Glenn Beck surrounds us

Why the latest Fox News star might be a flash in the pan


Glen Beck and Glen Beck

Last week was the week of Glenn Beck, the latest Fox News superstar. First the New York Times did a long, mostly respectful article about his Fox daytime show, which in a short time has become one of the highest-rated programs on that network. Then Stephen Colbert did a brutal parody of Beck’s “9/12 project” (where he encourages his viewers to recapture the good old time of the day after September 11), where he mocked Beck’s hysteria and paranoia, and reminded viewers of Beck’s 2005 statement that he was starting to hate the families of 9/11 victims. Beck is going to be around for a while, with an act that’s reminiscent of the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down. Even his haircut is similar.

The strange thing is that when Beck had his own show on CNN Headline News, similar in format to his Fox show (he asked a Muslim Congressman to “prove you’re not working with our enemies”), it was a ratings flop. He really isn’t any crazier on Fox than he was on CNN, where he praised the John Birch Society and increasingly echoed its views. His success on Fox News proves that TV success has a lot to do with knowing your audience. But it also shows that Fox News viewers are hungry for something more than they’ve been getting from O’Reilly and even Hannity; with Obama in the White House and an economic crisis that can’t be entirely solved with tax cuts, a simple attack on secular liberals is just not good enough. With his open nostalgia for 9/11 and his theory that Obama will bring in “fascism” and replace the dollar with another currency, Beck has proven that the key to conservative media success in the age of Obama is to take things up another notch. His whole show seems premised on the idea that Rush Limbaugh is too tame. And he’s also better than most Fox News pundits at really using the medium of television, which in turn makes for better YouTube clips and helps to make his stuff go viral; Colbert makes fun of Beck’s extreme close-ups and weird gigantic graphics, and rightly so, but it does give his show a more distinctive look than most.

Part of the secret of Beck’s new success is that although much of his rhetoric is standard conservative boilerplate (tax cuts are awesome) he has tapped into his viewers’ sense that there is a real crisis in the world that’s not easily explained. Many conservative pundits spend a lot of time, even now, claiming that the crisis is not as bad as it seems. Beck takes the opposite approach: he tells his viewers that the crisis is even worse than they can imagine, and that it’s the fault of various unnamed enemies who are conspiring to bring them down. He never says who these enemies are, referring to them only as “them” and telling his viewers that “they don’t surround us, we surround them.” The upshot is the same as that of every other show on Fox News, that liberals are to blame for all our problems, but it’s just done in a more expansive way, leaving his viewers free to be scared of just about everybody in the universe. (Sean Hannity is very popular too, but he’s obsessed with old favourites like the Dixie Chicks. Beck is the only Fox News host who’s come up with new ways of getting angry.) Explaining away disturbing economic realities as the product of a nefarious, shadowy conspiracy is a traditional thing, and not just on the right. Beck is the perfect host for an audience that wants someone to blame for today’s problems, but doesn’t want to be too specific about the cause or potential solutions.


The other thing Beck has going for him is the sincerity factor — either he really believes what he’s saying, or he’s doing a better job of acting than most pundits do. Bill O’Reilly is, as you can tell from his talk show appearances, an intelligent man with a sense of humour; he’s clearly not a nice person, but his pundit persona is at least partly an act, and he wants us to know it. Rush Limbaugh believes in a few things (low taxes, mostly), but also hides behind humour; he’s like Andrew Dice Clay, making outrageous, offensive statements (“feminazis”) and then accusing people of having no sense of humour when they get offended. Though Beck used to try and sell himself as a funny guy, he now spends much of his time weeping on the air (“I love my country, and I fear for it”) and screaming at his audience with wild-eyed, fanatical conviction. With Limbaugh or O’Reilly, it’s always possible to believe that they don’t really mean everything they say, if that’s what you want to believe. Beck is either genuinely crazy, or wants us to think he is. He even openly compares himself to Howard Beale from Network, a character who was quite literally insane. Sean Hannity also has the sincerity thing going for him, but unlike Limbaugh or O’Reilly, Hannity comes off as not very bright; he portrays himself as the good-looking manly-man who crushes wimpy intellectuals. Beck’s persona is a new one; the character he’s portraying is someone who’s not dumb, not angry, not jokey, just nuts.

