A lot has been written about Glenn Beck in the past couple of years. Much of it by Glenn Beck. He excretes books like he’s on a publishing diarrhetic. And the discharge draws just as many flies. Not that he actually writes any of the titles, as he recently confessed:
“There’s clearly no way that I’m sitting behind a typewriter or word program and pounding this out.”
While groups like Media Matters document and debunk his daily ramblings, and conventional magazines and newspapers print adoring profiles, there hasn’t been much in the way of biographical information available about him. Beck’s backstory has been limited to his own cathartic and romanticized tale of ruin and redemption.
This is why Alexander Zaitchik’s new book, “Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck And The Triumph Of Ignorance,” is so valuable. It is the first comprehensive examination of Beck’s beginnings – his influences, his childhood, his early radio successes and failures. And, of course, his catapulting to cult leader status by Fox News. The arc of Beck’s career is both fascinating and curious. And Beck would surely agree that this sort of scrutiny is worthwhile considering his own amateurish attempt at psychoanalyzing President Obama:
“From the moment he was born he had contact with socialists, communists, Marxists, radicals. His father abandoned him. Why? So he could go off to a Marxist school in New York. Then his father left the country to go try it out. How tragic. What kind of scar does that leave on a boy? Then his mother…I mean this is…you tell me. What scar is left when the mom leaves a son who’s been abandoned by his father for Marxism, leaves the son with his grandparents so she can pursue critical theory, which is Marxism. Both parents leave a boy for Marxism?”
Never mind that he got the facts all wrong, and that his scars must be even deeper considering that his mother reportedly killed herself to escape her demon seed, the point is that he acknowledges the value of exploring the upbringing of public figures like himself. So if you want to understand Beck, you would do well to read Common Nonsense for that historical context.
Zaitchik has put together an intelligent and revealing look at a man who, from the start, seemed to have no interests outside of radio stardom, and certainly no interest in politics. He launched into an early orbit with an affinity for crude, and even sadistic, pranks. But that’s nothing compared to the cynical exploitation that marked most of his more recent endeavors. He clawed his way back from drug and alcohol addictions to become the sort of judgmental jerk that he surely would not abide with regard to his own failings. It’s a dramatic story, and Zaitchik has made it a compelling read.
I think the book’s subtitle (The Triumph of Ignorance) is entirely appropriate. The central theme of Beck’s sermonizing is, according to him, education. Yet he has so little of it and the information he peddles is riddled with inaccuracies and falsehoods. The result is that he is making his audience more stupid than before they listened to him. For example, Beck appeared last Sunday at a Fourth of July celebration in Idaho where he told the adoring crowd…
“I thought what I’d do is tell a little bit about the history of America. […] Columbus comes to the [Spanish] Queen. Says ‘I have a plan. I’m gonna find the new trade route. I’m gonna find a new land. I’m gonna find something that will totally change everything. Spain will be the center of commerce. I will bring this to you.’ Well, she didn’t like him. He was arrogant. She said ‘Off with you.’ He left. He was so crushed because he really believed he had found the new world.“
Of course, Columbus had no intention of finding a new world, nor did he believe that he had done so. He correctly thought that he could navigate westward to Asia, but he accidentally bumped into a previously unknown continent. Beck’s disciples, however, will have left the event believing that Columbus deliberately set of to discover America. So you have to ask, is this a reflection of Beck’s own ignorance, or a wily ploy to manufacture his own mythology?
I had the opportunity to ask this, and other questions, of Zaitchik, who was kind enough to elaborate on some of the themes in the book.
News Corpse: On a number of occasions Beck is characterized in the book as a “genius” or “brilliant” with regard to tapping into popular themes and marketing himself. However, I was struck by often his success was followed by failure, with this pattern repeating several times throughout his career. That inconsistency would suggest to me that he is more lucky than smart.
Zaitchik: Lucky, yes, but I’d be careful about attributing too much to that. If you look at the two halves of Beck’s professional history – Top 40 radio and conservative yakker – there is really only one big crash. This occurred in the early and mid-90s, when Beck bottomed out at a tiny station in New Haven. For 15 years until then, he was mostly successful in the format and even considered something of a boy wonder. […] Once he picked up the pieces, got sober, and decided to pivot toward talk radio, he was very shrewd in convincing people to believe in him. By all accounts, he also worked very hard.
