Mad Man: Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?

Conservative media phenomenon Glenn Beck channels the fears and anger of Americans who feel left out — but does he also stir that anger and heighten those fears?

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Nicholas Roberts / The New York Times / Redux

Glenn Beck

On Sept. 12, a large crowd gathered in Washington to protest ... what? The goals of Congress and the Obama Administration, mainly--the cost, the scale, the perceived leftist intent. The crowd's agenda was wide-ranging, so it's hard to be more specific. END THE FED, a sign read. A schoolboy's placard denounced OBAMA'S NAZI YOUTH MILITIA. Another poster declared, WE THE PEOPLE FOR CAPITALISM NOT SOCIALISM. If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists. If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic. Either way, you may not be inclined to believe what we say about numbers, according to a recent poll that found record-low levels of public trust of the mainstream media.

At any rate, what we can say with confidence is that Deanna Frankowski was there. A cheery woman of 49 from Leeds, Ala., Frankowski said she had come to Washington as part of a group of 100 or more protesters. They filled two buses. And they were motivated by a concern about runaway government spending--that, plus an outraged feeling that their views as citizens are not being heard. "We are sick and tired of being ignored," she said. "There is too much money being spent."

Frankowski has been hit hard by the economic turmoil of the past year. Short of funds to make the trip, she painted an American flag on a pane of glass and asked people at her church to chip in toward her expenses, with one of them taking home the flag. She would like to share a house with her soon-to-be husband, but first she must figure out how to get free of the house she has--the one with the underwater mortgage. Some left-leaning writers argue that people in her boat must be deluded to oppose Barack Obama, but Frankowski is skeptical that her interests are being served by trillions in new government interventions. So she said, "I've paid my mortgage every month. And I'm getting no help. I'm just saying, Let capitalism work." Then she added, "We just want people to listen to us and care."

One person listens, Frankowski believes, and that's why back home in Alabama she arranged to have 10 large signs made on white foam board, nine of them marked with a big letter and the tenth with we and a heart. Raised aloft, the signs spelled out WE [heart] G-L-E-N-N B-E-C-K.

Glenn Beck: the pudgy, buzz-cut, weeping phenomenon of radio, TV and books. Our hot summer of political combat is turning toward an autumn of showdowns over some of the biggest public-policy initiatives in decades. The creamy notions of postpartisan cooperation--poured abundantly over Obama's presidential campaign a year ago--have curdled into suspicion and feelings of helplessness. Trust is a toxic asset, sitting valueless on the national books. Good faith is trading at pennies on the dollar. The old American mind-set that Richard Hofstadter famously called "the paranoid style"--the sense that Masons or the railroads or the Pope or the guys in black helicopters are in league to destroy the country--is aflame again, fanned from both right and left. Between the liberal fantasies about Brownshirts at town halls and the conservative concoctions of brainwashed children goose-stepping to school, you'd think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall.

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