Thursday, June 03, 2010


In a fascinating interview with Beck biographer Alexander Zaitchik, David Weigel asks a simple question and gets a complicated answer:

This is the question I hear liberals most often ask about Beck: Is he doing this for money, or does he believe this stuff? You seem to come down in the middle, and argue that he's a huckster, but he's also dim enough to believe that, say, ACORN is at the root of all evil.

His main motivations are, and have always been, money and fame. If Beck has a true religion, it's not Patriotism. It's not Mormonism. It's cross-platform self-marketing.

The one constant in his life has been enormous ambition. His business and brand will never be big or successful enough --hence the new projects never stop coming.

(For a lot of readers, that's going to be the takeaway -- Beck's a phony. But read on:)

But I don't think Beck's self-image as a businessman is at odds with his beliefs about religion and politics. He doesn't know enough about the world to understand why his grand-unified theory of a 100-year progressive plot is a laughingstock outside of his own TV and radio studios. I think he actually believes God wants him to make all this money and fight dirty for right wing causes. Does he really believe God is speaking to and through him? I don't know. But in one of his books, he describes Heaven as a place where everybody "can make as much money as they want," and he does believe that God basically wrote the Constitution in 1787.

The mistake Beck's critics often make is to say, "Okay, so if his main self-identity is as a media and entertainment mogul, then everything else is just an act." There's no need to choose just one door. On his worldview's own terms, there's no contradiction between his enormous success, his entertainment toolbox, and his bat-in-the-bell tower politics. What's shocking to me is how completely his fans swallow the "selfless patriot" act. It’s like they're deaf and blind to the way his tearful civic-activist shtick feeds directly into the business, indeed is the business. What's happening, I think, is that Beck thinks God approves of his manipulations, and his fans are willing to suspend their disbelief and give him a pass because, they too, think Beck is ultimately doing God's work. The whole thing is arguably the most elaborate Kabuki theater on view on the right today.

I think that's just about as close as anyone's going to get to the right answer.

I think Beck really does believe that God wants him to (a) make money and (b) say these things, and there's no point where (a) ends and (b) begins -- they're one and the same. To Beck, God is good, so God doesn't want Beck to lie, therefore all this stuff is true, or at least it's what needs to be said to people to get them to (a) pay Beck money and (b) save God's own personal country, America. It's all part of one big operation.

I think Beck is both shrewd and half-mad -- he's got the money-making machinery running like a Ferrari, and yet he has a belief in elaborate patterns involving God and figures of political authority that's reminiscent of the lamppost manifestos of unmedicated schizophrenics. People like that are completely sincere about their belief systems -- and I think the mad part of Beck's brain is as well. And yet he's simultaneously sane and cynical enough to be an impresario whose top act is himself in the throes of half-madness.

I've known a few people in my life who seemed to teeter on the edge of rationality, but never went over that edge, even though they also never seemed truly rational. One is a very successful media figure I worked with a long time ago who's cultivated decades-long relationships with some very famous, well-admired people -- yet this person is irrationally hostile, sometimes self-sabotagingly so, in virtually every interaction with subordinates. Brains can be like that. Beck's, I think, is missing a few screws, but not any of the ones that would cause him to destroy himself sooner or later. And the beliefs emanating from the crazy part of his brain are, I suspect, quite genuine.

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