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.