The Magazine

The Education of Glenn Beck


On April 9, 2010, Newsweek ran an article entitled simply "Hate." In it the magazine called Fox News host Glenn Beck "the master purveyor of...[a] particular brand of sly paranoia" and attempted to link him to antigovernment and militia organizations. Another article in the same magazine argued that Beck validates liberals' worst fears about conservatives -- that they're "hyperbolic, demagogic, irrational, and slightly unhinged." Chris Matthews has stated that Beck's show is the one he can be sure he'd never go on and Cookie Roberts once called him "worse than a clown" and "more like a terrorist." Time Magazine's Joe Klein has accused Beck of coming close to committing sedition.

Even people usually silent about politics have trouble restraining themselves when Beck's name comes up.  To James Cameron, he's a "madman" and a "fucking asshole." The science magazine Discover referred to him as "an idiot." According to the Washington Post, over 200 advertisers are involved in a boycott of Beck's Fox News show.    

Whence this hatred? In popular imagination, right-wing talk show and radio hosts tend to get lumped together. But Beck has touched a nerve and causes anger beyond anything that O'Reilly, Hannity, or even Limbaugh have inspired. As much as he's drawn the Establishment's wrath, Beck has become a cult hero among many on the American Right. As an author, he's hit #1 on The New York Times Bestseller List in four different categories. In 2010 he was invited to give the keynote address at CPAC.

Explaining the unique hatred of Beck tells us as much about the elites as it does about the Fox host. For he is the only nationally known pundit, with the exception of Pat Buchanan (who lacks as big of a following), who challenges the beliefs that are presumed to be held by all "reasonable" people.

For all their supposed love of "diversity," those accepted into polite company share virtually the exact some view of American history -- it's a morality tale. Everyone considered mainstream believes that the Civil War, World War I, and World War II were worth fighting. Centralization of power in Washington, D.C. has saved Americans from segregation, poverty and exploitation, while it's rescued the world from fascism and Communism. Liberals tend to focus more on the heroic former story and conservatives the latter, but in both narratives there is the theme of the American government as the force behind humanity's slow moral, economic and social deliverance. Glenn Beck has emerged as the most well known challenger of this dogma.

When Glenn Beck started becoming known as a national figure in the early 2000s, there seemed to be little that separated him from traditional right-wing talk radio hosts. He was safe enough to get a TV show on CNN in 2006 before moving to Fox less than three years later. Over this time his views have evolved to the point where to the Left and acceptable Right he's no longer simply another blowhard but a danger to the Establishment which aims to keep all political discourse within a narrow box.    

Beck's first book, The Real America: Early Writings from the Heart and Heartland, was published in 2003.  There's nothing in there that couldn't have come from the pen of Sean Hannity: mostly peans to the free market and the idea of personal responsibility. There is none of the revisionist history that characterizes the current Beck and the foreign-policy views are standard Republican.

Real America stated that the U.S. was in the process of changing the face of the Middle East, like we did in Germany and Japan. After the Second World War, many said of the Japanese, "You'll never be able to change those people."  Those who doubted the Bush doctrine were on the wrong side of history, as were critics of FDR and Truman.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, America must "plant the seeds of democracy and water them with security and commerce in surrounding countries." 

In a postscript to the 2005 edition, the author is relieved that Bush, who Beck assured us "does wake up every morning worrying about our safety," was able to win a second term against John Kerry. Beck lists 12 questions that the voter needed to ask himself before voting in that election. Seven of them had something to do with wars in the Middle East or terrorism, the common theme being that the United States needed to be tough enough to prevail over its enemies.  Finally, Real America includes this incredible jaw dropper.

For those who are crying that America is building an empire, I ask you to point to the U.S. occupying forces in the former Axis power countries. You can't, because they don't exist. We don't occupy -- we ask for just enough ground to bury our dead.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military men and women stationed overseas might be surprised to learn that they do not exist. 

By the time of his 2009 book, Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government, Beck revealed himself as a man more scared of his government than al Qaeda. Here, Beck doesn't devote a single chapter to the War on Terror or the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It's unlikely that the topics slipped his mind; he must've realized that what he now thought about these wars wouldn't sell well with an American conservative audience... The chapters of Idiots are, in order, "In Defense of Capitalism," "The Second Amendment," "Education," "America's Energy Future," "Unions," "Illegal Immigration," "The Nanny State," "Owning a Home," "Economics 101," "U.S. Presidents," "Universal Healthcare," and "The U.S. Constitution." 

The chapter on presidents attacks three progressive heroes: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Teddy, a role model to John McCain and Karl Rove, said things that could've come from the platform of the Socialist party: "Every man, holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it."

