Glenn Beck: the latest blowhard on Fox News
The rabble-rousing presenter has finally stopped comparing Obama to Stalin on his popular TV show. Now it’s Hitler instead
Glenn Beck, the latest loud-mouthed star of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News television channel, is a little confused. Like all of his colleagues in the right wing 'commentariat', he is bracing himself to welcome home President Obama from what might look to the foolish and godless among us as a rock-star triumph of a first foreign tour.
But Beck is not sure whether it is "Stalin" or "Hitler" who is returning. Recently, he has been favouring Hitler as the appropriate comparison for the 44th President. But for most of the weeks since January when he took over the 5pm Fox News slot with a show billed, revealingly, as the "fusion of entertainment and enlightenment", he seems to have favoured Stalin.
"I am wrong that Obama has been leading us to Socialism," he bawled at his 2.3m viewers. "It's to Fascism." Images of great dictators and marching boots flashed across the television screens.
It is hard to tell what he is talking about, or what he thinks the US should do
He features a "Doomsday Room" and a segment called "Economic Apocalypse". He warns that he has so far been unable to disprove rumours that FEMA, Washington's emergency response office infamous for it Hurricane Katrina failure, is "building concentration camps". He went on: "They're marching us to 1984. Big Brother, he's watching."
It is hard to tell just what Beck is talking about, or what he thinks America should actually do to fix its problems. He urges his listeners to "be the people you were on September 12th, 2001".
It is the style that counts, the performance. Media pundits explain that the trick to ratings lies in expressing the emotions of the angry and self-described dispossessed, offering them an identity in a lonely land. In the right slot – midnight, say, on cable feeds to cheap motels and Appalachian hollows - such balm to troubled souls might be a worthy contribution to society. But Beck's rapid rise is mainstream, in a just-before-prime time show on America’s most-watched cable news channel.
Ratings posted at the end of last week show that just three months into the Obama era, the Fox blowhards rule the cables once again: Bill O'Reilly first, Sean Hannity second, and Beck third. As election fever swept the nation last year, Fox slipped a few pips as Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow pitched in and boosted ratings for MSNBC. It was, after all, their side that won the White House. But now MSNBC is back in fourth, CNN trails in fifth, and all three Fox stars get twice as many viewers as either rival channel.
Beck takes things a step further. He models himself less as a newscaster than as an old-time preacher, delineating heaven and hell to a chorus of Amens. He likes to weep on camera and gesticulate wildly. Even his crisp business suits, light tan studio make-up and obsessively groomed silver-grey hair are designed to give him the look of a mega-church televangelist.
His show is tagged the "daily rage against Barack", and the preacher brooks no need for charity. His latest target has been Obama's Kenyan aunt and her struggles with American immigration authorities. "She has a limp, didn't you know that?" he mocked on his 2 April show, taking up a stick and imitating a limp. "She should be able to stay. We've only tried her two times and kicked her out of the country two times. You can't go for three? She's got a limp."
Oddly, it might be Beck's own frailties that have fuelled his rage and forged the personality that sells so well. He has led a deeply troubled life. Born a Roman Catholic in Washington state in 1964, he has experienced the death by suicide of both his mother and a brother-in-law. He became a roaring alcoholic, and is now "in recovery" as a follower of Alcoholics Anonymous. The drink cost him his first marriage, by which he had two daughters. He abandoned his Church, but he says, God "stalked" him and he became a Mormon.
It is Beck's own frailties that have fuelled his rage - he lost his mother to suicide
Just like his mentor Rush Limbaugh, he was enchanted by radio as a teenager and started out as a disc jockey, climbing to the heights of his own syndicated talk-radio show. That was his pulpit for career-making tirades against Al Gore and the prophets of global warming. "Al Gore," he pronounced in April 2007, "is not going to be rounding up Jews and exterminating them. But it is the same tactic... the goal is to have the United Nations running the world."
The reference to the UN offers a key to the Beck phenomenon: we are back to dark conspiracies of global dictatorship with men in black helicopters seizing Americans' God-given guns, of presidents bearing the devil's mark of 666 taking over the White House in the final steps before the apocalypse. This is the world of the off-the-grid militias that bred the Oklahoma bombing in 1992, and the world of the Clinton-haters that erupted after the last Democratic victory.
"What the hell is going on at Fox News?" asks David Frum, Dubya Bush's speechwriter who now warns his Republican party that giving up it leadership to loony voices can lead only to collapse. He may be right. But in the meantime the burgeoning popularity of Beck and the rabblerousers offers a warning of some ugly moments ahead. ·
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