Glenn Beck and the Angry Style of American Politics reads the line under Time ’s current cover subject, the talk show host/author/provocateur who has lately so energized the conservative base. The headline inside gets more specific: Mad Man: Is Glenn Beck Bad for America? While the piece is scrupulously moderate in tone, no one will not be surprised to learn that Time answers its own question with a resounding “Yes!”
Beck is a “gifted entrepreneur of angst in a white-hot market . . . a man with his ear uniquely tuned to the precise frequency at which anger, suspicion and the fear that no one’s listening all converge,” as writer David Von Drehle puts it. “As melodrama, it’s thumping good stuff. But as politics, it’s sort of a train wreck—at once powerful, spellbinding and uncontrolled.”
Reading the piece, the conscientious Time reader will doubtless experience a keen sense of déjà vu—in fact, déjà, déjà vu. Like its brethren in the rapidly declining mainstream media, Time has long looked unkindly upon prominent conservatives and over the years has examined a number of them with the same mix of fascination and horror. Time’s cover line for January 13, 1995: IS RUSH LIMBAUGH GOOD FOR AMERICA? You can guess the answer.
This is hardly coincidental. Back then as now, a charismatic Democratic president, much esteemed by the press, was being challenged daily—and in key ways undermined—by a hugely popular conservative host, able to rally the opposition in ways that no conservative politician could, or, frankly, given the incoming flak from the varied powerful forces aligned with the president, would have wanted to. Like Limbaugh before him, Beck has grown too powerful to ignore.
But the comparison goes further. Even more than Limbaugh, whose style, in contrast, is positively genteel, Beck is viewed with embarrassed disdain by some of his ideological allies. Alternatively intense, comic, histrionic, now ranting, now exhorting viewers to “question boldly” or “follow me,” occasionally even moving himself to tears, Beck is, one conservative friend of mine flatly says, “an embarrassment, a clown.” In the angst he induces among certain conservatives, Beck can even rival Sarah Palin.
But, of course, there’s a key difference. Beck does not seek power; he seeks to expose its abuse. And in this, in the Age of Obama and a too-compliant media, he has proven extraordinarily successful. Were it not for Beck and his constant running of the videos exposing Van Jones as a crackpot racist conspiracy theorist, for example, few people probably would have heard of Obama’s “green jobs czar,” whose troubles the New York Times did not even deign to cover until after he had to resign. And Beck’s relentless exposure of the Acorn sting tapes, following his long campaign against that organization, brought widespread attention to the depth of Acorn’s corruption.
Indeed, it’s an excellent bet that the liberal journalists now wringing their hands about Beck, decrying his malign influence, would never have reported on the Acorn controversy, either, were it not for Beck and others on Fox—just as ABC’s Charlie Gibson, in his patrician above-it-allness, claimed ignorance of the story even after conservative viewers and listeners had been following it closely for more than a week.
Quite simply, at a time when conservatives find themselves so far out of power that all they can hope to do is stand athwart the Obama administration’s attempt to remake America yelling “stop,” no one has been more effective. “What I find striking is that if Beck were of the Left, taking down (or helping to take down) Bush appointees—with the same bombast and success—he would be hailed as the living reincarnation of the great Muckrakers of yore,” Jonah Goldberg rightly observes. “He’d be the working man’s I. F. Stone, the TV heir to Michael Moore (which is a good thing to the Left). If he explored the roots and idea animating conservatism the way he has with progressivism, he would be a vital service to the education of the nation.”
As another conservative friend of mine says, “Why should we play by the rules laid down by NBC or the New York Times, anyway? Where’s their distress about the incivility at MSNBC or the Huffington Post?” The Left has what most sensible souls would call more than its fair share of over-the-top types—and one of them was just elected to the Senate from Minnesota.
Is Glenn Beck bad for America? Ask Van Jones or Acorn’s executive director, Bertha Lewis, and you’ll get another “yes.” But no matter what we think of his style, conservatives should have a different answer.