So that’s the new face of TV punditry. And there’s going to be a lot more of this, not only from Beck. But the reason for his newfound success may be not only that he moved to Fox, but that there’s a Democrat in the White House now. One of the differences between left-wing and right-wing conspiracy theorists, particularly in the U.S., is that left-wing conspiracy theorists tend to believe that all parties are part of the conspiracy (though some of them modified this idea after the Nader disaster of 200o), right-wing conspiracy theorists in the U.S. are basically Republican partisans. Beck rages against powerful elites, but always uses terms like that to mean “Democrats”; he claims that both parties have failed America, but always makes it clear that only one party is actually out to destroy America. But his viewers feel the same way; despite occasional tut-tutting of Bush’s big-government tendencies, most of them weren’t going out and stockpiling guns between 2001 and 2008. He’s playing to an audience that assumes that government wasn’t the problem in the ’80s or most of the ’00s, but has now re-discovered the idea that government is to be feared. He’s the ideal pundit for the age of “tea parties” and everything else built on the assumption that government was the problem only from 1977 and 1980 or 1993 to 2000.

This is why Beck might (I said might) turn out to be a flash in the pan. Rush Limbaugh is effective at any time, because he isn’t dependent on who’s in power: his target is always just “liberals,” and he can attack them no matter who’s in the White House. Beck might actually be completely a creation of the Obama era, someone whose rhetoric appeals to viewers who only became anti-government on January 20, 2009.

Filed under:

Glenn Beck surrounds us

  1. An insightful analysis of a scary phenomenon. It’s hard to imagine that someone will come along and out-Beck Beck, but as you point out, he has succeeded by out-Rushing Rush. It would be comforting to think that some percentage of Beck’s audience watches just to see how crazy he’ll be, but I imagine most of his viewers regard him as a Fearless Speaker of Truth.

    Another thing that sets him apart from O’Reilly, Hannity, et al., which you allude to here, is his raw emotionalism (especially the weeping). He’s got one foot in the angry pundit camp, but another in the Jimmy Swaggert-style testifying Pentecostal-preacher camp, which adds a whole dimension to his appeal, and perhaps another demographic to his audience.

  2. This guy kills me but he is so obvioulsy in need of a new tin foil hat he’s funny and one thing I really like is how is right out in front that this is him personally and NOT a spokesman for any party kind of reminds me of a passionate and funny Lou Dobb’s or maybe even a young Rex Murphy … sort of ..

  3. When he leans out the window ranting at the world ( a la Howard Beale ), resist the urge to push. Because that would be cruel. He might land on a defenseless street person below.

  4. This article is full or crap. Beck wasn’t a ratings flop on HLN. I don’t know the exact #’s but didn’t he double ratings in that timeslot? He spends most of the time weeping on-air? If I recall I only seen him tear up 2-3 times. What conspiracy has Beck been talking about? He doesn’t name the bad guys?

    He clearly tells you who’s screwing up America from the right and left.

    Oh yea, only Republicans are partisans hahahaha! You don’t watch the show but it seems you do research from all those left-wing sites. That’s where you got all your Beck info.

    I don’t want to correct anymore of your garbage but if someone had the time to correct this slop bit by bit, you wouldn’t be hired anywhere but sites like HuffPo, Media Matters, Kos, ThinkProgress etc….

    and you’re lecturing people on partisan hacks? lol

    • Also: Blahblahblah! Woof woof! Quack!

  5. Is there any particular reason my posts aren’t showing up on this article, even though other people are able to comment?

    • Hmm, I guess something in my original comment got flagged. Screw it.

      • Yeah, I’ve tried to post the same comment like three times now, and it hasn’t gone through. But whatever.

