Who Is Glenn Beck?

Last weekend, somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 showed up by the Lincoln Memorial for Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally. At The New York Times, Ross Douthat wonders if the media isn’t underestimating Beck’s talents:

The Fox News host had promised that the rally, billed as a celebration of American values, would be an explicitly apolitical event. And so it came to pass: save for an occasional “Don’t Tread On Me,” banner, the crowded Mall was nearly free of political signs and T-shirt slogans, and there was barely a whisper of the crusade against liberalism that consumes most of Beck’s on-air hours.

Instead, Beck served up something considerably stranger. This was a tent revival crossed with a pep rally intertwined with a history lecture married to a U.S.O. telethon — and that was just in the first hour.

There was something innately Tocquevillian about the rally. The focus wasn’t on President Obama’s agenda or winning elections, but on restoring American values. In that sense, it was a deeply conservative rally in a sense deeper than the traditional meeting. It wasn’t a rally for Republican politicians, rather a rally for small-r republican values. In that sense, Beck seems to be aiming for something higher than just transitory partisan gain. His rally was exactly what was advertised, an attempt to restore the honorable values of America’s founding.

First of all, the idea that this was some racist meeting is prima facie ridiculous. It’s a silly media narrative, and nothing more. Beck’s decision to hold it on the anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” address was not necessarily the wisest—but Beck went out of his way to honor Rev. King and his legacy, including giving honors to a black pastor who was present when King spoke. The cheap shots about race say more about the media’s obsessions than it does about Beck’s message.

But I’m not a Glenn Beck fan—his show always seemed like a strange mix of bizarre conspiracy theories mixed with Beck’s maudlin performances. Quite frankly, it seems as though there’s something not quite right with the man.

At the same time, I have to give him some credit. Beck is not an easy man to characterize. He seems legitimately interested in big ideas and isn’t afraid to discuss them on-air. To see a conservative media personality hawk a book is not new—for that book to be F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom certainly is. Beck isn’t like the usual crop of conservative media stars—he is provocative, but he’s far more audacious. He doesn’t just want to see Democrats defeated in elections, he wants to remake the national character.

But Beck has a rather sordid history, having been one of the first radio “shock jocks” before his conversion to both Mormonism and political conservatism. His on-air histrionics and his occasional forays into conspiracy theory detract from his message. Unlike Rush Limbaugh, who brings a showman’s instincts to his radio program, Beck sounds more like a tent-revival preacher (which may explain the tenor of this weekend’s rally). Beck’s sometimes bizarre chalkboard rants, his on-air histrionics, and tenor of his show are hard to get used to, especially if one is not inclined to accept his message.

Glenn Beck is not an easy man to pigeon-hole. He seems to understand, as too few conservatives do, that if the conservative movement is to thrive, it has to be based on something more than opposition to Obama. Beck’s show isn’t afraid to point viewers to important works in conservative political though. But at the same time conservatives should think critically about his message: there are times he veers into Bircher territory.

Beck is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, and those who dismiss him offhand likely are underestimating him. Certainly the media narrative that Beck is a nutcase, a racist, a bigot, etc. is the product of the typical left-wing smear campaign levied against anyone popular on the right. But Beck is a polarizing figure, and in order for him to get his message out, he has to do more than preach to the converted. Restoring America’s honor is a worthwhile enterprise—but it remains to be see whether Beck’s movement can build upon its successes. If it becomes yet another conspiracy-minded movement based largely on opposition to Obama, or worse a cult of personality surrounding Beck, it will fail. If it becomes a movement that stands on enduring principles, it may succeed. Skeptical as I am about Beck, this weekend was more the latter than the former. If Ross Douthat has underestimated Glenn Beck, so too perhaps have I.