About halfway through Saturday's "Restoring Honor" rally on the DC mall, I realized that I was starting to like Glenn Beck.
Before any friends of mine initiate involuntary commitment proceedings, let me explain. It's not that I really liked Beck, but more that I experienced his likeability. Whether or not he's sincere, I came to admire his ability to project sincerity and to create coherence out of his incoherent rambling about religion, race, and redemption.
As a result, I'm more afraid for our political future than ever.
First, to be clear: Beck is the embodiment of everything I dislike about the U.S. politics and contemporary culture. As a left/feminist with anti-capitalist and anti-empire politics, I disagree with most every policy position he takes. As a journalist and professor who values intellectual standards for political discourse, I find his willful ignorance and skillful deceit to be unconscionable.
So, I'm not looking for a charismatic leader to follow and I haven't been seduced by Beck's televisual charm, nor have I given up on radical politics. Instead, I'm trying to understand what happened when I sat down at my computer on Saturday morning and plugged into the live stream of the event. Expecting to see just another right-wing base-building extravaganza that would speak to a narrow audience, I planned to watch for a few minutes before getting onto other projects. I stayed glued to my chair for the three-hour event.
My conclusion: What I saw was the most rhetorically and visually sophisticated political spectacle in recent memory. Beck was able to both connect to a right-wing base while at the same time moving beyond the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement, potentially creating a new audience for his politics. It's foolish to make a prediction based on one rally, but I think Beck's performance marked his move from blowhard broadcaster to front man for a potentially game-changing political configuration.
My advice: Liberals, progressive, and leftists -- who may be tempted to denounce him as a demagogue and move on -- should take all this seriously and try to understand what he's doing. Here's my best attempt to understand it.
There's nothing new about mixing Christianity and right-wing politics in the United States, and Beck put forward a familiar framework: America is a Christian nation that honors religious freedom. Christians lead the way in the United States, but the way is open to all who believe in God. Anyone teaching the "lasting principles" found in all faiths is welcome, despite theological differences. "What they do agree on is God is the answer," Beck said in his call for a central role for religious institutions, whether they be churches, synagogues, or mosques.
But for all the religious rhetoric, Beck never talked about the hot-button issues that are important to conservative Christians. No mention of abortion or gays and lesbians. Theologically based arguments against evolution and global warming were not on the table. No one bashed Islam as a devilish faith.
Instead, Beck concentrated on basics on which he could easily get consensus. God has given us the pieces -- faith, hope, and charity -- and all we have to do is put them together. Rather than arrogantly assert that God is on our side, he said, we have to be on God's side.
Beck may eventually have to voice clear opposition to abortion and gay marriage to hold onto conservative Christian supporters, but on Saturday it was his apparent religious sincerity that mattered. I have no way to know how serious Beck's faith in a traditional conception of God really is, but it doesn't matter. He sounds sincere and moves sincere; he creates a feeling of sincerity. He brings an emotional candor to public discussion of religion that is unusual for someone in his line of work. When religious people believe that someone's profession of faith is real -- that it's rooted in a basic decency and is deeply felt -- then differences over doctrine become less crucial.
There has been some discussion of whether Beck, a convert to Mormonism, can really connect to Protestants and Catholics, some of whom view the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a cult rather than an authentic Christian denomination. No doubt some evangelical/fundamentalist Christians will reject Beck, but his personal appeal could overcome those objections for many others.
There's also nothing new in Beck's analysis of race. Like most conservatives, he argues that America's racism is mostly a thing of the past, and that racial justice means a level playing field that offers equal opportunity but does not guarantee equal outcomes. Rather than come to terms with the way white supremacy continues to affect those outcomes through institutionalized racism and unconscious prejudices, folks like Beck prefer a simple story about personal transcendence and the end of racism.
What was different about Beck's version of this story was the supporting cast. There were a lot of non-white people on the stage, including a significant number of African Americans. The rally went well beyond the tokenism that we are used to seeing, not only in the Republican Party but also in institutions throughout society. Beck not only gave a featured speaking slot to Alveda King -- one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nieces, no doubt selected to bolster his claim to be speaking in the MLK tradition -- but also paid close attention to race throughout the day. Take a look at the lineup for the presenters of the three civilian badges of merit for faith, hope, and charity: An American Indian presenting to an African-American; a white man presenting to a Dominican; and a Mexican-American presenting to a white man, with a black woman accepting on his behalf.
Is it all cynical and symbolic? For those of us who are white, do we have a right to ask that question in the presence of so much passion from the people of color on stage? These weren't cardboard cutouts shoved in front of a camera to add color, but an eclectic mix of people, all espousing a fundamental faith that they seemed to share with Beck.
