Posted by: Ali Davis | August 23, 2010

With one week to go, I finally get it.

I’ve stayed faithful to my self-imposed chore and watched every episode of The Glenn Beck Program for a month now. I got worried early on. The idea behind watching it was to try to understand his viewers, and for the first few weeks I just got more and more baffled. Why the hell would anyone watch the show more than once?

In fairness, I started on an off week for Beck. He was trying to connect the current administration to the Weather Underground, and good heavens was it uninspiring. Even he didn’t really seem to have his heart in it – insisting that a conspiracy has been working perfectly with not one person involved changing his or her mind even a tiny bit for 40 years is a bit of a stretch, and I think Beck knew it. His main argument was “This person’s phrase over here 40 years ago sounds sort of like this person’s more recent phrasing! COINCIDENCE?!”

No, just boring.

Things livened up as the weeks went on, and it was even less clear to me why people would watch. Beck is like a spin art machine, only the primary colors he’s working with are fear and bile. It felt like making myself drink a cup of grease every night… And then like deliberately drinking poison. Beck stops just short of screaming “fire” in a crowded theater, but he sure does spend a lot of time asking everyone around him if they smell smoke.

And then telling everyone around him they’d be crazy not to smell smoke.

And then actually saying that the country is on fire. But that’s a metaphor, so it’s cool, right?

So it seemed clear that his viewers weren’t getting a sense of comfort out of the show. But what were they getting?

Beck likes to pretend that it’s intellectual depth – or at least some sort of intellectual choice – but he can’t really believe that. Based on the show, he apparently never learned a damned thing about history until he hit his forties. He keeps suggesting that the Powers that Be have been hiding vital information like the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

If I were Beck and I really hadn’t learned all the things he claims to have missed, I’d be a little less hard-assed about the government throwing stimulus dollars at my old public school district.

He’s an apparent tabula rasa of paranoid alternate history. Every new fact (or “fact”) he learns is absorbed in astonishment and then flung up onto his Blackboard of Outdated Conspiracies. Every last one – there’s nothing that doesn’t connect.

The problem with that is there’s not an apparent conspiracy through line. It’s a lint-trap approach. So it’s not like the viewer sees Beck expertly building his case brick by brick. You see him building half a Lego pirate ship and then just the turret of a sugar cube castle until it gets too hard and then… Are those tinker toys? Well, anyway, they’re all on the same table. Don’t you see?

Beck’s documentation almost invariably comes down to “This guy I trust said it,” or “It’s right here in this book!” And then sometimes for emphasis he waves the book. Because nobody ever put a bunch of ridiculous, inaccurate crap in a book. Beck nearly always exhorts his fans to check him and do the reading themselves, but I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t expect them to – more than once he’s bragged that the book he’s using is too old and rare for most people to get their hands on it.

So it’s not the heady rush of mental discovery that Beck offers, and it isn’t quite a coherent storyline or a drive toward a single goal.

I finally figured it out during Friday’s show, as Beck oozed a layer of fake reverence all over the civil rights movement. It was infuriating to watch him pretend to well up over Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Is there really any doubt that Beck in the ’60’s would have been calling them Nazi Socialist racist wealth redistrubutors who are here to take rights away from whites? Not to mention bus seats?

But he pretended to be deeply moved by their courage and struggle, all the while keeping up a patter about shocking “suppressed” history: Some white people did good things! Some black people did bad things! Oh and P.S. Republicans are civil rights pioneers and Democrats are secretly racists!

And that’s when I realized why Glenn Beck’s viewers keep watching: He tells them that those awful scary feelings they’re having are OK.

It’s not about giving them a feeling of control or security or even a coherent worldview.

He just confirms that they are right to be scared.

They are right to be afraid of this black president – not because he is black and not because they are racists – but because he is doing many terrible, nation-destroying things. The fact that some of those alleged things are contradictory is entirely beside the point. This is not about close examination. It’s the opposite of that.

This is about doling out a little more evidence, every day, that hating and fearing that scary black guy in charge is the right thing to do, and that hating and fearing that scary black guy in charge does not make them racists. So they can’t possibly be the bad guys here.

Beck’s message is this: You are right to be afraid. Your fear is rational. So you don’t need to question what might be behind those feelings. That little voice that tells you some painful self-examination might be in order? It’s been put there by liberals who mock you and hate America. Just ignore it. You’re not only a good person, you’re one of the few good people left in the whole country.

Now come over here and fear the fear of the righteous a little more.



  1. Quite insightful. One wonders how the attention gets paid to hatred. Used to be we just ignored idiots and felt sorry for them. Now we give them tv shows. Freedom of speach being so important to him and all, maybe Dr. Laura could join him?

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