Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

Glenn Beck and the National Catharsis

Glenn Beck is sort of like Colonel Kurtz, always walking on a razor's edge, with no gray area between the giant fateful chasms that may swallow the country at any moment and, in fact, are already swallowing it, simultaneously killing and recreating America in a tearfully dark and sparkling fountain of existence that seems to flow every day at 5 p.m. on Fox News inside Beck's head. One can see the wheels of good and evil turning.

From Beck's own repeated acknowledgment, much of his worldview is shaped by his experiences as an alcoholic.

During his stage appearances, Beck references a moment of clarity when he bottomed out, lying on the floor in the fetal position, and he uses this as an analogy for a national catharsis: public citizens and the national as a whole, Beck suggests, must realize truths about themselves and, ultimately, undergo a kind of self-driven reinvention, the consequences of which will necessarily be dire.

At his "Restoring Honor" rally at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, Beck called for a national religious transformation, with palpable themes of redemption, admittance of sin, and surrendering of individual will--the language of addiction recovery. This personal history is where he gets his philosophical approach. When applied to politics, it is, I suspect, where the tears come from. One must be vigilant--not just in self-denial, but in transformation and in the barest definitions of one's own existence--or it all really does fall apart.

Beck explains the link between his own addiction recovery and his political interpretive modes to Mark Liebovich in the New York Times Magazine's just-released profile of him, shedding more light on this motivation and relationship, which is, if you've never seen Beck in action, a key to understanding what he's all about.

From Liebovich's profile:

"I think what the country is going through right now is, in a way, what I went through with my alcoholism," he told me. "You can either live or die. You have a choice." ...

He speaks in the language of therapy, in which he has been steeped through years of 12-step programs and the Mormon-affiliated addiction-treatment center he and his wife run in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region. As he lay on his office couch, he recalled a very low moment. It was back in the mid-1990s. He was newly divorced, lying on the olive green shag carpet of a two-bedroom apartment in Hamden, Conn., that smelled like soup. It had a tiny kitchen, and his young children slept in a bed together when they visited on weekends. "It was the kind of place where loser guys who just got divorced wind up," Beck said. "You'd see a new guy come in, you'd say hello and he'd walk in alone, and you'd be like, 'Yeah, I understand, brother.' "

Beck understands, brother. Communists in the White House are bent on "fundamentally transforming" the country; progressives speak of putting "the common good" before the individual, which "is exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany," as he said on his show in May. Or, as he said in July of last year, "Everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill," is "driven by President Obama's thinking on . . . reparations" and his desire to "settle old racial scores." It sounds harsh, maybe, but this is the rhetoric of crisis and desperation, and so much of the population is too blind drunk to recognize the reality -- which is that the country is lying on an olive green shag carpet on the brink of ending it all. "Some have to destroy their family and their job and their house and their income," Beck told me. "Some don't get it, and they die." ...

In the middle of his analogy to me about his own personal crash and the country's need to heal itself, Beck looked at his publicist with a flash of alarm about how I might construe what he was saying. "He is going to write a story that I believe the whole country is alcoholics," he said. And then he went on to essentially compare his "Restoring Honor" pageant at the Lincoln Memorial to a large-scale A.A. meeting. "When I bottomed out, I couldn't put it back together myself," Beck told me. "I could do all the hard work. I could do the 12 steps. But I needed like-minded people around me." ...

"I said to someone the other day," Beck told me, "I am as close today to a complete and total collapse as I was on the first day of recovery." He calls himself a "recovering dirtbag." There were many days, he said, when he would avoid the bathroom mirror so he would not have to face himself. He was in therapy with "Dr. Jack Daniels." He smoked marijuana every day for about 15 years. He fired an underling for bringing him the wrong pen. And, according to a report, he once called the wife of a radio rival to ridicule her -- on the air -- about her recent miscarriage.

"You get to a place where you disgust yourself," Beck told me. "Where you realize what a weak, pathetic and despicable person you have become." ...

"There was a bridge abutment in Louisville, Ky., that had my name on it," Beck wrote in his 2003 book, "Real America: Messages From the Heart and Heartland." "Every day I prayed for the strength to be able to drive my car at 70 m.p.h. into that bridge abutment." He says he contemplated only violent suicides ("like the bridge abutment thing and putting a gun in my mouth while listening to Nirvana"). He attributes his inability to off himself to cowardice and stupidity -- qualities that also suited him to his tour of Morning Zoo America. "I hated people," Beck wrote, waxing pop-psychological, "because I hated myself."

By the mid-'90s, Beck had been married, divorced, pony tailed and seemingly at a dead end. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, reluctantly attending his first meetings in a church basement in Cheshire, Conn. The olive-green-carpet episode was formative but not a singular turning point. "It was more a point of recognition," Beck told me. "Are you going to stand or are you going to grow up? Are you going to succeed or fail, live or die? What is it going to be? There weren't any angels or the sky opening up." He embarked on a period of "searching" and self-education. ...

These are just a few bits and pieces that help us understand Beck's worldview--why he's so candid, why he shows so much vulnerability, and why he treats so many of the truths he perceives, both big and small, as absolute.

Glenn Beck strikes many people as unstable. He might actually be. But that instability goes hand in hand with the torch-bearing vigilance he's developed in confronting the world, which is what his viewers, listeners and fans respect about him. It's what the fans at the "Restoring Honor" rally told me they came to see: the truth, delivered by a sort of philosopher-historian who supplied it in unvarnished fashion.

There is, as Liebovich writes, a lot of "crisis and desperation" in what Glenn Beck does. It's why people seem to see him as a visionary. For a man with millions and millions of dollars, he behaves as if he has nothing to lose.