Glenn Beck looks like the dad in a Disney movie. He’s earnest, geeky, pink, and slightly bulbous. His idea of salty language is bullcrap.
The atmosphere at Beck’s Mercury Studios, outside Dallas, is similarly soothing, provided you ignore the references to genocide and civilizational collapse. In October, when most commentators considered a Donald Trump presidency a remote possibility, I followed audience members onto the set of The Glenn Beck Program, which airs on Beck’s website, theblaze.com. On the way, we passed through a life-size replica of the Oval Office as it might look if inhabited by a President Beck, complete with a portrait of Ronald Reagan and a large Norman Rockwell print of a Boy Scout.
On one side of the main stage hung a drawing of an old pickup truck, captioned “Edward Janssen Farms.” (Janssen was Beck’s maternal grandfather; Beck’s family sells a line of American-made clothing that bears the Janssen name.) Over the truck, in large type, was the word honor. On the other side of the stage sat an old-fashioned radio and a comfy blue armchair. The scene was warmly reassuring, except for the television offstage, which was blaring an advertisement for a year’s worth of “emergency survival food” to be consumed in case society unravels.
Beck asked an audience member to lead a prayer, then filming started. Someone asked, “How do we get people to come together?” Beck responded by citing a book called Pendulum, which argues that as the result of generational change, history shifts in 40-year cycles between “me” eras and “we” eras. In 2003, he explained, America entered a “we” era, a time when individual identity weakens and group identity strengthens. “ ‘We’ generations,” Beck declared, produce “genocidal monsters”: The past three “we” generations coincided with the French and American revolutions, Karl Marx and the Civil War, and the Holocaust. Americans can survive the coming “onslaught,” he reassured his viewers, but to do so will require great character. He mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged for resisting the Nazis. He invoked Gandhi, who fasted in an effort to prevent India’s Hindus and Muslims from murdering each other. Then Beck stopped for a commercial break, during which he chatted amiably with his audience about the impending collapse of America’s banks.
Later in the show, a questioner suggested that Americans were turning away from God. Beck said he’d been thinking a lot about the prophet Jeremiah, who vainly warned the Israelite kings that catastrophe was near. Finally, when the Babylonians were about to sack Jerusalem, Jeremiah urged the Israelites to accept national enslavement, because it was God’s will. Beck saw a contemporary lesson: “Sometimes you have to pay the price for what you’ve done.” Then he started talking about Donald Trump’s assault on the Bill of Rights.
Amidst the misery of the 2016 presidential campaign, Beck showed unusual courage. Many conservative pundits opposed Trump. But they mostly worked for mainstream media institutions like The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN. They didn’t rely on Trump supporters to pay their salary.
Conservative talk-show hosts, who stoke right-wing populism for a living, reacted very differently. Sean Hannity appeared in one of Trump’s campaign videos. Laura Ingraham spoke at the Republican National Convention. Rush Limbaugh declared in March that, “with the case of Trump, there’s a much bigger upside than downside.” In July, Hugh Hewitt wrote, “Of course I am voting for Donald Trump.”
Even the most moralistic conservative talkers—including William Bennett and Dennis Prager, who have made careers of arguing that private character is key to political leadership—endorsed Trump. Mark Levin, who hosts a popular show on the Westwood One radio network, vowed not to. “Count me as Never Trump,” he declared in April. But in September he announced, “I’m voting for Trump.”
Among big-time national conservative talk-show hosts, Beck—who is tied with Levin for the third-largest listenership after Limbaugh and Hannity—was a rare exception. He didn’t just oppose Trump. He compared him to Hitler. He warned that Trump was a possible “extinction-level event” for American democracy and capitalism. In an attempt to defeat Trump, Beck campaigned during the primaries for Ted Cruz. Then, when Cruz endorsed Trump, Beck apologized for having supported him.
One longtime sponsor of Beck’s radio show reportedly tried to pull its ads in protest. In May, SiriusXM briefly suspended Beck for implying that if Congress wouldn’t stop a President Trump, Americans might have to do so by force. Nonetheless, Beck held firm in his opposition. He considered voting for Hillary Clinton, but ultimately went for the independent candidate Evan McMullin. Why?
The answer lies in the very catastrophizing that makes Beck sound like a kook. In the mid-1990s, Beck was, by his own account, a “despicable human being,” a divorced, alcoholic, drug-addicted shock jock for a Connecticut radio station. He once put on a banana suit and leaped into a pool of Styrofoam. He repeatedly considered suicide.
Eventually Beck got sober and fell in love with the woman who would become his second wife. But she refused to marry him until they found a religion. So the couple embarked on a “church tour” and were baptized as Mormons in 1999.
For a time, Beck remained apolitical. “I didn’t pay attention to anything until September 11, nothing, nothing,” he explained to me after the taping, as we sat in his office. “I couldn’t have told you the Bill of Rights in any great detail.” He describes 9/11 as “a turning point for me.” He was by then hosting a show in New York, and remembers walking from Ground Zero to his studio and reading on air a 19th-century hymn written by a Mormon pioneer fleeing Missouri on his way to Utah. Beck says he felt a special calling at that moment. “If you have a position on the gate and you don’t warn the people of what you see,” he remembers thinking, “you’re to blame.”