The economically and historically literate understand that every government "solution" to a problem creates new ones.  The 1906 Hepburn Act gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the power to set railroad rates. The value of railroad securities collapsed due to this price fixing and this in turn led to the bank panic of 1907.  To deal with this supposed failure of capitalism the Roosevelt administration set up the National Monetary Commission, which a few years later morphed into the Federal Reserve.  

Beck is even more scathing in his section on Woodrow Wilson. While granting that many would consider him one of the 10 greatest presidents of all time, to Beck he was one of the "Top Ten Bastards of All Time." The 28th president was able to fulfill a "constitutional rape fantasy" while in office and violated the First Amendment in ways never seen before or since in American history.  

Beck actually spells out who the bastards are in order: Woodrow Wilson, Tiger Woods, FDR, Pontius Pilate, Keith Olbermann, Adolf Hitler, Bernie Madoff, Teddy Roosevelt, Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot.  This list appears on the same page on which he talks about Wilson being the father of the principle of a "living constitution" and going against the American tradition of foreign non-interventionism. Beck's series of serious and unapologetically made non-standard historical arguments brushes up side by side with his sheer goofiness, which is quite frustrating for those who want the former to be taken seriously.

The worst of the progressive presidents now worshiped by the Establishment was probably FDR. Seeing in print what he had in mind for his "Second Bill of Rights" is truly horrifying. For example, there's "the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living," "the right of every family to a decent home," and "the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation." No, socialism in America didn't start with Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, Beck's criticisms of Wilson and FDR ignore two gigantic elephants in the room: World War I and World War II.  To the modern conservative movement, wedded to the idea of the American empire as the embodiment of the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the interventionism of these two presidents overshadows any domestic sins they may have committed. Beck, by naming them two of his three greatest bastards ever, obviously doesn't share this worldview. His silence on their foreign policies is telling.

The extent to which Beck and the Establishment are speaking a different language can be seen not only in the viciousness of his critics, but in how his arguments sometimes go over their heads. For example, David Frum finds the FOX host's anti-Wilson crusade strange and acknowledges that though the president's preparation for and management of the First World War left much to be desired, "none of this is exactly the stuff of urgent current concern." That someone may think that fighting the war in the first place wasn't in the nation's interests never crosses Frum's mind. Though in his defense, Beck rarely explicitly spells out that this is his position. Still, for those of us still able to think outside the Establishment box, it's impossible avoid the inference.

Beck's 2010 speech to CPAC opened with him saying "I have to tell you, I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me." He then went on to criticize the man's policies, even the creation of the Federal Reserve and entry into World War I.

So, uh, Woodrow Wilson gets in and he gives us the Fed. How's that working out for us, huh? So he gives us the Fed. Then he gives us the -- let's remember this America -- progressive income tax. He gives us the income tax... Then he promised he wasn't going to get us into war, because they're a party of peace -- peace and progress -- and we went right to World War I.

Also notable is no reference to the dangers of terrorism, the need to fight to the finish in Afghanistan or a defense of torture. The speaker says almost off-handedly, "We don't need to export democracy," as if the belief that we did need to export democracy hadn't become the definition of a conservative to Frum and his ilk.  

Beck taking up the issue of the Federal Reserve is interesting in that it is another topic on which his views differ from those of the mainstream. The traditional story says that America had a history of booms and busts that were devastating until smart people in Washington figured out how to engineer the economy through tweaking the money supply and made sure things never got too bad.  Once again, the themes are that lack of control is bad and Washington intervention is benign and necessary.  Libertarian and Austrian economists beg to differ, believing fractional reserve banking to be the cause of booms and busts to be the natural and necessary corrections to the original fraud.  People who tend to think for themselves on one issue tend to start thinking for themselves on others, too. The chattering classes can only tolerate so much individualism. 

On April 15,  Beck went against the standard conservative/liberal consensus position once again when he did an entire show on the need to cut defense spending. Although six years ago Beck didn't even know America was still occupying the old Axis Powers, today he is, to my knowledge, the most famous national talk show host on the Left or Right calling for an American troop withdrawal from Korea, Japan, and Germany. The show of that day begins with the host acknowledging that he's changed his mind on some things and that terrorists have legitimate gripes against the American government and ends with his laughing with a guest from the Cato Institute over the idea that America is in Afghanistan in order to ensure progressive social change.

