Glenn Beck's legions head to the town halls

The world's a scary place, Fox News host reminds his fans. Now they're making sure the rest of us know too

Published August 13, 2009 8:30PM (EDT)

Staring down an angry crowd of constituents in his Spartanburg town hall meeting last week, Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., found himself competing with Glenn Beck for the audience's loyalties. And, though Beck wasn't even there, Inglis wasn’t coming out ahead. When the congressman advised his constituents, “Turn that television off when he comes on,” he was greeted with jeers.

Beck’s name doesn’t usually come up that explicitly in the town halls that have gotten so much attention recently. But the Fox News host is, in a sense, the voice of the protests. The spirit of impending, apocalyptic conflict and deep civilizational peril that pervades his show certainly animates the protests, for one thing. Plus, he's even had a hand, albeit somewhat indirectly, in organizing the people who are showing up at community centers and schools all over the country.

Back in March, Beck launched what he called the “9-12 Project.” Meant to recall the spirit of the country right after the attacks of September 11, the project has nine “principles” and twelve “values,” which mainly run along the lines of “America is good.” (Literally.) The episode in which he announced the idea is probably the most famous of the show’s whole run. It’s the one where Beck repeatedly appears to choke up and cry, and declares, “They don’t surround us. We surround them.”

The 9-12 Project looked like a vanity project for Beck at first, a gimmick to promote his show. But apparently, it’s really taken off. There’s virtually no place in the country that doesn’t have a 9-12 chapter. They’re organized, generally, along the lines of, the online club-forming system that was the backbone of the then-innovative online presence of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.

I clicked through the websites of about a dozen 9-12 chapter websites. Every single one of them has got listings of upcoming congressional events in the district. (See Georgia’s here, for example.) The fact that organizations are helping to make the protests happen doesn't make the protests fake. The protests would be fake if the people raising a ruckus were just paid goons. They obviously aren't, and nor are the union folks showing up to support healthcare reform.

Beck talks some about the town-halls and endorses the protests, but this is clearly a freestanding, grassroots phenomenon. The 9-12 organizers are also getting a hand from a group called Recess Rally, the basic idea of which is to extend the organizations behind the Tea Parties into the town hall-disrupting business. (Here is Beck recommending Recess Rally as a resource.)

Reports of disorderly town halls are peppered with references to Glenn Beck. This story of a protest outside President Obama’s New Hampshire event quotes the head of the New Hampshire 9-12 project. The chaos at a meeting in Tampa appears to have been incited by the local chapter there. And Salon’s Caitlin Shamberg found a couple different references to Beck at the Pennsylvania town hall they attended Wednesday. The man speaking in the beginning of this video (posted below), brandishing 1,000 pages to show how scary healthcare reform is, is Peter Trippett, the head of the central Pennsylvania 9-12 chapter. Also note the woman explaining later in the video, “A lot of it [my information] is from Glenn Beck, from Fox News.”

It’s clear that the hyperbolic fears voiced by town hall protesters borrow a page out of Beck’s book as well. The woman who shouted at Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., “I don’t want this country turning into Russia,” is hardly the only person to express such a concern. And Beck is arguably the pioneer of the “Obama is a [insert type of totalitarian here]” genre. He’s repeatedly warned that insufficient vigilance will mean a dictator in the White House.

In addition to helping to organize attendance for congressional events, the 9-12ers seem especially interested in preparing for the day when they lose the political battle and have to fight a real one.  The Asheville, N.C. chapter is learning Krav Maga, a martial art developed for the Israeli Defense Forces. In Rochester, N.Y., there’s a workshop on how to make 72-hour survival kits.

Of course, there’s no way for those of us who don’t think Obama is the risen-again Hitler to convince these people otherwise. Nor is there any way to tell them that whatever disasters are ahead, it’s probably not helping to have one side quibbling over healthcare co-ops versus public buy-in options while the other is almost literally preparing for war.

Video: Talking to town hall participants in State College, Pa.


By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

MORE FROM Gabriel Winant

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