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

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As melodrama, it's thumping good stuff. But as politics, it's sort of a train wreck--at once powerful, spellbinding and uncontrolled. Like William Jennings Bryan whipping up populist Democrats over moneyed interests or the John Birch Society brooding over fluoride, Beck mines the timeless theme of the corrupt Them thwarting a virtuous Us. This flexible narrative often contains genuinely uncomfortable truths. Some days "they" are the unconfirmed policy "czars" whom Beck fears Obama is using to subvert constitutional government--and he has some radical-sounding sound bites to back it up. Some days "they" are the network of leftist community organizers known as ACORN--and his indictment of the group is looking stronger every day. But he also spins yarns of less substance. He tells his viewers that Obama's volunteerism efforts are really an attempt to create a "civilian national-security force that is just as strong, just as powerful as the military." While scourging Obama and the Democratic Congress, Beck takes pains to say that the ranks of the nation's would-be oppressors know no party. In his recent instabook--Glenn Beck's Common Sense, a huge best seller, with more than 1 million copies moved in less than four months--he wrote, "Most Americans remain convinced that the country is on the wrong track. They know that SOMETHING JUST DOESN'T FEEL RIGHT but they don't know how to describe it or, more importantly, how to stop it." The book's pox-on-both-parties populism evokes the quixotic campaigns of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, but with an eerie sound track.

He is having an impact. Along with St. Louis, Mo., blogger Jim Hoft, whose site is called Gateway Pundit, Beck pushed one of Obama's so-called czars, Van Jones, to resign during Labor Day weekend. Jones, whose task was to oversee a green-jobs initiative, turned out to be as enchanted by conspiracies as Beck--he once theorized that "white polluters and the white environmentalists" are "steering poison into the people-of-color's communities" and signed a petition demanding an investigation into whether the Bush Administration had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. On Sept. 14 the Senate overwhelmingly voted to cut off all federal funds to ACORN, and the U.S. Census Bureau severed its ties to the organization. This followed Beck's masterly promotion of a series of videos made by two guerrilla filmmakers who posed as a pimp and prostitute while visiting ACORN offices around the country. The helpful community organizers were taped offering advice on tax evasion and setting up brothels for underage girls.

By affirming its suspicions and assuaging its sense of powerlessness, Beck bonds with his rapidly growing audience. "I continue to be amazed by the power of everyday Americans," Beck said after Jones resigned. What the Obama adviser called a "smear campaign" against him was, Beck said, simply "honest questioning." And there's more to come, he warned: "Judging by the other radicals in the Administration, I expect that questioning to continue for the foreseeable future."

The Profit Motive

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