Whether a movement rooted in Beck's approach can gain wide acceptance in non-white communities is not the only question. For white people who are struggling with how to live (or, at least, appear to live) a commitment to racial justice, this kind of space will be attractive. Tea Party gatherings are weighed down by an overt racial ideology that limits their appeal; Beck may have a strategy that overcomes that problem, creating a movement that has a significant enough non-white component to make white people feel good about themselves without really challenging white dominance.
The key message of the "Restoring Honor" rally was redemption, personal and collective, the personal intertwined with the collective. Unlike some reactionary right-wingers, Beck spoke often about America's mistakes -- though all of them are set safely in the past. Rather than try to downplay slavery, he highlighted it. It is one of America's "scars," a term he repeated over and over, to emphasize that our moral and political failures are from history, not of this moment.
"America has been both terribly good and terribly bad," leaving us with a choice, he said. "We either let those scars crush us or redeem us." Just as all individuals sin, so do all nations. Just as in our personal life we seek redemption, so do we as a nation. Framed that way, who would not want to choose the path of redemption?
But while on one level America has sinned, on another level it is beyond reproach. "It's not just a country, it's an idea, that man can rule himself," Beck said. An idea remains pure, which means we don't have to wonder whether there's something about our political and economic systems that leads to failures; injustice must be the product of individual's mistakes, not flaws in the systems in which they operate.
This is all standard conservative ideology as well. The United States is not just a nation struggling to be more democratic, but is the essence of democracy. Our wars are, by definition, wars of liberation. The wealth-concentrating capitalist system is not an impediment to freedom but is the essence of freedom. How any of this jibes with the egalitarian and anti-imperial spirit of the Gospels is off the table, because the United States is a Christian country and the idea of the United States is beyond reproach.
But, again, the key to Beck's success is not just the ideology but the way he puts it all together. A nation whose wealth rests on genocide, slavery, and ongoing domination of the Third World is the nation that defines faith, hope, and charity? Beck "proves" it by connecting Moses to George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr. All are part of the same tradition, the same striving for freedom.
Beck is the perfect person to sing this redemption song. He talks openly of the alcohol and drug abuse that ruled his life until he discovered his faith in God. Unlike George W. Bush, Beck tells the story with conviction. Perhaps both Bush and Beck tell the truth about their experience, but Beck makes you feel it is the truth in a way Bush could never pull off.
Wait a minute, you say, none of this makes a lick of sense. Beck tosses a confused and confusing word salad that rewrites history and ignores reality. Maybe it sounds good, if you throw in enough energetic music and inspirational personal stories from veterans, ministers, philanthropists, and skillful TV personalities. But it's really nothing but old right-wing ideology, no matter how slick and heartfelt the presentation.
What would Beck's supporters say? Probably something like this:
So, you are one of those who wants to keep picking at the scars. Why do you lack faith, reject hope, refuse to offer charity? Why do you turn away from the values and principles that made us great? Glenn said it: "We must advance or perish. I choose, advance." Glenn wants to help us advance, and you want us to perish.
I agree that Beck is wrong about almost everything. I agree that given his record of demagoguery and deception, he is unfit for work in the news media or political leadership. I agree that he may be one of those people incapable of sincerity, someone whose "real" personality is indistinguishable from his stage persona. I agree that he's a scary guy.
I agree with all that, which is why I don't really like Glenn Beck. If I ever got close to Beck I would probably like him even less. But after watching his performance on a screen over those three hours, I understand why it's so easy to like him, at least on a screen. His convoluted mix of arrogance and humility is likeable, so long as one doesn't look too closely at the details.
More than ever, people in the United States don't want to look at details, because the details are bleak. Beck is on the national stage at a time when we face real collapse. One need not be a Revelation-quoting end-timer to recognize that we are a nation on the way down, living on a planet that is no longer able to supply the endless bounty of our dreams. That's a difficult reality to face, one that many clamor to deny.
The danger of Beck is not just his appeal to fellow conservatives, but rather his appeal to anyone who wants to deny reality. My fear is not that he will galvanize a conservative base and make a bid for leadership of that part of the political spectrum, but that his message will resonate with moderates, maybe even some liberals, who despair over the future.
Does worrying about Beck's appeal beyond the far right seem far fetched? The most important rhetorical move Beck made on Saturday was to claim the rally "has nothing to do with politics." Many people across the ideological spectrum want desperately to escape from contemporary politics, which seems to be a source of endless frustration and heartbreak.
To those people, Glenn Beck's redemption song will be seductive.
[A version of this essay appeared on the Texas Observer website at http://www.texasobserver.org/thewholestar/item/16898-glenn-becks-redemption-song.]