Investigative journalist Alexander Zaitchik is the author of the new book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010). A freelance journalist living in Brooklyn, New York, Zaitchik has contributed to Salon.com, The Nation, Wired, and many other distinguished publications. Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance is his first book.
This interview has been condensed from one that appeared on the Center for Inquiry’s podcast, Point of Inquiry (POI), and was conducted by POI host and science journalist Chris Mooney. To hear the interview in its entirety, please visit www.pointofinquiry.org. —Eds.
Chris Mooney: Glenn Beck is a blight on our national discourse and an icon of irrationality. Is he as big as Rush Limbaugh, or will he be?
Zaitchik: Beck’s radio audience is not as big as Limbaugh’s, although his total media imprint is larger because unlike Limbaugh, Beck has very carefully constructed an empire with many platforms that he’s constantly expanding—everything from radio to television to publishing to, increasingly, stage. His influence is probably bigger than Limbaugh’s at this point, just in terms of how much time is spent talking about the guy and his nutty ideas. How that translates into political impact is another and much more complicated question. In terms of influence on the conservative mind, I think that Glenn Beck is either a primary or an ascendant leader.
Mooney: How does Beck’s religious background contribute to understanding this phenomenon that now goes by the name of Glenn Beck Nation?
Zaitchik: He grew up in a very conservative Catholic household, although he wasn’t very religious. His parents were likely Birchers, although I haven’t been able to confirm that. Beck pretty much fell out of politics and religion as a young adult, and he didn’t return to it until he gave up alcohol and drugs in the mid-1990s. When he was living in New Haven, Connecticut, with his second wife, they visited a bunch of churches in the area and for some reason decided that the Mormon church offered the most likely interpretation of the world, something that made sense to them and resonated with them.
After his conversion to Mormonism in the late 1990s, Beck gravitated toward its hard-Right strain. It was his association with these right-wing Mormons that shaped his early politics and talk-radio career. That’s when he started to become conspiratorial; that’s when he started to mix anti-Islamic rants with classic anti-communist thinking from the McCarthy days. The Glenn Beck we know today is in big part a result of his needing an instant worldview that was provided by these very, very right-wing extreme Mormons whom he probably would not have encountered had he not converted to Mormonism.
Mooney: You write that he’s simultaneously an ideologue and a stunningly good businessman. Is Beck’s business side more central to his identity than his ideological side?
Zaitchik: I think it’s a rare case of the two dovetailing perfectly. The constant throughout his life is his desire for wealth and fame. The politics has come later, but they fit together perfectly. The fact that Beck has been able to become wildly famous and wealthy beyond his wildest dreams—his company made more than $30 million last year—by selling very angry right-wing politics is a dream come true for him.
Mooney: How much feedback have you gotten on your book from Beck or people working with him?
Zaitchik: They are way too smart to mention it.
Mooney: Let’s talk about Beck’s conspiracy theories, such as his idea that liberal progressives—and that includes scientists—are plotting with big corporations to take away American liberties.
Zaitchik: It’s hard to find a point of entry with Beck’s conspiracy theories. They’re just kind of strung together with spit and imagination. It’s not easy to take them down. The fact that so many people are willing to accept these connect-the-dot theories when in fact the dots don’t connect is a reflection of the times and the standards for this kind of thing, which just keep mutating and falling by the day. Just when you think the floor has been reached, it keeps falling further.
Mooney: Perhaps the reason that he’s so successful right now is because our national discourse is so irrational. What is Beck’s vision of America?
Zaitchik: Beck’s view is probably pretty close to that of his main ideological sponsors. Now that advertisers have fled, his sponsors on Fox are FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, libertarian-leaning think tanks that basically want to undo the accomplishments of the last century in terms of social-welfare policies. If Beck were in charge, he would probably roll things back to 1920—and take him at his word when he says he can’t be president because there wouldn’t be any missiles left after the first twenty minutes.
Mooney: I understand that even at Fox, despite his ratings, he’s been controversial. Is it possible for Beck to go too far, or is there no limit once you’re as big of a celebrity as Beck is?
Zaitchik: I think people would have answered that question differently three years ago, two years ago, one year ago, six months ago. One of the strange things about our era is that the standards keep mutating and changing. You think something has gone too far, but it’s not even a blip on the radar. What was a controversy a year ago now gets one day in the media and then it’s on to the next controversy. Calling the president of the United States a racist can lose you some sponsors, but then a year after that Beck compared the president to a character from Planet of the Apes and people didn’t even take notice. A lot of people have lost a lot of money betting on where the floor is in recent years.
Mooney: Beck likes provoking the Left with his outrageousness. In a sense, it helps him be even more visible.
Zaitchik: Beck is extremely attuned to the importance of piquing the opposition and getting them to hit back because then what was otherwise one show’s worth of publicity turns into five shows or even a month’s worth of spats. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
Mooney: Jon Stewart has said of Beck: “Finally, a guy who says what people who aren’t thinking are thinking.” Stephen King called him “Satan’s mentally challenged younger brother.”
Zaitchik: It’s worth noting that Beck has collected these lines and put them on the back of his book, Arguing with Idiots. He says, “See how much they hate me,” and it fuels his fan base.
Mooney: What’s with all of his crying? Is middle America prone to fall for this bad acting?
Zaitchik: Apparently, yes. There are three elements here. One, Beck is genuinely an emotional guy. I’ve talked with enough people who have worked with him over the years to know that that’s true. Two, he made a conscious decision to craft an identity that was new in the market. He’s a positional marketing mastermind. When he went into talk radio, he said, “OK. I’m not going to be Rush Limbaugh; I’m not going to be Sean Hannity. What can I be?” He became the emotional guy: t
he guy who wore it on his sleeve, who wasn’t afraid to bawl in the studio. Three, he is communicating with a largely religiously conservative audience that sees tears in a completely different way. That’s especially true in the Mormon tradition, which has institutionalized crying. Every week, Mormons get together for something called the “bearing one’s testimony” ritual, which is where they get up and talk about their spiritual forms of knowledge. They always tear up. You see this all the way up the church hierarchy, even including the church president. The more stylized the crying, the more of a sign of authority it is.
The crying dovetails perfectly with Beck’s need to separate himself from the pack and his own emotional needs and style. So it’s those three things combined with the evangelical Protestant tradition that goes back to the famous evangelical frauds over the years who have gone on television with tears in their eyes.