Just because Beck doesn’t know what he’s talking about doesn’t mean he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. You don’t end up on the covers of Forbes, Mother Jones, Time, the Weekly Standard, and the Economist because of luck alone.
NC: You pointed out that others in the media didn’t really get Beck. I have often wondered why so many actual journalists sit quietly while Beck trashes them and their profession. Beck, and more broadly Fox News, incessantly disparage the press as biased, incompetent, and even corrupt (which I agree with, but for very different reasons). Yet there has been little response from the journalist community (and I mean real journalists, not pundits and other purveyors of opinion). What are they afraid of?
AZ: There have definitely been instances of staffers at major weeklies giving Beck a pass. David Von Drehle of Time comes to mind. But I think most journalists have been anything but shy in going after him with switchblades and hatchets. Joel Klein is one prominent example from the mainstream. Most op-ed writers have also either dismissed or abused him, including David Brooks. There was recently a good piece in the Weekly Standard by Matt Continetti that bent Beck over a barrel for misunderstanding the nature and history of Progressivism. But if you’re talking about media beat writers, like the Times’ Brian Stelter, it’s probably just because they don’t see that as their job. There is no shortage of active Beck bashing. On cable news, with the exception of Fox, he has long been everyone’s favorite piñata.
[I’m going to have to disagree with Zaitchik on this. Beck and Fox News viciously pound on the media on a daily basis. Their network slogan, “Fair and Balanced,” is a deliberate spit in the eye of their competitors. And this comes from straight reporters and Fox corporate. Yet you rarely, if ever, hear Diane Sawyer or Brian Williams or Sumner Redstone fire back.]
NC: Finally, you described Beck as the “future of Fox News.” However, many conservatives and Republicans have recently put some distance between themselves and Beck. He is regarded by some to be detrimental to the electoral interests of the right. In light of his tendency to flameout as described above, and the prospect of a new generation of Murdochs (who are not as enthralled with Roger Ailes as is Rupert) assuming control of the network, isn’t it just as likely that he will fall from grace and be discarded?
AZ: That’s true. But Beck talks to a very different – and much bigger – audience than David Frum. And let’s see how many of those Republican politicians are around in six months or two years. The ground is shifting. And for now at least, Fox is betting on Beck to keep the network relevant amidst the Tea Party convulsions. That’s why Ailes hired him and allowed him to lean on the horn the way he did right out of the gate in 2009. […]
Beck may be problematic for all sorts of reasons, but the fact is he brings the heat, and his fan base is incredibly loyal. I think there’s a reason Stossel and Napolitano have been relegated to Fox Business. If the network brass just wanted a relatively coherent libertarian program, they could have given either of them a slot on FNC. But they don’t want a real libertarian. They want an incoherent but stimulating, bold but shameless conservative libertard like Beck, part rightwing Mr. Rogers, part Bible thumping G.E.D. instructor, part rodeo clown with a flamethrower strapped to his back. Those people are so much more fun to watch, and they don’t grow on trees.
OK. I’ll give you that one. And speaking of trees, Beck is caught in the branches of a crazy one, and he wants America to talk him down. Sometimes I think that it isn’t Beck who we should be worried about. It’s his congregation of dunces. They are the evidence of the triumph to which Zaitchik refers. They are indeed incredibly loyal. I think that gives pause to some in the Fox News executive suites who might rather be rid of him. But how do you rid yourself of your spiritual leader without betraying your faith? They would have a holy war on their hands. If there are any rational voices in those ivory towers it would be wise for them to make themselves heard posthaste. Because history has some harsh lessons for those who abide Beck’s brand of insanity.
“I have been laughed to scorn as a prophet; for many a year my warnings and my prophecies were regarded as the illusions of a mind diseased […] I appear in the eyes of many bourgeois democrats as only a wild man.”
~ Adolph Hitler, September 1936