Ezra Klein once shrewdly described Dick Armey this way: “He’s like a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.” Tweaking his sentence, I would say that Glenn Beck is a stupid person’s idea of what an ethical public figure sounds like. (Just like Justin Bieber is a tweener’s idea of what a good singer sounds like.)
I forced myself to listen to Glenn Beck’s speechifying at Whitestock this past weekend. Beck’s entire shtick is based on presenting a character who is earnest and earnestly distressed by what he perceives as the harmful direction of the nation he loves; everything about his style – his relatively unassuming attire, his sincere sounding delivery, even the addition of his slightly professorial eyeglasses is designed to create the impression of an honest, trustworthy figure. Even in his interview with fellow Fox news propaganadist Chris Wallace, Beck portrayed himself as a humble, trustworthy, ethical man, someone who is just so pained by what he sees going wrong in America. (Here’s a link to part of that interview.) Watch Beck’s body language throughout the interview, listen to what he says. He has created a persona that is (at least superficially) very humble and almost achinginly earnest:
Wallace: “Do you regret having called [Obama] a racist and saying he had a deep seated hatred for white people?”
Beck: “Of course I do. I don’t want to retract the, um … I want to amend that I think it is much more of a theological question, that he is a guy who understands the world through liberation theology, which is oppressor-and-victim. ‘Racist,’ first of all, it shouldn’t have been said. It was poorly said. I have a big fat mouth sometimes and I say things. That’s just not the way people should behave. And it was not accurate. It is liberation theology that has shaped his world view.”
This single passage is illuminating. Notice the circumlocutions in his language to avoid actually apologizing. He brings up liberation theology and to say his understanding of it is incredibly shallow is an understatement but it’s also part of the persona – he’s someone who is just so distressed and he’s gone off and studied hard to understand what has gone wrong with America and as he studying more he’s learning more. He used to think Obama was a racist now he understands he’s enamored of liberation theology. He’s learned more and better from his studies and now he knows better. Again and again, this narrative reappears from conservatives “At first I didn’t understand, then I went and read/studied and now I see . . .”
For people who are suffering – who see the jobs disappearing, who see what they perceive as a world spinning out of control, who believe their deepest values have been displaced by something alien – Glenn Beck is a comforting figure. His stylized delivery (reminiscent of a Mormon Fast and Testimony meaning) with his even tones and steady heartfelt gaze, his sensitive sounding voice, even his richly mocked crying jags, create the public persona of a man who is at his core trustworthy, someone who simply could not be lying.
His appeal to his audience makes sense when you see that aspect of it – even his periodic tirades come across as moral outrage, as the desperate anger of someone who sees the truth and is not being listened to; unlike El Rushbo or Bill O whose rantings can be scary, Beck’s tirades are comforting because they are about something.
A sizable number of Americans are turned off by both the real and perceived corruption of our politics and political discourse. They don’t like politicians who pander (even as they vote for them), they don’t like the seemingly endless parade of pols who say one thing but who obviously do another (and yet continue to vote for them). Some Americans were actually shocked by Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct – “Presidents don’t act that way.” These same folks saw the Bush administration’s corruption and scandals as the needful actions of a strong father figure. Even as they accept Sarah Palin and her dysfunctional family, they yearn for a leader who actually lives out the values he/she proclaims and whose family actually looks like the model family they want for themselves.
Beck offers an ethical public persona – he talks about his faith, he talks about ethics; even his risible chalk board routine is part of the shtick, he’s trying to communicate to his audience and this is a plain spoken way of doing it, no fancy computers graphics for him. The chalkboard routine deliberately invokes a cultural metaphor that is comforting – the teacher at the chalkboard sharing their knowledge.
Yes, I know and you know Glenn Beck is a shyster and charlatan. He’s in this game to sell his books, his DVD’s, his various products and to laugh all the way to the bank. He’s an honest and upfront grifter whose found an audience of willing dupes who are more than happy to shovel money into his pockets because they need one another. His audience wants to believe, needs to believe, that there is honor, integrity, dignity in public life. (There’s also a mythic aspect behind Whitestock that I’ll deal with later).
Beck’s fans and the folks who showed up at his rally this weekend know they’re being taken for a ride and they are willing to go on that ride because they want the product their being sold. They want to believe that there is still honor in public life. There’s no real difference between Beck’s fans buying his “honor” and Justin Bieber’s screaming tweeners who believe he is singing about their lives and understands them.