The hot new mob leader of 2009.
The Glenn Beck Program is an ever-growing bubble of current-events commentary burped up five nights a week on Fox News at 5 p.m. ET. I urge you to check it out. Bottom-barrel demagogy of this intensity is rarely available in one's living room, unless one's roommate is Huey Long.
On a set that owes something to CNN's experiments in technofuturism and something to the go-go pedestals on Soul Train, Beck natters stridently about the federal reserve and inflation, about the odds of a second civil war, about how the government "has been betraying the principles of the founders every day." He rails on and on against media, which hurt my feelings until I remembered that the guy denouncing the media has a show carried in 100 million households. Beck is like Stephen Colbert as understood by someone with no sense of irony, and this explains why Beck giggled a little while playing a clip of Colbert attacking his integrity.
Sometimes Beck gets out into the country and things really heat up. Bill O'Reilly's in-studio braying is one thing; Beck's al fresco rabble-rousing is another. The man has done as much as anyone to promote the anti-tax tea parties so fashionable this season. Here he is at the Alamo on April 15, sometimes in a 24-style split screen. With the people in the crowd bleating that American citizens are ruled by "tyrants," he transforms himself into a funhouse mirror reflecting legitimate economic fears. Beck, of course, despises Washington, but it should be made clear that he is not strictly an Obamaphobe. In the Alamo clip, he tempers his critical analysis of the left ("the Democrats suck") with a skeptical glance at the right ("the Republicans suck"). You've got to admire that kind of sophistication.
How was that sophistication developed? How did Beck develop the style that has made him the hot new mob leader of 2009? (I can already smell the year-in-review pieces brewing like so much Earl Grey.) Schooled as a morning zoo DJ, he is adept in the annoying crafts of upbeat outrageousness and irritate-the-bourgeois light naughtiness. In 2000, he launched a show concentrating on politics on Tampa's WFLA. He claimed to represent a position combining conservatism, libertarianism, and whatever gets good ratings. The show went national in 2002; television came knocking in 2006, when CNN's Headline News began inflicting him on its captive audience of people waiting to board airplanes. He was a bit like Lou Dobbs, but with much worse suits and much, much fiercer pandering.
The CNN tenure was most notable for a segment in which he told Rep. Keith Ellison to prove that he was not, in his Mohammedanism, a traitor to his country, "no offense." A logician would call that a fallacious argumentum ad ignorantiam. With Beck, there's always a lot of ignorantiam to go circum. In the three months since he moved to Fox News, he has not managed to insult any members of Congress quite so thoroughly. Give him time. Last Monday, discussing the latest economic plans shaping up in Washington, he mockingly impersonated Barney Frank, the openly gay chair of the Financial Services Committee. Beck's contemptuous sissy lisp is coming along nicely. He is, impressively, more snide than Sarah Palin, whose high-wattage yahoo-baiting anticipated Beck's combination of mean anger, cheap humor, and, when talking policy, the occasional complete obfuscation of fact.
Like any good right-wing info-tainer, Beck has expanded his brand across various platforms, to phrase it as his agent no doubt did. Beyond writing books, he goes on comedy tours, though it is difficult to imagine how Beck the stand-up comic might differ from Beck the fake-populist TV clown. This is not to deny his morally righteous come-ons. Last month, marketing 9/11 like a souvenir vendor on Church Street, he launched the "9-12 Project." According to its Web site, this is "designed to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001. ... We were united as Americans." Here, Beck espouses nine principles (e.g., "The family is sacred") and 12 values (honesty, reverence, hope, etc.). There are some highly entertaining conspiracy theories fomenting on its messages.
The 12 virtues aren't bad, actually. Who can argue with thrift and courage? But Plato managed to get by with just seven. Twelve seems like inflation, which Beck worries about so often. Yet in his universe, hearing about the 12 virtues still rates as a relative relief, a fresh breath of hot air.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photograph of Glenn Beck © 2009 Fox News Network, LLC.