Glenn Beck is many things to many people: a prophet, a carnival hawker, an Aimee McPherson, a Groucho Marx sincerity faker, a sincere man, a deeply religious man, a seriously smart man, a man who acts out his own intellectual journeys, a wit, a capitalist, a white race hustler, all wrapped into one pink package.
I know this: Glenn Beck is in town with a whole lot of fellow travelers. And Republicans smell an opportunity to leech off his celebrity.
Beck has proved himself to be an adept community organizer, precisely the vocation that he regularly cites as rooted in Saul Alinsky's theories of Socialist power. An anxiety of influence, perhaps? Perhaps. But really, Beck is a very good communicator. He is drawn, like a moth to a flame, to political and social pressure points, and he creates an emphatic narrative about their origin, one that usually begins with a great Fall from a better, more ordinary time. The Glenn Beck of The Glenn Beck Show on Fox News is all hands, watery tears, emphatic grimaces, angular body snaps. The man knows how to say something. He has obviously struck a chord. Whether he is a demagogue or not, many, many Americans were predisposed to see in his words the picture of the world he creates.
Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin share many traits -- a sense of grievance being one of them -- but they are quite different. Whereas Palin is a savvy politician who is interested in furthering Palin, Inc., Beck is interested in the arena. He wants to make a difference. What's weird about Beck is that he simultaneously seems to be overtly theatrical, a sign to disbelievers that he is not genuine, and extremely serious. I think he means what he says. He conceives of this current era as the apex of a social experiment that began in the 1960s and was later joined by currents that have existed since Woodrow Wilson's time. Beck hates Woodrow Wilson. To Beck, Wilsonian progressivism is the root of all evil, the philosophical turn that seeded modern day liberalism, paternalism, and government succubage.
There is nothing original or especially interesting about Beck's prescriptions. Many of his conspiracy theories are simply incorrect. Of course, we live in an age when it is easy to pick out data and facts and create partial, contingent truths, and Beck is a master at knitting them together. Most of the elites who are out to get Beck would subscribe to his stated value propositions, albeit with different ways of filling them in.
Where Beck differs from the lot, from Rush Limbaugh, who has been much more successful (over time) in galvanizing Republicans, is that Beck attaches a distinctly Christian millennialism to everything he does. This means that there are no shades of gray; everything Beck is doing is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER at that moment. He is given to extreme comparisons, to Nazi analogies and MLK analogies. The graphics for the 8/28 event are dark, menacing, and declarative. This is Beck's edge. He is not a political guy. He is not an ideological guy. He is a philosopher. He is an author of master narratives. There is a Beck way of looking at the world. (There is not a Limbaugh way of looking at the world, or if there is, it's exactly the same thing as a political conservative's way of looking at the world.) Rush has policies; Beck has motivating ideas.
So what's Beck actually done with his ideas and performance?
Well, he's made himself rich. He's sold a lot of books. He's started his own university. One of his producers managed to get Van Jones fired. He hasn't really influenced too many political races. His program on Fox is actually an island unto itself. Where Sean Hannity is all flash and talking points, Beck is about arguments and theories. That Fox enables Beck to flourish is kind of ironic because Beck is so adamant about self-sufficiency and seems to disdain Republican leaders as much as he pillories Democratic leaders. I can actually see Glenn Beck standing in a voting booth and deciding not to vote for a Republican. I can't see Sean Hannity doing that.
Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.