiting tool: “I have talked to 6 people in two days because Glenn Beck woke them up, it’s amazing how angry they are. They are pissing fire over Obama, this is a good thing. Now I educate them.”23
Carolina Patriot poster takes a down-home view: “Every now and again when an infomercial takes the place of hunting or fishing, I’ll turn over to Glenn Beck if he’s on and watch his show. Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes it is informed, and sometimes, I think he comes to [Stormfront] to steal show ideas.”24
QHelios gives Beck the benefit of the doubt: “By no means do I think [Beck] is aware of the racial issue, and for the moment that is ok … He is stirring the pot, and I thank him for that.”25
CORRECTION: This article originally misidentified Stormfront.org for Stormfront.com, a Web site for the game studio Stormfront Studios. This version has been corrected.
1. Glenn Beck, The Real America, page 2., Pocket Books, 2005
6. Beck, The Real America, p. 194.
8. Beck, The Real America, p. 53.
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