        The main point was that I think Beck will remain popular because he appeals to a different aspect of the Right than the other big-time talkers do. Was that vague enough?

  6. Does anyone get the feeling that the repeated swings of the right from pro-government to anti-government will eventually come to a very scary head?

    The right seems to be unreachable, unbreachable and unwilling to admit when they’re wrong or when others are right. When I read about the swelling ranks of Beck and Limbaugh fans, and then watch an interview about the revolutionary rhetoric coming from the right in response to the Obama administration, I get the feeling that its better to drop the political from my life and work on securing the life and freedom of my friends and family.

    If the right refuses to allow anyone else to govern in North America without calling for assassinations and burning revolution, something is deeply wrong with our civilization.

  7. I’ve watched Glen Beck for a few years. He has shown great compassion for many people. When others were mocking Peter Schiff , Beck recognized his insight. (google – Peter Schiff was right) Yes I’m and ardent fan, but I do see Beck’s eccentricities. To me he’s the Anti-Oberman and that’s enough.

    • First of all, the man’s name is Olbermann. Mentioning Beck and Olbermann in the same sentence is a joke. Olberman craps turds that are smarter than Glenn Beck.

  8. Like the authour says, it’s an act.

    Beck’s show is like WWE wrestling. Similar audience too.

    • This is really unfair to WWE fans.

  9. Just more of the left wing media trying to justify themselves. Despite the rantings of you on the left, Fox gets all the ratings. You can pontificate all you want, if it looks like s**t and smells like s**t, it must be s**t. There is no one in the world I agree with all the time (except perhaps my late mother) but his passion and HONESTY are something those of you on the left willnever fathom. ypocrisy and anger are usually the hallmarks of the left. I like Beck. I can’t stand those in the Canadiabn media who spend their time on their knees hoping for a Governor Generalship or a Senate appointment.

  10. I know have known Glenn personally for years. It is not an act. He is a true believer that the U.S. won the Revolutionary War through divine providence as George Washington declared and that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God to place limits on the necessary evil of government, as declared by Benjamin Franklin. He believes that God prospers and protects the people that live the principles enshrined in the Ten Commandments.

    To many people today, especially in the media and politics, that certifies him as insane, just as they would certify George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as insane. To others, finding a man who believes in and declares the principles espoused by the Founding Fathers of the United States brings them to their knees in gratitude praising God for his courage, shedding a tear or two themselves, and keeping regularly tuned to The Glenn Beck Program.

  11. When Beck was on CNN I predicted that he would go over to Fox to join the other rabid right-wing nut jobs. So said, so done. Now when is the xenophobe, Lou Dobbs going to do the same?

  12. i love that i have the right to watch a right wing nut job if i want, and the nut job i prefer happens to be glen beck. Some people want to watch this stuff and it doesn't mean they're too stupid to recognize an
    show with a political agenda when they see one, perhaps this is a show with an agenda that speaks to them. Glen Beck would not be as popular as he is if people stopped watching him, but we haven't and maybe we don't want to stop. Does that make us bad or less intelligent or any other insult because of what some choose to watch? Some people like to watch the jerry springer show or any of those shows where people don't know who the father of their baby is….people obviously want to watch this because if they didn't, it wouldn't be on TV this long. This may come as a suprise but as a mexican woman (i know that i must be a bad mexican in some peoples eyes since every minority is supposed to be left leaning, its like an unspoken law or something that subtly places limits on my chioce of identification), Glen Beck is my alternative chioce to many programs that are out there.

  13. i have to admit….as a life long Maclean's magazine lover, i was really suprised by this article, it doesn't even sound like the Macleans magazine i am used to. Maybe i'm wrong but i always chose to read Macleans because it seemed to me to be a conservative leaning magazine.

  14. beck states that obama is a racist well i think beck is the one. he is always blaming the democrates for ruining this country. i wish he would go and live in china, i think he would feel right at home.

Sign in to comment.