A regular guest host the Glenn Beck show has been Judge Andrew Napolitano, who was also at CPAC and said about his fellow attendees, "If that crowd in that other room roared for Dick Cheney they don't even belong in the same building as those that love freedom." Beck has put the Judge'sLies the Government Told You: Myth, Power and Deception in American History on his recommended reading list. Lie #14: "Your Boys Are Not Going to Be Sent into Any Foreign Wars," a quote from FDR before he began working to bring America into World War II.  Napolitano accuses Woodrow Wilson of having wanted Americans to die on a British liner in order to justify intervening in World War I and even goes after Abraham Lincoln and the accepted history of the Civil War. He writes of FDR's efforts to provoke Japan into attacking the United States at a time when 90 percent of the American population was antiwar.  

The foreword to Lies was written by none other than Ron Paul. The Texas Congressman and Beck have an interesting history. During the 2008 Republican primaries the Fox host compared followers of Paul to terrorists. By September 2009 he was apologizing to libertarians for having called himself a libertarian back when he was a conventional Republican on foreign policy and said, "The more history that I read the more I realize how right the libertarians have been."  Beck even wished for a time machine so he could go back to when he was calling Paul a "crackpot" and reexamine the old issues. Today, the Texas Congressman and his son Rand are regular guests on Glenn Beck.

In addition to his unconventional views on foreign policy and the Fed, Beck has caught the media's attention with his sympathy for federalist and even secessionist arguments. John Avlon in Wingnuts quotes him thus can't convince me that the founding fathers wouldn't allow you to secede... [I]f a state says, I don't want to go there ... they have a right to back out.  They have a right ... I sign into the Union, and I can never get out, no matter what the government does?  I can never get out? Well that leaves only one other option. That doesn't seem like a very good option.

Avlon doesn't argue that the Founders actually would say the Union must survive always and forever regardless of circumstances. We're supposed to automatically know that these are horrible thoughts to have. Liberal Establishment websites Media Matters and Think Progress found these comments equally shocking. Unsurprisingly, the only so-called conservative website as upset as the Left at any suggestion of the merits of decentralization of power is Frum Forum.

On the surface of it, the Left's "don't go there" attitude with regards to states' rights seems to make little sense. Sure, it was the government in Washington that took the anti-slavery and anti-segregationist positions and the defenders of federalism who supported slavery and Jim Crow.  But that's a peculiarity of American history; it has nothing to do with the inherent deficiencies or merits of local control.  

We can see the twin explanations of the worship of the Washington government: in Establishment historiography, it is the American federal government that has been responsible for destroying evil abroad and racism at home. It's no wonder that history is seen as a march towards equality and goodness: if the American elites thought there was still absolute evil in the world they would've used their centralized control over the most powerful country in world history to stomp it out a long time ago. Bush was able to get The New York Times and The New Republic to support the Iraq War by presenting it as a chapter of the story of Washington redeeming the world. As the two wars we're currently engaged in have devolved into quagmires the Left has become more ambivalent about them; they could keep themselves excited about reforming the "racist" South for generations and spend decades fuming about German anti-democratic tendencies but quickly lost interests in fixing a nonwhite civilization. 

The Establishment has made war against Glenn Beck not because of his tone. They sense that he's not simply a more obnoxious Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly. Beck presents an alternative view of history, which contradicts the court version and frightens liberals and neocons alike.  Unlike mainstream conservatives, who are always opposing the next expansion of federal power while assuring us that all major projects undertaken by Washington up to today have been benign, Glenn Beck is out there educating the public that government intervention didn't just become evil during the last Democratic Congress.  His crusade may also develop into a war against the hawkish conservative view that sets up the false dichotomy between the Federal government's historical foreign and domestic acts and deems the former morally necessary and the latter as the road to serfdom.  

Glenn Beck's rise and the Establishment's fear of him shed light on the terms of the neocon/liberal alliance. Both sides tell one another, "We'll let you use the state for your purposes if you let us use it for ours." Few pictures symbolize this agreement better than the April 2010 cover of The Atlantic. There's a picture of President Obama with the words "Why He's Right" next to his head. Under this is the phrase "on the economy" and under that "on Afghanistan," with the latter article having been written by neocon Robert Kaplan. It's not an accident that the one place the president has disappointed his base is in the only area where the Left is calling for less government: foreign policy. That's the kind of bipartisanship the elites applaud.  

With Obama in the White House Beck's differences with mainstream conservatives aren't very salient. Things will get real interesting when the country's most popular talk show host is forced to take sides between a President Liz Cheney calling for war with Iran and a Senator Rand Paul speaking out against her. There's little doubt where Beck's heart will be in such a scenario. The question is whether at that point he'll devolve back into another partisan hack or find the same courage he relied on to go from being an alcoholic to one of the most well known faces in America. One hopes that the statists on the Right find Glenn Beck just as dangerous as those on the Left do today.