GLENN BECK'S CULT BEHAVIOR
I'm a little late getting to Mark Leibovich's New York Times Magazine article on Glenn Beck, which appears in print today but was posted days ago. As it rolls again, the article begins to suffer from the same kind of misplaced focus that made The New Yorker's 2009 profile of Michael Savage a missed opportunity -- both pieces fixate on the broadcasters' psyches while losing track of the politics. But the Beck article, unlike the Savage article, doesn't ignore politics completely. And, well, with Beck the personal and political really are hard to disentangle.
Early in Leibovich's article, you do begin to see how Beck's obsession with his own psyche and with the narrative of substance-abuse recovery informs his political views. Leibovich writes:
As [Beck] 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."
Beck has been a substance abuser, and clearly knows what it feels like to hate himself (though, like a lot of self-haters, he also has grandiose ideas about himself). The problem is, he sees the country the way a depressive substance abuser who's hit rock bottom sees himself. There's nothing worth redeeming. Nothing short of a 100% overhaul is acceptable. Everything is poisoned.
When you feel this way, of course liberals can't possibly be well-meaning people with whom you disagree. We're alcoholism. We're a cancer. There's nothing good about us.
But the scary part is that the now-recovered Beck thinks he's the way out:
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."
He needed support, just as responsible Americans need it now to reinforce the principles and values that the founders instilled and that, he says, have since decayed. "You need people to be able to reach out and connect and say, 'Let me help hold you when you're stumbling, and you hold me when I'm stumbling, because what we're going through now is a storm of confusion.'" Fans approach Beck and give him hugs. Do people feel they can hug Limbaugh?
This is a personality cult. The world is vile. Being in the world is like being a drunk sprawled out on that olive carpet. There's nothing about America as it exists that's worth saving. Only via Beck do you find a way out.
It's not entirely different from the rest of the right-o-sphere. I disagee with this dichotomy:
The ethos of Beck's program is extreme doom and pessimism. In a lead-in to Beck's show, Shepard Smith referred to his fellow host’s studio as "the Fear Chamber." This is another departure from the Limbaugh formula. "Rush is basically of a quite optimistic creed," [David] Frum says. "It's the Reagan creed: America's best days are still to come. If we maintain the free-enterprise system, we're all going to be richer and more united and stronger. With Beck, there is no optimism."
But both Beck and Limbaugh -- two addicts, by the way -- say that the nation absolutely must not be the way it is. We're lost. The way out, the way to be saved, is through them and their ideas. (Yes, with Reagan in place of the Old Testament God, or God as you understand him, or whatever the 12-step language is.)
This isn't just politics -- it's cultism.