Glenn Beck’s recent conversion to political moderation has an almost suspiciously Dickensian quality to it. Here is a man once deemed too out-there for Fox News, who would bark right-wing conspiracy theories at his viewers every night, who now placidly preaches about the division he helped sow and says he’s very worried about the impending Trump administration. It’s an oddly dramatic turnaround. After all, Beck wrote a recent op-ed in The New York Times preaching empathy for the Black Lives Matter movement, while being credited at the bottom as the author of the book Liars: How Progressives Exploit Our Fear for Power and Control.
His appearance on Monday night’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, though, wasn’t just an opportunity for Beck to make another mea culpa; it was also a moment for him to try to share his new gospel of unity with a figure he saw a lot of himself in. Beck’s public change of heart might have made him 2016’s Scrooge, suddenly recanting his past cruelty, but on Full Frontal, he was like a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, warning Bee of the dangers to come if television, including her show, becomes more polarized. Beck may be an imperfect messenger—an anchor lecturing a comedian—but he still offered a surprisingly resonant idea for the moment.
“My audience hates your guts,” Bee and Beck told each other, while clad in ridiculous Christmas sweaters. “My audience wants to kill me for normalizing a lunatic like yourself,” Bee added, receiving baleful nods from Beck, who once called Barack Obama “a racist” but more recently took that statement back and claimed that “Obama made me a better man.” To many of Bee’s viewers, Beck surely represents the kind of extreme divisiveness that helped figures like Donald Trump gain a toehold in the Republican primaries. What distinguishes him from his peers, perhaps, is his self-awareness after the fact.
“I believe you actually don’t want to do damage. As a guy who has done damage, I don’t want to do any more damage. I know what I did. I helped divide,” he told Bee, pressing the message of, “Please don’t make the mistakes I made.” Beck talked about the problems with cable television and social media in the seven-minute interview, noting that on Facebook, “We don’t see the human on the other side,” which makes it easier to attack people.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee doesn’t come near the kind of divisiveness that Beck promoted every day on The Glenn Beck Program. For one, her show is satirical, and even her nastiest insults are presented with a comic edge. There’s a distinct and important difference between a political comedian training her fire on a target and a news anchor calling the nation’s first black president a racist. A hint of false equivalence filters through the entire segment, but what’s interesting about that is that Bee was the one inviting the comparison—it’s her show, and she’s obviously intrigued by the notion that Beck sees his “catastrophist” personality in her hosting style.
Bee also seems to believe in Beck’s conversion, pointing out his recent charity work for women abused by ISIS and the children of undocumented immigrants. “I’m trying to teach my audience—they’re children,” he told Bee. “Yes, you can be against illegal immigration but they’re children, and they’re here, and they’re humans.” His catastrophism remains intact, he said (his fears about Trump border on the apocalyptic), but he doesn’t want Bee to follow in his footsteps. “You’ve adopted a lot of my ... traits,” he said. “Jesus Christ,” she sighed. “Glenn Beck is gonna make me cry.”
The interview was somewhat similar in intent to Trevor Noah’s recent dialogue with the conservative-media commentator Tomi Lahren (who, it should be noted, works on Beck’s network TheBlaze)—another effort to reach across the aisle. But Noah and Lahren’s conversation was quietly combative, mostly because she’s broadcasting the extreme, often offensive positions Beck took several years ago. In their conversation, Noah was making an effort to impress Lahren with his own moderation and willingness to hear her out. On Monday, Bee demonstrated self-awareness about her own talk-show fury, having Beck on to, essentially, give a testimonial about the hazards of polarized political broadcasting.
Bee probably won’t sustain the intensity of her vitriolic style post-election—her propensity for calling Republican lawmakers “dildos” and airing her understandable anger about politics at large helped make a name for Full Frontal in its debut season. All that means for 2017 is that the battle lines have been clearly drawn, and Bee, to her credit, isn’t interested in staying behind them. Her interview with Beck said much more about her as a host than it did about his ongoing apology tour. The segment suggested there was plenty of room for one of 2016’s most exciting late-night hosts to grow as the Trump administration takes shape.
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