One of the most unnerving poll results of the last few years was the announcement that author and TV personality Glenn Beck had been voted one of the most admired men on the planet. He was tied with the Pope. Yes, you read that right. In 2009 and 2010, Beck and the Pope edged out the Dalai Lama but were beaten by Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Nelson Mandela for the number one spot. (Actually, he tied with Mandela in 2010.) Glenn Beck. That means that the guy who wrote this famous novel passage was once on a list of the most admired me in the world:
"Suit yourself, lady. I'm telling you right now, you made the rules, but you're playing with fire here. I've got some rules, too, and rule number one is, don't tease the panther."
You'll recall that Beck first became a sensation on CNN Headline News, then moved over to Fox News and became the reigning king of the Tea Party. He sold a lot of books and made a lot of money and then he famously flamed out and left Fox to build his own media empire. On his last day at Fox he told his audience, "This show has become a movement. It's not a TV show, and that's why it doesn't belong on television anymore. It belongs in your homes. It belongs in your neighborhoods." And in a weird way, he has accomplished that. While Beck may not have been the only precursor to Donald Trump, Ben Carson and the rest of this scary GOP presidential field, he certainly played a part in creating the environment that spawned them.
During his time at Fox, Beck was a national sensation, dominating the right wing and playing a very important part in the formation of the Tea Party. But he took it to another level. During the height of his popularity, he got huge ratings by pushing what Eric Boehlert at Media Matters called a disturbing brand of insurrectionism -- of militia media. Perhaps people have forgotten it now, but Beck actually inspired members of his "movement" to take action, violent action. Boehlert wrote:
Beck's two years of mostly mindless harangues and toxic attacks, which kicked off when he debuted his new show the week Obama was inaugurated in 2009, did deep damage to the public dialogue and helped legitimize rancid rhetoric in a way we haven't seen in modern American history. And in a way we'd certainly never seen or heard before on a national television platform.
Most disturbing of all was the specter of hostility that hung over Beck's show and the unavoidable way his dark conspiracies appeared to move some fans to acts of political violence.
Fans like Richard Poplawski, who ambushed police officers at his mother's Pittsburgh home, gunning three of them down with an Ak-47 style rife. Poplawski feared "the Obama gun ban that's on the way" according to a friend; a conspiracy Beck had pushed.
Fans like Byron Williams, the right-wing, government-hating, gun-toting nut who strapped on his body armor, stocked a pickup truck with guns and ammo, and set off up the California coast to San Francisco in order to start killing employees at the previously obscure, left-leaning Tides Foundation in hopes of sparking a political revolution. The foundation had been the centerpiece of a year-long Beck attack campaign, during which he smeared the low-profile entity for being staffed by "thugs" and "bullies" and involved in "the nasty of the nastiest," like indoctrinating schoolchildren and creating a "mass organization to seize power."
Said Williams from jail, "Beck is like a schoolteacher on TV."
He was instrumental in the radicalizing of the same right wing that is now worshipping at the feet of a demagogic billionaire named Trump. They may have been extreme before, but Beck unleashed the beast. He has since recanted much of his behavior during the Fox years, much of which bordered on incoherent lunacy, by saying that he "made an awful lot of mistakes" because he "played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart.” You might say that.
His atonement has led him down a different path, one on which he's less of a mass culture phenomenon and more of a cult leader. His transformation actually started before he left Fox News, when he began organizing rallies. The first big one was in 2010, the "Restoring Honor" rally. Originally conceived as a political event, Beck had some sort of revelation a few months before and changed it to a fundraising rally for veterans, as well as a quasi-religious meeting featuring some of the far-right religious crackpots with whom he would become increasingly involved over the next few years. This event was huge; according to some estimates it drew as many as 300,000 people. Sarah Palin was the star attraction.
As it came on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington, it also led to Beck's bizarre ongoing appropriation of Dr. King's legacy for his own purposes. (He's not the only conservative to do this, of course, but he's one of the few to make a huge profit at it.) And he's still at it. Last weekend, he really made it sing: He held his annual rally (yes, he does this every year) in Birmingham Alabama. Twenty thousand people showed up to march with him on the historic civil rights route from Kelly Ingram Park to Birmingham City Hall, holding all the same pre-made signs with pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, and the sayings "God Is the Answer," "All Lives Matter," "Unity," "Justice," "Courage" and "Right of Conscience." T-Shirts were printed with the words "Never Again is Now" which apparently refers to Beck's campaign to raise money for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Beck is now a holy man, spreading the good word of God, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, a racial healer and a stalwart defender of justice and equality. (All lives matter, darn it!) Needless to say, "right of conscience" refers to the God-given right to discriminate and "never again is now" is a pretty crude allusion to the Holocaust. It's a perfect Beckian mishmash of appropriated liberal sacred cows and conservative bigotry wrapped up in sanctimony, vanity and intellectual dissonance. For some reason there are a substantial number of people who find that to be inspiring. And they're willing to pay for it.
The good news is that Beck didn't hit the "Most Admired Man in the World" list in 2014. The bad news is Ben Carson did, and it probably wasn't for his truly admirable past neurosurgical career. (More likely it's his loathing of "political correctness" and support for torture.) The way things are going it's likely that the 2015 list may very well include a certain blow hard billionaire with a very weird haircut. We can only hope that like Glenn Beck before him, he ends up leading an obscure"movement," and not the most powerful nation on earth.