Carrying eschatological undertones, an event in the Middle East represents the next step in the talk-show host's evolution
Glenn Beck has been a morning zoo deejay, a recovering addict, and a tea party phenom. With his Fox News program scheduled to end this year, how he'll evolve next is getting clearer by the day. His website, The Blaze, is up and running. His talk radio audience remains dedicated. And more books are likely. What few expected, even after his successful rally in Washington, D.C. last year, is that he would ask his listeners to attend a similar event this August ... in the heart of Jerusalem.
On his radio program Monday, Beck shared an anecdote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a member of the German resistance against the Nazis, before saying that God is once again calling us to stand with the Jews. "Things in Israel are going to get bad. They're going to spread across the Middle East," he said. "There are forces in this land and forces all over the globe that are trying to destroy us ... And it won't be with bullets or bombs. It will be with a two-state solution that cuts off Jerusalem, the Old City, to the rest of the world ... The only power broker, the only seat of government that can and will solve this problem with or without us, is God. It is time to return inside the walls that surround Jerusalem."
What are we to think of this effort? Some Beck critics are alarmed. "It is time for deliberate calm, for a light touch," Rachel Maddow said on her MSNBC program. "Any American assertion in the region should probably be done with an appreciation for the great sensitivities involved right now." True enough. An international incident stoked by apocalyptic Glenn Beck fans is a frightening prospect. In his last massive rally, however, host and crowd behaved far more innocuously than critics expected. For that reason, my concerns are different, and require a bit of explaining.
All conservative entertainers tap into the fear that the U.S. and the world are in trouble. What separates them is their particular gloss on what's wrong and how they propose to fix it. For Rush Limbaugh, liberal Democrats are the problem, and the solution is electing conservative Republicans in the mold of Ronald Reagan. Mark Levin says the problem is statism, and the answer is a return to founding principles. Bill O'Reilly is less concerned with politics than American culture: secularists are his bogeyman, and he wants traditionalists to reassert their values.
What about Glenn Beck? He has been "the lead horseman of the American Apocalypse for some time," Mark Lilla wrote last year in the New York Review of Books. "But now he seems to be catching on to the fact that despite our susceptibility to conspiracy theories, Americans can't be mobilized for long by fear alone. We just don't do Kulturpessimismus. We do divine providence, five-point plans, miraculous touchdowns as the clock runs out, and the whole town coming together to save the bank because, gosh darn it, it's a wonderful life. So after a few years scaring the wits out of us, Glenn Beck now wants to reassure us that God has a plan for us."
This latest event is an iteration on that theme.
In embracing it so fully, Beck is turning away from the segment of the conservative base that sees an ideological solution for what ails us, instead aiming at the subset of people who watch Fox News and listen to talk radio, but are suspicious of partisan politics. In their judgment, redemption will come through some mix of national unity, American traditionalism, and Christianity. They want to know God's plan. And Beck wants to own their demographic. That's bad news for the folks who follow him, because whether earnestly or cynically, the talk radio host is offering a program doomed to failure.
Consider his pitch:
This August, join me for an event I have named Restoring Courage. If you have restored the honor in your life, if you have done the things that we have asked you to do, then you know when you are given an opportunity to stand, whether it is because you are influenced by the thinking of Dietrich Bonhaffer, or you are influened by the words of Ezekiel, God is very clear...
I don't know if these are the times. I just know that the old hatreds are starting up. The very gates of hell are going to open up against us. I don't know how many people can afford to come... it's expensive to go. Really expensive. I don't even know where the money is going to come from to put this event on. I just know it will.
Dispatching with the obvious objections: the end times are not upon us; it is not God's desire that lots of Americans spend thousands of dollars to fly to a Glenn Beck rally; and doing so won't constitute an act analogous to standing against the Nazis in World War II. It isn't clear whether the people of Israel are better off with a one-state solution -- people with the nation's best interests in mind differ on that question. Nor is God opposed to a flourishing Palestinian state. Hopefully, the expense of traveling to Jerusalem will be enough to persuade Beck listeners to skip this event. Either way, however, this new Beck approach is flawed in ways that transcend this single event.
In his latest iteration, Beck is asserting that he transcends politics and all the cynical manipulations and impurities associated with it. What he'd like us to think is that the ideas he advocates are an ever-evolving mix of deliberate study, common sense, American values, and Christian principles. In fact, invoking the Holocaust to rally in Jerusalem against a two-state solution isn't beyond politics, any more than it was beyond politics when Beck offered up his critique of the interventionist strain in American foreign policy. "Were we minding our business? No," he said last year. "Were we in bed with dictators and abandoned our values and principles? Yes. That causes problems ... I'm not going to screw with the rest of the world. I'm going to get out."
That didn't last long.
For many Beck fans, finding a leader earnestly beyond politics, or at least one primarily motivated by the advancement of humankind, would be a wonderful thing. So many people yearn for a present day Jesus Christ or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, a righteous man to show the way in a fallen world. Has there ever been a rich man like that? One who tirelessly monetized his personal brand in every way possible? Would any of those men have cruelly mocked the physical appearance of a young woman, or sought attention by pretending to pour gasoline on someone, or fleeced trusting fans by encouraging them to buy gold at marked up prices and profiting from it?
Beck shouldn't be followed to Jerusalem.
Or anywhere else.