Glenn Beck has been doing a lot of repenting of late. Last month the radio host and founder of The Blaze said he was sorry for being a “catastrophist” and for “giving you the impression that there’s no way to survive” the various calamitous events that he’s predicted over the years.
In August 2014 he lamented the “stupid things” he said as a Fox News host that “added to the situation we’re in right now” of hyper-partisan acrimony. A few months before that Beck had said, “I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart and it’s not who we are.” And in June 2013, he had said, “For any role that I have played in dividing [people], I wish I can take them back.”
Now, Republican Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has apparently opened Glenn Beck’s eyes to the virtues of common decency. According to Beck's The New Yorker interview, he has had a change of heart about President Barack Obama, whom he once described as a “racist” with a “deep-seated hatred for white people.”
That was the old Beck, he insists: “I did a lot of freaking out about Barack Obama.” But, he said, “Obama made me a better man.” He regrets calling the President a racist and counts himself a Black Lives Matter supporter. “There are things unique to the African-American experience that I cannot relate to,” he said. “I had to listen to them.”
As someone who has spent a good chunk of his adult life listening to and watching Beck, I have to say these expressions of regret don’t come off as very convincing. Beck made a lot of money as a “catastrophist,” using apocalyptic rhetoric to sell people gold and survival seeds. He built his profile as a media figure by saying some really awful things — and not just about politicians.
Beck spent years fighting a libel lawsuit filed by a Saudi victim of the Boston Marathon bombings whom Beck had smeared on air as the financier of the attack. (Beck’s attorneys argued that the victim was a public figure because he “behav[ed] suspiciously at the Marathon finishing line when the bombs detonated.”) Beck also popularized a breed of conspiratorial alarmism posing as “journalism” that frequently veered into anti-Semitic tropes and provided mainstream exposure to cranks, bigots and discredited extremists.
Of course, Beck still throws bombs even as he apologizes for having been a bomb thrower. In January 2014, he said he wished he could have been “more uniting in my language.” Three months later he called Obama a “full-fledged dictator” and a “sociopath” before terming “everyone in the press” a collection of “rat bastards.”
Regarding Beck’s late-stage conversion to Obama fan and woke supporter of BLM, one also has to take into account the business side of Glenn Beck Inc., which at the moment is not so healthy. This radical change in attitude from Beck comes as his media empire seems to be falling apart. His news website, The Blaze, has been rocked by mismanagement and layoffs. Being a hard-right, self-made doomsday prophet just isn’t as lucrative as it once was.
Now that he’s debuting a radically different worldview, it’s hard not to wonder whether Beck, sensing a repudiation of Trumpism and faltering professionally, is pursuing reinvention as a way to open up a new market for his wares.
It certainly would not be the first time that Beck has debuted a new professional personality. He started out as a morning-zoo shock jock, then graduated into the talk-radio sphere and became a reliable voice supporting the George W. Bush administration. He transformed himself into a crypto-populist firebrand just as the Tea Party movement was starting up, then he morphed into a globe-trotting Christian revivalist. And then he aligned himself with Ted Cruz’s brand of obstructionist conservative extremism. Beck has a history of moving where the action is and then setting up shop.
Still, it’s bracing to see someone like Beck, a giant of the conservative talk-radio world, discuss his own failings and speak sympathetically about the African-American experience. You’d never hear that sort of language escape the lips of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, whose personas are precisely engineered to resonate with older white conservatives.
Even if it is purely the profit motive that’s driving him, Beck is still signaling a departure from the persistent toxicity of right-wing radio. Old habits die hard, however, and you just can’t trust that, taking into account how the balance sheets look, this version of Glenn Beck will exist six months — or even six weeks, from now.