Ever since, Beck has imagined himself as a sentry perched on the national ramparts, warning of looming disaster. Usually, that disaster manifests itself as a threat to the Constitution. Which, given Mormon history, makes perfect sense. Many Americans revere the Constitution. Mormons, however, consider it sacred. In Doctrine and Covenants, a book of Mormon scripture, God says, “I have established the Constitution of this land by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.” According to polling by David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, 94 percent of American Mormons believe that the “Constitution and the Bill of Rights are divinely inspired.” That’s only two points lower than the percentage who believe that the Book of Mormon is.
But Mormons don’t just consider the Constitution sacred. They believe that its violation has allowed their persecution. Why did the governor of Missouri in 1838 call for Mormons to “be exterminated or driven from the State”? Why were Mormons forced to travel halfway across the continent—leaving the borders of what was then the United States—in order to find sanctuary in Utah? Because America’s leaders disregarded the country’s sacred texts.
Today, many Mormons see defending the Constitution the way many Jews see opposing genocide: as a way of honoring their ancestors and affirming their identity. In recounting his own religious conversion, Beck told me about a parade that he claimed Mormon settlers held upon reaching Utah, after having been expelled from the United States. “The women carried the Declaration of Independence and the men carried the Constitution,” he said. “And the whole point was that people may let you down, people will violate the principles, but the principles are true.” Such a parade likely never happened. Two scholars of Mormonism told me they had never heard of it. But the story nonetheless illustrates the Constitution’s centrality to Beck’s identity, and to the identity of many Mormons. According to legend, the Mormon leader Joseph Smith prophesied in 1843 that the Constitution would one day “hang by a thread” and be saved by “the elders of Zion,” by which he meant Mormon men. Church authorities say the quote is apocryphal. Campbell’s polling, however, finds that a majority of Mormons believe it’s true.
And yet, Campbell argues, Mormons tend not to accentuate these views publicly. Mormon culture, he told me, emphasizes a “moderate way of speaking.” Think Mitt Romney or Orrin Hatch. Campbell, who is Mormon himself, says that’s in part because many Mormons are desperate to be accepted by a mainstream that has long rejected them. They’re fearful of looking like fanatics or nuts.
Beck is not. Perhaps because he converted to Mormonism as an adult, he never imbibed his co-religionists’ anxiety. He has publicly invoked Smith’s alleged prophecy at least five times, most recently in March. Warning Utah voters of the threat Trump posed, Beck reminded them that “the body of the priesthood is known to stand up when the Constitution hangs by a thread.” More problematically for liberals, Beck invoked the prophecy three times in late 2008 and early 2009 to describe Barack Obama.
This is the irony underlying Beck’s current stance: The same doomsday sensibility that helps him appreciate the menace posed by Trump led him to massively exaggerate the menace posed by Obama—and thus to breed the hateful paranoia on which Trump now feeds. Beck, in fact, pioneered some of Trump’s most disturbing themes. At the beginning of Obama’s first term, Beck repeatedly called the president antiwhite. In 2010, he wondered why Obama “needlessly throws his hat into the ring to defend the Ground Zero mosque. He hosts Ramadan dinners, which a president can do. But then you just add all of this stuff up—his wife goes against the advice of the advisers, jets to Spain for vacation. What does she do there? She hits up the Alhambra palace mosque. Fine, it’s a tourist attraction. But is there anything more to this? Are they sending messages?”
Trump opponents may appreciate Beck’s Hitler analogies now that they’re directed at The Donald. But during the first 14 months of the Obama administration, according to Dana Milbank’s book Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Tea Bagging of America, Beck and guests on his Fox News show invoked “fascism,” “Nazis,” “Hitler,” “the Holocaust” and “Joseph Goebbels” 487 times. For good measure, Beck in 2007 said that Hillary Clinton sounds like “the stereotypical bitch.”
Beck says he’s sorry for all that. “I played a role, unfortunately,” he told Megyn Kelly during a 2014 interview on Fox News, “in helping tear the country apart.” He told me that now that America has “hit the iceberg,” he wants to help it heal. “I’m not the guy you want at the beginning of the ride on the Titanic, because I’m the guy going out and saying, ‘We’re going to hit ice,’ ” he explained. “But once she starts going down, I’m the guy who would be standing at the lifeboats saying, ‘Relax, it’s going to be okay. Let’s get the women and the children in the boats. Let’s not tear each other apart.’ ”
Although still generally conservative, Beck now insists that America’s real moral divide isn’t between left and right. He recently angered some conservatives by sending aid to undocumented children detained at the Mexican border. In a New York Times op-ed this fall, he called on conservatives to show “empathy” for Black Lives Matter activists. He says Americans must stop thinking in terms of ideological sides.
The day after Trump’s victory, I checked in with Beck again. He said he saw “the seeds of what happened in Germany in 1933.” The question was whether the American people would “water them” with “hatred and division.” Did he feel partly responsible? “I’ll not only take my share of blame, I’ll take extra,” he answered. “If you want to blame me for him, that’s fine; I don’t believe it’s true, but it’s fine with me. Please just listen to the warnings now so we don’t continue to do this.”
When Barack Obama rose to the presidency after insisting, “There is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” Glenn Beck called him a racist. Now that Donald Trump is president, Beck wants to bind the country’s racial and ideological wounds. He really does.
But for years and years, he called sheep wolves. Now that the wolf is here, it may be too late.