In Glenn we trust

Glenn Beck’s remarkable journey from radio blowhard to one of America’s most influential political figures

In Glenn we trust
Benjamin J. Myers/Corbis/ Mark Peterson/Redux

Jean Richardson was in her mid-30s when Walter Cronkite debuted on U.S. national television. The 84-year-old Connecticut woman has since watched a pantheon of “most trusted newscasters” cross her TV screen—names like Brokaw, Jennings and Rather among them. They were all fine, she says, if you didn’t mind the affected solemnity of television’s bygone age. But Glenn Beck? Now there’s a man she trusts. “I know he’s a good person, I know he’s honest and sincere,” she says. “I can tell in the first 30 seconds whether I like someone, and I picked it up from him right away.”

Richardson is tall, with an elegance undercut only by the bottle of Coors Light trembling in her hand. Tonight she is waiting in the corridor of the Mohegan Sun Arena, a 12,000-seat auditorium in central Connecticut where the man she trusts is due to appear in person, alongside his fellow Fox TV host Bill O’Reilly. Tickets were $80 and up, and the arena is located at the centre of a vast, native-owned casino complex, meaning Richardson and her son Scott had to navigate a sea of slot machines on their way to the show.

Scott, who is 57, has recently fallen on hard times. A carpenter by trade, he’s had trouble finding work in New England’s flagging construction industry, and has taken a $10-an-hour job greeting customers at Wal-Mart. He’s got as much right as anyone to work up a rage, but he’s not here to protest. “I appreciate how he talks about history,” he says. “Glenn researches his topics and can back up what he says with historical fact.”

Broadcaster, teacher, performer, leader. Glenn Beck’s multiple personas have made him a confusing target for liberal critics, who have sought to brand him as everything from a loose cannon to a right-wing insurgent. Each night on Fox, and for three hours each day on his syndicated radio program, the 46-year-old former DJ serves up his unique stew of politics, paranoia, humour and faith, drawing new epithets from the “progressives” he says are ruining America. But what they can’t call him is a failure. In just under two years, Beck has gone from garden-variety radio blowhard to a political personality capable of filling Washington’s central Mall with adoring spectators who deliriously cheered his anti-tax, anti-government message of self-sufficiency.

In the process, he has shattered assumptions about what you can do on television. Beck’s nightly attacks on the Obama administration were so strident that establishment Republicans warned they would render the party unelectable, leaving only a rump of Tea Party radicals who share his ideas. Instead, Beck took Tea Party historical theory to a wider audience, building the electoral constituency the GOP brain trust feared would whither away. Online lectures he has dubbed “Beck U” include readings on the founding documents of the United States, and hammer away on his favourite theme: the founding fathers, inspired by God, equated big, central government with tyranny. In Beck’s world, Washington is the enemy of freedom.

That his version of U.S. history is at best selective, or that he never went to university, doesn’t much matter. Beck has resonated on a level no one predicted—least of all elders of the Grand Old Party. Victories for Tea Party-backed Republicans in many congressional races in this week’s mid-term elections helped return control of the House to the GOP, a resurgence for which even Beck’s most committed critics can’t deny him some credit.

Now, as once-safe Democrats stream out of Washington in stunned disbelief, Beck’s doubters have been left to ponder his role in the new political order. He’s emphatically denied interest in running for office himself. But his endorsement has played no small role in bringing Sarah Palin back to prominence, setting the vice-presidential candidate up for a run at the White House in 2012. There is Democratic blood in the water, and one suspects Beck has only begun to feed.

Say this for the man: he knows how to make an entrance. As the lights go down at Mohegan Sun, Beck strides from the arena’s southeast corner wearing robes, a golden crown and white tights. It’s the night before Halloween, and for this sedate, mostly grey crowd, the spectacle of their hero dressed as an 18th-century English monarch is all they need. “I told the people at the costume store to dress me like a progressive Democrat,” Beck says, arms raised. All 11,000 are on their feet.

He normally underwhelms with his physical presence—brush-headed and doughy, like a nerdy version of Biff from Back to the Future. So the king shtick serves as both self-parody and a portal to gags, as he falls into the character of prominent liberal foes who aspire to royalty: John Kerry is a drawling courtier demanding that you kiss his ring; George Soros is a megalomaniac secretly plotting world domination. It’s all-out vaudeville, drawing on mimicry Beck honed during his former life on morning zoo radio, broken only when O’Reilly takes the stage for his own much tamer segment of the show.

Beck will return after an intermission in jeans and a sloppy button-down—a costume that better reflects his blue-collar upbringing. His parents owned a bakery in Mount Vernon, Wash., but lost the business and divorced when he was in his early teens. Two years later, his mother, an alcoholic, drowned off Tacoma in what was ruled a boating accident but which Beck remains convinced was a suicide pact with a man she was dating, who died at the scene as well.

Shattered but determined to make his way, Beck found a home in private radio, taking DJ gigs in middle markets from Provo, Utah, to Louisville, Ky., while running on a treadmill of liquor and drugs. Cindy Civitello, a lifelong Republican from central Connecticut, remembers his run at WKCI in Hamden, Conn., where he eventually hit bottom. “He could be very nasty on the air, with the pranks and everything,” she recalls. Yet even then he showed an uncommon capacity to rally people for a cause, Civitello says, as when he and his morning crew launched a charity drive called “Stuff-a-bus.” Each Thanksgiving, listeners were invited to cram a school bus full of frozen turkeys and other donations for needy families. The campaign lasts to this day.

Beck’s addiction narrative follows the standard arc: after losing his wife and two kids in the mid-1990s, he woke up face down on the rug of his bleak, two-bedroom apartment (“the kind of place,” he recently told the New York Times, “where loser guys who just got divorced wind up”). So he began cleaning himself up, and after meeting his second wife, Tania, he converted to Mormonism. But his very public backstory has served to immunize Beck from the sort of dirt-digging to which so many sanctimonious conservatives fall victim. If someone’s going to take down Glenn Beck now, they’ll need more than his history with cocaine and Jack Daniels.

Meantime, Beck would find his métier in the talk radio format, earning a syndicated radio program and, briefly, a TV show on CNN’s secondary channel, Headline News. And with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, his life changed for good. He had just moved to Fox, and with mainstream Republicans wearing the stain of the economic meltdown, he helped fill a vacuum of opposition to key Obama initiatives, from the auto industry bailouts to the health care bill.

Beck quickly gained notoriety for ad hominem smears. “The President has deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” he said last year, in a remark that sent advertisers scrambling to get off his show. But he hit the mark when he aimed for the President’s Achilles heel, namely, the country’s dismal financial position. With government debt now about 90 per cent of national income, Obama’s continued spending has been nothing less than a betrayal of the founding fathers’ vision, says Beck—a socialist program that will deprive America of its independence. It is this idea that binds him to the Tea Party (he denies official links, yet happily plugs their candidates), and one he has filled out with the themes of far-right thinkers from the previous century, notably a Canadian-born Mormon named Cleon Skousen. Even McCarthy-era conservatives disavowed Skousen, who believed the founding fathers enjoyed divine guidance, and who sought to define America as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic. Beck wrote a new foreword to the writer’s key text, The 5,000 Year Leap. It soon hit No. 1 on Amazon.

And there is apparently a ratings motherlode in paranoid revisionism. Some two million people tune in each night for Beck’s TV show—astonishing numbers for 5 p.m.—where he has raged, wept openly and indulged in end-of-days prophesy. “If we do not put God at the centre of our own personal lives, and the centre of our country, we will not survive,” he told his radio listeners last summer. “The country will be washed with blood, and someone will have to start over, and God only knows how long that takes.” In July 2009, he ran a segment claiming the Obama administration was using a rebate website connected to its cash-for-clunkers program to spy on Americans through their home computers. “These are people who just think they’re smarter than us, and that they need to take care of things because it’s better for the collective,” he said.

To put it mildly, his words have landed like cluster bombs among established conservatives, who reality-check Beck even as he raises their electoral fortunes. Ronald Radosh, a historian and adjunct fellow at the right-leaning Hudson Institute, describes Beck’s historical theories as “political fundamentalism” based on incomplete reading and flawed interpretation of texts. “He doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about,” Radosh told Maclean’s. David Frum, a former speech writer for George W. Bush and a leading voice among mainstream Republicans, has launched a website dedicated to protecting the GOP from the sort of extremism the broadcaster represents. Beck and the Tea Party, he notes, have galvanized older, white voters, first around tax anger, and second, around fear that provisions of Obama’s health care reforms will curtail their coverage. That might have helped gain seats in a mid-term election, Frum says dryly, but it hardly suits the Republican message of fiscal probity. “Lower taxes and more medicare,” he says, “is not a workable formula.”

Still, no one should misunderstand what Beck is doing, which is selling himself, says Greg Baym, who studies media and politics at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. “We have, as a culture, largely given up on the notion of truth with a capital T,” he says. “And in the absence of an objective sense of truth, there is only trust. Glenn Beck has an extremely committed audience that trusts everything he says.”

With trust comes a certain freedom to modulate the message, laughing off one’s own contradictions, Baym notes. He compares Beck’s style not to fellow ultra-conservative broadcasters like O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, but to the liberal TV comedian Jon Stewart, whose Oct. 30 rally in Washington aped the one Beck held in August. Like Stewart, Beck deploys hyperbole, mockery and melodrama, while spinning off the news of the day. As such, says Baym, he is “the newest version of a hybrid” political commentator, who builds credence by speaking as his audience might around a bar, or a water cooler.
Trust can also be good business. In the last two years, Beck and his production company, Mercury Radio Arts, have made the most of his celebrity, publishing two books while embarking on a gruelling series of road shows like the one at Mohegan Sun. His 2009 income has been estimated at $18 million, including $10 million for his radio show. Even O’Reilly—earning a reported $10 million-plus per year—has taken to ribbing him about his wealth.

With the rewards so high, it’s hard to imagine him leaving the studio, from where he is best positioned to influence the 2012 presidential race. Already he has given his message a strategic tweak, leavening it with suggestions that, for Americans, help is on the way. In Connecticut, he posits his personal tale of recovery and redemption as a fable for the U.S. body politic. “You won’t learn until you’re face down on the ground, and that’s where we are as a country,” he says to warm applause. “We will get back up again.”

With that, he leaves the stage, weaving his way through a forest of extended hands, basking in declarations of love as his velvet robes billow behind him. It might only be costume. But on this night the royal garb suits Glenn Beck just fine.